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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.”

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.