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Top 5 storylines for 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season

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Editor’s note: Today we kick off our weeklong coverage of the IndyCar season-opening weekend, capped off by the marquee event, Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. We will have several stories going forward over the next six days, as well as comprehensive coverage of race day Sunday.

As we prepare for the start of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season this weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida, the key word heading into the campaign is “change.”

There are several storylines within the sport that are based upon change, namely, changes to the race car, as well as changes to driver lineups in several teams.

Here’s the top five storylines heading into the new season:

1. The new car: Without question, the biggest attention-getting change is the new body style and aero kit on the 2018 race car.

The new Dallara body is arguably the boldest, sexiest and sleekest looking car seen in the Indy car open-wheel ranks in many years.

Just looking at the car conveys speed — and lots of it. Plus, the new aero package that’s part of the design significantly cuts downforce, putting more control in a driver’s hands.

Whether powered by Honda or Chevrolet, the new Dallara body is already a big winner among drivers and teams. During last month’s test in Phoenix, virtually every driver extolled its virtues, with the biggest word used over and over being how much “fun” the car is to drive.

2. Downsizing vs. new teams: Two of the biggest teams in the sport have scaled back their lineups.

Team Penske has gone from a four- to three-car operation, with defending IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden, 2016 champ Simon Pagenaud and 2014 champ Will Power as the team’s IndyCar lineup. Helio Castroneves has moved over to Team Penske’s sports car operation in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series.

And Chip Ganassi Racing has scaled back from a three- to a two-car team for the first time since 2010.

But the series will also see several new teams. Carlin Racing will field two full-time cars, Harding Racing will field one full-time car, and both Juncos Racing and Michael Shank Racing are expected to run part-time slates.

3. New driver lineups: As they say in baseball, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. And that’s very relevant to the IndyCar driver lineup for the 2018 season.

Several drivers have either changed teams, while others are coming into the sport for the first time.

Among driver changes:

* After four seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, Tony Kanaan moves to A.J. Foyt Racing and the No. 14, replacing Carlos Munoz.

* Ed Jones will replace Kanaan in the No. 10 at Chip Ganassi Racing, which has downsized to just two cars this season, the other car being the No. 9 driven by veteran Scott Dixon.

* Former Indy Lights driver Matheus Leist replaces Conor Daly in the No. 4 at A.J. Foyt Racing. Leist, 19, becomes the youngest rookie driver on the IndyCar circuit since Marco Andretti in 2006. Daly, meanwhile, is expected to announce a ride in this year’s Indy 500 on Tuesday.

* Zack Veach joins Andretti Autosport in the No. 26, replacing Takuma Sato. Carlos Munoz does not have a full-time ride for 2018, but will race in the No. 29 for Andretti Autosport in the Indianapolis 500, as will Stefan Wilson in the No. 25.

* After just one season with Andretti Autosport, 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato returns to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the No. 30. In addition, RLL expands to become a two-car team for the first time in several years.

* Spencer Pigot is upgraded from racing only on road courses to a full season in the No. 21 with Ed Carpenter Racing, replacing J.R. Hildebrand. Also, Jordan King joins the team to drive the No. 20 on road and street courses, while team owner Ed Carpenter will compete in the No. 20 only in oval-track races.

* Danica Patrick (car number TBA) will compete in the final IndyCar race of her career when she races for Ed Carpenter Racing in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

* Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin is out at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, replaced by Robert Wickens in the No. 6. Wickens spent the last six seasons competing on the German Deutsche-Tourenwagen Masters circuit.

* Dale Coyne Racing will have 2017 World Series Formula V8 3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi, for seven races in the No. 19, while Zachary Claman DeMelo will drive the other 10 races. Fittipaldi is grandson of two-time F1, two-time USAC and one-time CART champ Emerson Fittipaldi.

* Carlin Racing will have former CGR driver Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton in the No. 23 and No. 59, respectively.

* Gabby Chaves will run the full season for the new Harding Racing team in the No. 88.

* Rene Binder and Kyle Kaiser will split driving the No. 32 for Juncos Racing.

* Jack Harvey will compete in at least six races in the No. 60 for Michael Shank Racing.

4. Adios Watkins Glen, hello Portland: After a two-year run at Watkins Glen International race course, the IndyCar Series moves its penultimate race of the season to Portland International Raceway.

Watkins Glen had originally been pressed into service in 2016 after the Grand Prix of Boston was abruptly cancelled just a few months before it was slated to be held.

Watkins Glen did a good job as a fill-in track when IndyCar needed one the most. Don’t be surprised that if the IndyCar schedule is expanded in the near future, that the series may return to one of the premier road courses in the country. It’s a no-brainer.

5. Can Team Penske do it again? Team Penske has won three of the last four IndyCar championships – Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017).

Will the most successful team in IndyCar history make it four titles in the last five seasons? Can Newgarden make it two in a row?

While the nucleus of the team remains intact, they’ll be without Castoneves, who has shifted to full-time sports car racing (although he’ll be in the Indy 500 for Team Penske).

Will the loss of Castroneves in IndyCar end up hurting Team Penske in the long run? Time will tell.

There’s a lot more to talk about this week as we continue the countdown to the season-opening race in St. Petersburg on Sunday. Stay with MotorSportsTalk as we have several more stories planned leading up to the race, as well as comprehensive coverage of the race weekend.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.