Where To Watch Tomorrow's Racing Feast

Fred Smith
·6 min read
Photo credit: Dan Istitene - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dan Istitene - Formula 1 - Getty Images

Auto racing has come back slowly this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the postponement or cancelation of season openers for Formula 1, IndyCar, and the FIA World Endurance Championship, and schedule gaps created by those delays mean Formula 1 has raced only once and IndyCar has yet to race, well into Spring. That largely changes tomorrow.

The first great racing day of the season means the first confusing schedule of the season, though. Somehow, both NASCAR and IndyCar are racing at the same time tomorrow, despite neither having a major television competitor to hold their scheduling back. Formula 1, meanwhile, is back in Europe, which means early start times that are unfriendly to East coast viewers and even worse for the rest of North America.

Nonetheless, racing is back, and that is a good thing. This is what you need to know.

Formula 1 - Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix (Imola)
Sunday, April 18th - 9:00 a.m. ET - ESPN - Streaming
on ESPN apps

F1's season opener saw Red Bull show shocking pace, with Max Verstappen taking pole and Lewis Hamilton needing to run a perfect race and force Verstappen into a mistake in order to take the win for Mercedes. Three weeks later, Mercedes AMG F1 has had some time to adapt to a new reality where their low-rake concept has been weakened in comparison to the Red Bull and other competitors, and the qualifying order looks a little bit more familiar.

Hamilton will start on pole, but he will do so narrowly. In Q3, he beat out all of Sergio Perez, Lando Norris, and Max Verstappen by less than a tenth of a second, while the nearly half a second gap Verstappen held over Hamilton for pole in Bahrain now covers first through seventh. Hamilton and the two Red Bulls will lead the way at the start, with Lando Norris losing his fastest time to track limits rules and being forced to fall back on a slower time that slots him in seventh. Charles Leclerc inherits fourth for Ferrari, while Pierre Gasly will start a surprising fifth for AlphaTauri.

The other major surprises in qualifying were of the disappointing kind. Valtteri Bottas, teammate of the pole-sitting Hamilton, could do no better than eighth in qualifying. Fernando Alonso's best time in the Alpine earned him just fifteenth. And Yuki Tsunoda, who showed promising pace in Bahrain and may never have as relatively fast a car at AlphaTauri as he seems to this weekend, will start 20th after crashing in the first qualifying session.

Lewis Hamilton's next pole will make him the first driver to ever start from the front 100 times. He isn't far from reaching that mark in overall wins, either.

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

IndyCar - Barber Motorsports Park
Sunday, April 18th - 3:00 p.m. ET - NBC - Streaming
on the NBC Sports app

IndyCar's most promising season in a decade is finally underway, but a condensed opening weekend schedule means that the teams and drivers of the series have only seen the track once and will not qualify until later this afternoon. This makes predicting any sort of outcome for the race difficult, but a combination of practice times from this morning and publicly-available testing results give a strong sign of who does and does not have competitive pace this season.

As in any IndyCar race, the drivers to watch are Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Scott Dixon. Over a decade-plus sample size, Power has proven the fastest road course driver in the field, Newgarden has shown surges of pace for months at a time that have made him a champion twice, and Dixon has won six titles, including the most recent championship and four of the last eight. Behind the most proven talent (those three champions, along with Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi), most of the excitement this season is going to be coming from younger drivers.

Some of that will be from Colton Herta, already a three-time series winner at 21 and ready to contend for a title of his own after finishing third last season. Some will be from Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing's new recruit who showed promise at Dale Coyne Racing and is ready to explode into a race winner now that he has joined an elite team. The young Patricio O'Ward, yet to win a race but coming off a fourth-place finish in last season's championship, is expected to be a legitimate contender for a title in what will be his second full-time season in the series and with Arrow McLaren SP. All three were in the top five of today's first practice, a session Palou led.

The much-vaunted rookie class was less successful. Penske Racing's star prospect Scott McLaughlin ran a respectable eighth, on par with his consistently competitive but not world-beating lap times in that car in testing over the past two seasons and a race at St. Petersburg last year. Romain Grosjean clocked in at 21st of 24, a second off Palou, in his first official IndyCar session at Dale Coyne Racing. Jimmie Johnson, who has struggled in testing but has dedicated his entire offseason to improvement, came in an expected 24th of 24, but his fastest time, 1.4 seconds off the leader, is much closer than some of his testing performances and indicates some serious progress is being made toward competitiveness.

Photo credit: Sean Gardner - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sean Gardner - Getty Images

NASCAR - Richmond Raceway
Sunday, April 18th - 3:00 p.m. ET - FOX - Streaming
on the FOX Sports app

Yes, this is a NASCAR race that is, for no clear reason, on at the same time as an IndyCar race. It is at Richmond Raceway, a good-not-great intermediate short track that has more in common with the flat, one-mile ovals of New Hampshire and Phoenix than it does with excellent traditional short tracks like Martinsville Speedway.

All of that means that this race is going to be about Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver and 23XI racing co-owner has been arguably the best driver in the NASCAR Cup Series since last year, and inarguably the best this season. However, his seven top-five finishes in eight races (with a worst finish of 11th) do not yet include a win, and the arcane championship format the series uses will not consider him anything close to locked into the playoffs until he actually wins a race. Richmond is one of Hamlin's best tracks (3 wins, a top five finish in nearly half of his entries, a top ten average finish, and all but 12 laps completed lifetime), and he will not only be the favorite to win the race but approaching this race with the understanding that he is expected to win.

If he does not start winning soon, he will struggle to accrue the playoff points that help a truly dominant regular season driver get to the final race of the season with relative ease. This current format actually benefits season-long dominance far more than the last two iterations of the NASCAR playoffs, and he will need to start turning that dominance into wins if he wants to reap the rewards on the way to what would be his first career title.

You Might Also Like