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F1 Preview: Spanish Grand Prix

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Round 5 of the 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season sees the first of the European races, which make up the “meat and potatoes” of the Formula 1 calendar, and this weekend should give a clear indication of which teams are destined to be the main protagonists for the rest of the year.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, home of the Spanish Grand Prix, is the primary testing facility for all F1 teams. As a result, each team’s car is well-suited to the 2.89-mile circuit, meaning no one should face any surprises.

Consequently, it will mean that this race, maybe more than any other so far, will highlight just who is top dog in the F1 paddock.

A look at major stories entering the Spanish Grand Prix is below.

Ferrari/Mercedes/Red Bull Battle for Supremacy

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, Mercedes AMG Petronas, Scuderia Ferrari, and Red Bull Racing have asserted themselves as the three best teams of the 2018 F1 season. But, just who ranks at the top of those three is still up for debate.

All three teams have won races, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel topping the list with two victories to his name. Lewis Hamilton took a fortuitous victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and also has a pole at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. And Daniel Ricciardo used tire strategy to put Red Bull on the top step of the podium at the Chinese Grand Prix.

Ferrari has appeared to have the upperhand on outright pace, with Vettel scoring three poles in a row between Bahrain, China, and Azerbaijan. However, the gap between them and Mercedes is near-as-much it may as well be nominal, with both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas showing strong qualifying form.

And the Mercedes W09 is more than fast enough to win – Bottas “coulda/woulda/shoulda” won in Baku before a cut tire ended his day in the final laps, and Mercedes even outwitted Ferrari on strategy that day to put Bottas and Hamilton 1-2 in the final laps before Bottas’ misfortune.

On the Red Bull side, their biggest threat may be themselves, specifically their own drivers. Ricciardo and Max Verstappen’s rivalry came to blows in Baku and they crashed each other out while battling for fourth. Ferrari and Mercedes have an upperhand on pace, and Ricciardo and Verstappen won’t want to exacerbate that by stepping on each other’s toes again.

Spain will serve as a “tell all” of sorts in terms of genuine strength. And when Sunday’s race concludes, we should have a clear understanding of the pecking order.

McLaren Rolls Out First Updates of 2018

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren F1 Team MCL33 Renault on track during day four of F1 Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2018 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

The Spanish Grand Prix is often the first chance for teams to throw their first major updates on their cars, and the McLaren F1 Team appears to be the first to do so, or at least is the first to reveal publicly that they are doing so.

Despite double points finishes in three of the opening four races – Fernando Alonso has a fifth and three seventh place finishes, while Stoffel Vandoorne has an eighth and two ninth-place finishes so far – the team has under-performed to expectations.

A slew of upgrades to the MCL33 could give them an added boost in Spain.

And don’t be surprised if more teams throw big updates on their 2018 cars. With Barcelona close to many teams’ bases, it represents a golden opportunity to try new things out.

Misc.

  • Sergio Perez gave Sahara Force India a much-needed podium in Baku, this after a troublesome start to the year that saw Esteban Ocon score the team’s only other points finish (10th in Bahrain). Force India rose to the top of the midfield, where they’ve been each of the last two years, in Baku, and they’ll look to continue that momentum.
  • Despite their strong pace, Haas F1 Team only has two points finishes, both coming in the hands of Kevin Magnussen, who finished fifth in China and 10th Bahrain. Romain Grosjean has two DNFs to his name so far, and he crashed under the Safety Car in Baku. Both drivers and the team will be desperate to earn a sack full of points in Spain to make up for missed opportunities in the opening four races.
  • Alfa Romeo Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was one of the stars from Baku, finishing a brilliant sixth to score his first ever F1 points. A repeat performance is asking a lot of him and Sauber, but if others stumble, they could score points for the second race in a row.
  • Renault Sport F1 Team has looked strong out of the gate, but Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr. are yet to score podiums. In fact, Hulkenberg has the most starts of any F1 driver without a podium. Both drivers will look to put Renault on the box for the first time since its return as a works F1 team.

Qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix is Saturday at 9:00 a.m. ET, and Sunday’s race begins at 8:00 a.m. ET.

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Provisional Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew ready for IndyCar ride

Road to Indy
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Provisional Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew has done nothing but dominate the 2019 season, winning seven of the 16 races run so far and finishing on the podium in all but two of those events.

Now all the 22-year-old Floridian needs to do to formally clinch the 2019 title is simply start the final two races of the season, both of which will be held this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

For Askew, his maiden Indy Lights season will likely be one he’ll never forget. 

“It’s been a dream come true,” Askew told NBC Sports. “Being with the championship-winning team from last year, we had a really good shot at winning it again for Andretti Autosport. It’s very rare that we show up to a track and struggle to find speed. 

“That’s a fantastic feeling, especially as a driver. That gave me a lot of confidence and hopes of holding the million dollar check at the end of the year. That was the goal going into it.”

This weekend, Askew will accomplish said goal. The championship will not only bring him a sense of pride, but also the opportunity of a lifetime. 

As an award for being crowned the Indy Lights champion, Askew will be awarded a scholarship that guarantees him entry into a minimum of three NTT IndyCar Series events next year – including the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500. 

Time will only tell which team Askew will race for in IndyCar next season, and whether or not Askew’s rookie campaign will be a full-time or part-time affair, but Askew’s performance during the last few seasons in the Road to Indy system has certainly drawn attention of IndyCar’s top team owners.

In August, Askew had the chance to drive an Indy car for the first time in his career during a test session at Portland International Raceway, driving the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda usually piloted by Scott Dixon.

“It was an opportunity with Chip Ganassi Racing that I was very fortunate to have,” Askew said. “I think with my experience in the past couple of years with Cape Motorsports and this year with Andretti Autosport, going into that test was very helpful.

“Going into the test, it was more of trying to treat it as just another day at the racetrack, when it really wasn’t. It was a fantastic opportunity for me – a great experience – and I hope I can take that into my rookie season next year in IndyCar.” 

The final two races of the 2019 Indy Lights season will take place this weekend on Saturday, September 21 at 6 p.m. ET and Sunday, September 22 at 12:05 p.m. ET. Both races will air live on NBC Sports Gold.

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