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Hamilton gets back to the business of chasing Vettel in Spa

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Refreshed from Formula One’s summer vacation, Lewis Hamilton gets back to the business of trying to close the gap on championship leader Sebastian Vettel at this weekend’s Belgian GP.

Hamilton and Vettel have traded wins this season, with four victories each and one angry exchange of words in a heated moment at the Azerbaijan GP. But Vettel’s win in Hungary last month edged him 14 points clear of the British driver before the break.

It is not a significant gap, but Vettel has been keeping his Ferrari in front all season, and Hamilton needs to increase the pressure on the German driver over the remaining nine races. There is so much at stake with Hamilton aiming for a fourth world title, and Vettel aiming for a fifth. Vettel won his last title in 2013 when driving for Red Bull.

Vettel has even matched Hamilton’s Mercedes for outright pace at times, which had been considered an unrealistic prospect heading into the season. But the track at Spa – nestled in the dense forest of Ardennes and the longest in F1 at 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) – is more suited to Mercedes because of its fast corners and long straights.

“People will assume that Spa should suit our car because it is a circuit where aerodynamic efficiency is extremely important,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But assumptions are dangerous. We have seen too many times already this season that the form book can be rewritten from one weekend to the next.”

After three years of total dominance, Mercedes has surprisingly been hit with unexpected reliability issues concerning tires and the rear balance of the car this season – which is probably why Wolff is sounding cautious.

Still, if Hamilton needs any extra motivation for Sunday, he need only think about last year’s race.

Although Hamilton finished in third place, it almost felt like a victory given that he started the race from the back of the grid after incurring a 15-place grid penalty.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen will also be highly motivated to do well after letting down his traveling Dutch fans by finishing a lowly 11th last year.

Some 20,000 tickets were sold to Dutch fans in 2016 – with even more expected to be coming this time – and he also attracts a wider interest from local fans because his mother is Belgian.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track, which was very cool to see,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars, which will be more challenging.”

Spa’s old and famed track features the steep run up to Eau Rouge, a firm favorite with the drivers.

“The feeling when you drive Eau Rouge is completely different to any other corner on the calendar,” said two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, who drives for McLaren. “You’re so low in the car and the gradient is so steep that as you go up it you can only see the sky. It’s completely surreal.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.