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F1 Preview: 2018 Russian Grand Prix

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Six races remain in the 2018 Formula 1 season, and the back half of 2018 is starting to feel like the back half of 2017.

Last year, Mercedes and Ferrari traded blows in the first half, only for Mercedes, and Lewis Hamilton, to pull away in the latter half as the wheels came off of Ferrari’s title challenge (see the races in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan for reference).

Similarly, 2018 saw both teams, and main title threats Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, exchange blows in the first half of the season and they appeared fairly even. However, from the German Grand Prix onward, Hamilton has had the upperhand.

SINGAPORE – SEPTEMBER 16: Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 16, 2018 in Singapore. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

He has won four of the last five races, with Vettel’s lone triumph coming at the Belgian Grand Prix.

As a result, Hamilton enters Russia with a stout 40-point lead over Vettel. And with six races remaining, Vettel must outscore Hamilton by an average of just under seven points per race if he is to take this year’s championship.

The point differential between finishing first and second happens to be exactly seven points – 25 to 18 – so if Vettel wins out, he can win the title irrespective of what Hamilton does.

However, if he fails to outscore Hamilton in any of the remaining six races, the task may become too tall to tackle.

Talking points ahead of the Russian Grand Prix are below.

Vettel, Ferrari on the Ropes Heading Into Mercedes’ Russian “Playground”

SINGAPORE – SEPTEMBER 16: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari prepares to drive on the grid before the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 16, 2018 in Singapore. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

For Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari, it’s bad enough that they’re 40 and 37 points behind Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in the driver’s and constructor’s championships entering the Russian Grand Prix.

Yet, to make matters worse, Mercedes is undefeated in the four prior races at the Sochi Autodrom – Lewis Hamilton won twice (2014 and 2015) with Nico Rosberg (2016) and Valtteri Bottas (2017) adding wins of their own in the last two years.

Conversely, Ferrari’s best result is second (twice, with Vettel). Kimi Raikkonen also has two podiums of his own at Sochi, with a pair of third-place efforts in each of the last two years.

However, there is hope for Ferrari in that Vettel nearly won this race last year – he chased Bottas all the way to the checkered flag. Plus, the 2018 season has shown that momentum can change even more quickly than you can imagine.

Case and point, a Mercedes double DNF in the Austrian Grand Prix appeared to give Ferrari and Vettel the advantage. Two races later in Germany, Vettel’s unforced error combined with Hamilton’s win to tip the scales back in Mercedes’ favor.

So, it remains very possible that Ferrari could turn the tables on Mercedes. However, if they fail to do so this weekend and lose ground to Mercedes and Hamilton, then Ferrari may yet again miss out on both championships.

Battle in the Midfield

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA – JULY 01: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Haas F1 Team VF-18 Ferrari leads Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Renault Sport Formula One Team RS18 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 1, 2018 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Mercedes and Ferrari are well clear of Red Bull – Red Bull is 141 points off Ferrari and 178 off Mercedes – though Red Bull is also well clear of everyone else. They sit 183 points up on Renault and have third place in the constructor’s championship essentially locked down.

However, fourth-place Renault is only 15 points ahead of Haas, and they forced a DQ of Romain Grosjean in the Italian Grand Prix after protesting Haas’ car. In other words, things are hardly amicable between them.

McLaren is also in the midfield hunt, though their form has been lacking, while Force India has shown impressive speed since their restructuring. However, an inability to manage their drivers surfaced again in the Singapore Grand Prix after Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez had contact on the opening lap.

The battle for “best of the rest” is an intense one at the moment, and there are a lot of teams in play.

Misc.

  • Sochi is the track where Bottas scored his debut win in Formula 1. Though he has been playing “wing man” of sorts to Hamilton, a victory could be in the cards under the right circumstances.
  • Sergey Sirotkin, the lone Russian driver in the field, will look for his second points scoring effort at his home race.
  • The long run down to Turn 2 saw Bottas slipstream from third on the grid to lead entering the second turn. Keep an eye out for whoever qualifies third to do the same thing on race day.

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”