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Better reliability and team harmony keys to Hamilton’s title

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PARIS (AP) Lewis Hamilton credits improved reliability from Mercedes and a better relationship with his teammate as key factors behind his fourth Formula One championship.

He scored points in every F1 race this year, a first for him. He won nine, and broke Michael Schumacher’s record for pole positions. He has 72 to go with his 62 race wins, second only to Schumacher’s 91.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the team, we’ve had the best reliability,” Hamilton said on Friday. “I don’t remember another team having this reliability.”

Hamilton finished 46 points clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who won five races but capitulated in the second half of the season.

Hamilton has won the F1 title in three of the past four seasons with Mercedes, losing out to former teammate Nico Rosberg last year.

The two were teenage friends from their karting years, but the relationship turned increasingly sour from 2014-16. Rosberg was twice runner-up. Then, the German driver clinched his only F1 title in the final race of 2016.

Hamilton’s bitterness toward Rosberg seemingly lingers. He described him in minimal terms on Friday as “a member of the team last year.”

Hamilton much prefers fighting Vettel than Rosberg, who has retired.

“This year is the best year. I knew I would be fighting against Ferrari,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to bring a positive, rebuilt (and) re-structured me into the team.”

Rosberg stunned F1 by retiring days after securing his 2016 title, leaving Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff to scramble for a new driver. He hired Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas from Williams.

“For me it was a lucky moment,” Bottas said on Friday at an event hosted by FIA. “I called Toto. I just wanted to make sure they knew I wanted to be in this team.”

Hamilton claims to enjoy “perfect harmony” with Bottas. When asked to compare him with Rosberg, Hamilton was curt.

“I wouldn’t compare them, I have no plans to,” Hamilton said.

On Bottas, he added, “There’s an incredible amount of respect between us. Ultimately we want to win the right way by being the fastest on the track. There’s nothing happening in the background, he’s not trying to do it any other way.”

Bottas won three races and finished 58 points behind Hamilton in third place.

“He’s very strong in his mind,” Hamilton said. “I’m anticipating he’s going to be even stronger next year, so I had better stay on my toes.”

Although Hamilton’s winning margin over Vettel was comfortable, the contest was tense until Vettel’s unexpected dip.

Hamilton trailed Vettel at the summer break and, after moving narrowly ahead, looked set to fall behind again in September at the Singapore Grand Prix. Vettel was starting from pole alongside teammate Kimi Raikkonen on a sinewy street circuit more suited to Ferrari. Furthermore, Hamilton was starting fifth.

It was the perfect scenario for Vettel to regain the championship lead.

But Vettel crashed trying to cut off Max Verstappen, causing a four-car collision that took them both out along with Raikkonen and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

It was the soccer equivalent of Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, scoring an own goal.

Hamilton won to move 28 points ahead overall. Vettel was then hampered by reliability woes, finishing fourth in Malaysia and failing to score in Japan.

“I don’t know whether or not if we would have won the championship (otherwise),” Hamilton said. “They lost a ton of points in those races, and at the race in Baku (Azerbaijan) where (Vettel) lost a potential win.”

Although Vettel finished fourth in Baku in late June and Hamilton was fifth, he wasted valuable points after being hit with a time penalty. Irritated by what he perceived to be Hamilton’s deliberately slow driving behind a safety car – known in F1 as brake-testing – Vettel accelerated and swerved into the left side of his Mercedes.

“I’m sure he’s learned a lot,” Hamilton said of Vettel. “I can’t expect him to make the same mistakes next year.”

Vettel said on Friday his Baku rashness left him feeling worse than his Singapore slump.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.