Nine hours in, Audi’s No. 2 leads at Le Mans

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The No. 2 Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Tom Kristensen, Loic Duval and Allan McNish continues to pace the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the 4-Rings’ early dominance has taken a hit as the darkness sets in at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

After leading early on, Audi Sport’s No. 1 car for Benoit Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer has re-joined the race after being forced to the garage to have its alternator replaced. The issue cost the No. 1 team 11 laps and it is now running 16th overall. As for the No. 3 Audi team of Lucas Di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis and Marc Gene, they have held on to fourth position after suffering damage to its car following a tire puncture. During a recent safety car period, the Audi Sport crew put multiple new pieces of bodywork on the No. 3, including a rear deck, front nose and right side pod.

The two Toyota hybrids continue to stalk the No. 2 Audi, with the No. 8 of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Stephane Sarrazin running second and the No. 7 of Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima in third.

In the LMP2 category, two of the Oak Racing Morgan-Nissan machines are leading the way, with the No. 35 of Bertrand Baguette, Martin Plowman and Ricardo Gonzalez ahead of the No. 24 of Olivier Pla, David Heinemeier Hansson and Alex Brundle.

The GTE-Pro class is still being led by Aston Martin Racing, with the No. 99 of Bruno Senna, Frederic Makowiecki and Robert Bell leading its sister car, the No. 97 for Stefan Mucke, Darren Turner and Peter Dumbreck.

Finally, GTE-Am currently features the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Christian Ried, Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti leading the No. 77 Dempsey Del Piero-Proton Porsche, which is currently being driven by actor Patrick Dempsey.

The “Grey’s Anatomy” star always draws attention, which manifested itself in the team’s most recent driver change from Patrick Long to Dempsey. When Long climbed out of the No. 77, he was compelled to push away some photographers who had crowded around the car, presumably to take a snap of Dempsey getting into the car.

Hamilton and Vettel already focused on 2018 F1 title battle

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already looking forward to fighting each other for a fifth Formula One title next year.

With Hamilton wrapping up this year’s title two races ago, the pressure is off this week at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Both are projecting to 2018, where the four-time champions get back to the serious business of trying to catch Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles.

“Certainly we will never match him in how successful he was in such a short space of time,” Vettel said on Thursday at a news conference. “Back then racing was different. The cars were not that reliable and he still managed to be successful. (He was) the best we’ve ever had in terms of putting it all together and skill.”

Only Michael Schumacher with seven titles has won more than Fangio, who drove in F1 from 1950-58.

“It was the most dangerous period of time in motorsport. I feel honored to be so close to such a great sporting icon,” Hamilton said of Fangio. “He should be celebrated more for his success. He’s not mentioned a huge amount. He’s kind of the godfather of the sport for the drivers.”

Some may come to revere Hamilton like that in time.

He has won 62 races – second only to Schumacher’s 91 – and holds the record for pole positions with 72. The 32-year-old British driver has won three of the past four titles – losing to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 – and was at the peak of his powers this season.

After trailing Vettel at the halfway point, he pulled away after the summer break and leads the German driver by 43 points.

Hamilton is arguably the fiercest competitor around and is already thinking about how Vettel plans to turn the tables.

“Whatever weakness Sebastian had, he’ll work on those over the winter. No one’s perfect, even I have things to work on,” Hamilton said, without a trace of irony. “He’s going to raise the bar next year and I’ll have to as well, otherwise things won’t be the same.

“Ferrari had a very, very good season. Half the season they were in the lead and that wasn’t down to luck,” Hamilton added. “Red Bull is also going to be (competing for the title) next year.”

Considering how poor Ferrari was in 2016, this year can still be viewed as a success with Vettel winning five races compared to none last year.

Vettel joked that winning the title in 2018 will be “a walk in the park” if Ferrari improves by the same amount, then took a more serious view of the situation.

“That final step is always the hardest. But the team is ready and fired up,” said Vettel, who won four titles with Red Bull from 2010-13. “We made the biggest step of all. We lost out as the season progressed. In the end we weren’t good enough to take it to the last race, but there’s so much potential still.”

He accepted that he ultimately fell short because “Lewis made less mistakes” than he did.

Poised to regain the championship lead, he crashed out of the Singapore GP from pole position back in September – turning the tide in Hamilton’s favor. Reliability issues plagued Ferrari at the next two races. He started last and finished fourth at the Malaysian GP and then qualified third before retiring from the Japanese GP.

In June, the rivals were embroiled in their most heated clash at the Azerbaijan GP in Baku.

Vettel drove alongside Hamilton’s Mercedes as they waited behind the safety car for the restart, and was adjudged to have deliberately nudged the side of him. Tempers frayed and barbs were exchanged. Vettel initially denied it was deliberate but subsequently apologized for dangerous driving.

That incident genuinely threatened to spoil their healthy rivalry, but they joke about it now.

Asked on Thursday what their highlight of the season was, both drivers – sitting next to each other – laughed easily when Baku was suggested.

Referring to the upcoming end-of-season F1 awards, Vettel put himself forward for three.

“I should get (overtaking) move of the year, personality of the year, and fair play … maybe not.”