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Hamilton again expects stiff challenge from Vettel in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) Three-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton finds himself in an unfamiliar position just one race into the new season – facing a stiff challenge from a driver other than former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

With Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel earning a surprising and emotional victory at the Australian Grand Prix last month, Hamilton will now try to reassert his team’s long-held position at the top of the sport at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix.

“It just fuels the fire even more,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We wanted to win (in Australia). We wanted to be the ones at the front. And we’ve got a real fight on our hands.”

The Australian Grand Prix gave racing fans a taste of what they’ve been yearning for during three straight years of Mercedes domination – the prospect of a true rival to the silver cars at the top. Mercedes won 19 of the 21 F1 races in 2016, with Red Bull capturing the other two.

Vettel’s win – his first since Singapore in late 2015 – came after F1 instituted new regulations designed to make this year’s cars faster and bring more excitement and wheel-to-wheel racing to a sport that had grown predictable in recent years.

Following the changes, the 2017 cars now have wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, making them heavier but also significantly faster. The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder and limit pit stops.

Despite his loss in Melbourne, Hamilton is a fan of the new rules. Anything to bring more intensity and competition to F1 is a good thing as far as he’s concerned.

“My favorite form of racing is go-karting … because it’s wheel-to-wheel, all the way, from start to finish,” he said. “I’m dying for that day to come again. I hope that happens with me and Sebastian. He’s a four-time world champion, one of the best of our generation, so I think fans are sitting on the edge of their seats for that.”

It helps that Vettel is also feeling particularly confident at the moment. Since capturing the last of his four world titles with Red Bull in 2013, he had only won three races before triumphing in Melbourne in March.

His new Ferrari team hadn’t been at the top of the podium in Australia in 10 years.

“It’s the best way to obviously kick off the season,” Vettel said. “After one race, it’s easier to say this year is better than last year, but it’s only one race.”

With a track featuring two long straights, which has favored the faster Mercedes cars in recent years, the Chinese GP presents a different challenge, however.

Hamilton has finished at the top of the podium in Shanghai four times. The now-retired Rosberg won last year’s race.

“I think Mercedes has to be still the favorite,” Vettel said. “We know that we have a good package which puts us in a strong place, but we know that there’s a lot of things we need to do to keep up with them and keep the position that we are in now.”

The other teams were significantly off the pace set by Ferrari and Mercedes in Melbourne. Max Verstappen finished fifth for Red Bull, while teammate Daniel Ricciardo was forced to retire with a mechanical failure on the 28th lap.

“For sure, we have to improve, but that’s how it is at the moment,” Verstappen said. “It’s quite a big gap, but I’m quite confident we can definitely close it in the upcoming races.”

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso also failed to finish in Australia as his second season with troubled McLaren got off to a predictably disappointing start. The team has struggled mightily since switching from a Mercedes engine to one built by Honda before the 2015 season.

Sounding upbeat in Shanghai, Alonso quashed rumors that he might retire from F1 this season if McLaren’s prospects didn’t improve.

“I prefer to be here than in the supermarket in my hometown,” the Spaniard said. “Definitely not true.”

The 35-year-old Alonso said he’s still racing because he wants the chance to compete for podium spots again. Asked whether he’d like to finish his career with a winning team like Mercedes, he deflected the question.

“I have nothing to say right now. It’s a question for the future,” Alonso said. “Nothing is ruled out.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.