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Race Weekend Preview – June 23-24, 2018

This weekend we are watching four races:
* Sunday, June 24, Formula 1 Pirelli Grand Prix De France, Circuit Paul Ricard
* Sunday, June 24, Verizon IndyCar Kohler Grand Prix, Road America
* Sunday, June 24, NASCAR MENCS Toyota/Save Mart 350, Sonoma, CA
* Saturday, June 25, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Eaton 200, Gateway Motorsports Park

Formula 1 Grand Prix of France at Paul Ricard

The French GP is the oldest Grand Prix, first run in 1906 near Le Mans. The name Grand Prix was first applied to this specific race but since then it has been used to refer to F1 races in general – and, in fact, many road course races in America are called “Grand Prix” even though the have nothing to do with the F1 world championship.

Despite its preeminence as the original GP, the French Grand Prix has not been run since the 2008 edition at Nevers-Magny-Cours on the bank of the Loire River about 100 km south of Paris – a rustic location that is a struggle to get to by car and with limited accommodation. The 2008 race was win by Felipe Massa in a Ferrari. This year the French GP will be held at the high-speed Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France. It is only about 35 km east of Marseilles but, the last time I was there, the roads were far less than autoroute style. The last time the French GP was held here was in 1990 when it was won by Alain Prost in another Ferrari but the last time the full, long circuit was used for a GP was in 1985.

This year the race will be run on the track's traditional 5.8km configuration although several turns have been slightly altered to take into consideration the increased speed of F1 cars – most notably the addition of a chicane in the middle of the nearly mile-long back straight.

In 2018 we have seen three drivers win Grands Prix – Sebastian Vettel with three wins, and Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo each with two wins. Vettel won the most recent race – at Montreal – and Ricciardo won at Monaco in the previous round. Going into the French GP it seems possible that any one of these three drivers might win or, perhaps, one of their teammates – Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari), Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) or Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – might pull off a win here.

I have long believed that the traditional, classic Grands Prix – France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Britain – are essential to the maintenance of the premier status of F1 racing. It is good to see the French Grand Prix back on the calendar – and at a challenging circuit.

Indy cars at Road America

Road America is one of the great road courses in the United States, built in mid-1950s. It is about an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee and it noted for its 4-mile layout through the rolling hills of the moraine.

It has often hosted Indy car races. The CART series ran here continuously from 1982 to 2007. Sebastien Bourdais won the 2007 race. The Verizon IndyCar series has run here the last two years with Will Power the winner in 2016 and Scott Dixon in 2017. This year, Power has won both the Indianapolis GP and the Indy 500 and Dixon has won twice as well – at Belle Isle #1 and at Texas Motor Speedway. Dixon is leading in the points standings with Power in third place – but Alexander Rossi, who has F1 experience and who is currently in second place in points is another likely suspect. Canadian rookie driver Robert Wickens has made a very strong start to the season and he will be looking to put his DTM road course experience to good use here.


MENCS Sonoma HarvickBurnout 062517 resizeSonoma, CA, June 25/17: Kevin Harvick doing burnouts (Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images/NASCAR

NASCAR at Sonoma and Gateway

The NASCAR MENCS series will be making an unusual visit to a road course this weekend – the Sonoma Raceway just north of San Francisco. Some corners on this track’s layout were opened up a few years ago to make it more suited to the big stock cars.

Last year Kevin Harvick beat his teammate Clint Boyer to the checker – ahead of Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – all of them strong contenders for the win again this year. Historically these road-course races have attracted a number of ‘road course ringers’, drivers who were road course specialists hoping that their expertise might give them a good result against the NASCAR regulars who had little experience on this type of race track. In recent years, NASCAR drivers have mastered the road courses and those visiting road-course guys have disappeared from the scene.

However, five of the current Cup regulars will drive in the supporting K&N Series race at Sonoma – William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola. Some of them are relatively new to the Cup series and they have limited road course experience, so this will give them a chance to develop their road racing skills making them better prepared to drive their Cup cars here on Sunday.

Meanwhile the NCWTS truck series will be running at Gateway Motorsports Park, a 1.25-mile oval across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. This track was originally built to host a CART event in head-to-head competition with the IRL’s Indy 500. The two events were not comparable and the CART event here only lasted four years from 1997 to 2000. This track has featured the truck series each year, 17 times, since 1998. Last year, John Hunter Nemechek won the race ahead of Chase Briscoe, Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Grant Enfinger. Although Nemechek has moved up to the Xfinity Series this year, he will be driving a NEMCO truck here this weekend. Sauter is leading in points and he will be a strong contender. With the Cup drivers out in California, the truck series regulars will be able to fight it out for the win with no outsiders to beat other than Nemechek. Keep an eye on Niagara-on-the Lake’s Stewart Friesen who should find this fairly short oval – which drives like a short track – to his liking.


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