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Hamilton’s F1 title bid might prove harder without Rosberg

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PARIS (AP) Lewis Hamilton’s bid to regain his Formula One title might actually prove harder without Nico Rosberg around.

Rosberg retired days after becoming the 2016 world champion and finally getting the better of Hamilton, ending their acrimonious rivalry at Mercedes just as he got the upper hand.

With Rosberg gone, a key factor this season – starting Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix – will be how three-time champion Hamilton gets on with his new teammate.

Valtteri Bottas was plucked from Williams after Rosberg’s shock announcement. The calm Finnish driver is seen as the perfect foil for the tempestuous Hamilton, an outspoken driver not afraid to stand up to management.

A perfect match in theory, perhaps not in reality.

Hamilton and Rosberg had a tense relationship and openly feuded at times, forcing Mercedes management to intervene. Crucially, however, the quick and consistent Rosberg also brought the best out of Hamilton – forcing him to up his pace in qualifying and on race day.

Even though he lost the title, at times last year Hamilton’s driving was the best of his career. Some credit for that must also go to Rosberg’s relentless competitiveness.

Rosberg quit F1 with 23 wins, but the 27-year-old Bottas has never won a race at this level. He has only nine career podiums and never finished higher than fourth in the championship. If he does not challenge Hamilton in the same way that Rosberg did, then Hamilton’s level might drop.

If so, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, and Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will be poised to take advantage.

HAMILTON’S RIVALS

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H in the Pitlane during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Vettel is desperate to bring the drivers’ title back to Ferrari for the first time since Kimi Raikkonen, his current teammate, won it in 2007.

The 19-year-old Verstappen made history last year as the youngest driver to win a race – and the youngest to qualify on the front row. He has huge talent and is a fearless driver. Ricciardo also won a race last year and the 27-year-old Australian showed great speed.

Ferrari demonstrated in pre-season testing that it may finally have turned the corner after a hugely frustrating campaign where it slipped behind Red Bull, much to the exasperation of Vettel. Ferrari showed more pace than Mercedes in pre-season testing, although those gains should not be taken as outright proof since teams can hold something back. The real indicator will come on Saturday, during qualifying for the Australian GP.

“It is always hard to say who now has the better car, but it is very obvious that Ferrari is stronger than last year,” Verstappen said. “Mercedes is always up there as well. I think that they are not showing their true potential.”

Fans gambling over the last three years didn’t need to look too far down their betting slips – it was almost always a case of which Mercedes driver would win.

But new rule changes may help bridge the gap this time.

NEW-LOOK CARS

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB13 TAG Heuer leads Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

Wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce should make the heavy cars five seconds quicker per lap. The tires are 25 percent wider, have more grip and – crucially – are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder and limiting the cyclical pit stop strategy that made many races easy to call.

There is also much greater license to develop engines, although each driver remains restricted to four per season before incurring penalties.

This wholesale revamp is a welcome boost for the sport and especially its fans, who in recent times were crying out for entertainment. As well as Mercedes dominating everything, some races were almost processional, with far too much emphasis on fuel and tire strategy and little toe-to-toe driving. Overtaking was seen as a bonus, rather than a key part of a sport representing the pinnacle of quick racing.

This lack of excitement even prompted two-time world champion Fernando Alonso to make the remarkable statement that F1 was so boring it sent him to sleep – and that the sport should instead be paying fans to watch.

The general mood is far more upbeat now, with drivers expressing overwhelming enthusiasm for the new cars.

“It’s so much faster in the corners,” said Hamilton, who has often spoken about wanting a return to a more challenging form of racing. “The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I’ve got bruises and bumps where I’ve never really had them before.”

Verstappen made a novel comparison.

“If you would put them next to each other, last year’s would look like a toy car,” the Dutchman said. “With the larger tires, there isn’t that much (to) spare. In certain corners you need to take a different line, or else you’ll hit the curbstones.”

Drivers will need to pile on muscle to handle these new, aggressive machines and have been beefing up in pre-season, rather than slimming down.

The rule changes even seem to have appeased Vettel, which takes some doing.

“It works pretty much like an aspirin, it fixes pretty much everything,” Vettel said. “From a driver’s point of view it’s better everywhere. Braking is better, cornering is better, you’ve got more grip.”

WELCOME BOOST

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 30: Chase Carey, Chairman of Formula One Group talks with Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko on the grid before the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 30, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

More competition and more excitement will be music to the ears of F1’s new American owners Liberty Media. The Americans completed their takeover in January – ending 86-year-old Bernie Ecclestone’s 40-year reign as F1’s chief executive. He made way for Chase Carey.

With future plans promising to win back even more fans via an increased emphasis on digital media, it very much feels like a new dawn for F1. But what fans want most of all is an open contest on the track, like in 2010 when several drivers were in title contention in the final race.

Other factors should also work toward this.

One of those is limiting clutch control and radio communications, thus reducing the amount of help a driver can get. It’s up to the driver to perfect his clutch settings this season, without outside help from engineers, hopefully making race starts and the dash for the first corner more unpredictable.

Fans will see some new faces, too, with 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll driving for Williams and Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne replacing Jenson Button at McLaren.

Better rules, faster cars, new drivers and fresh challenges: the F1 season is the most promising it has been for a long time.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).