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Once-dominant Mercedes gets used to resurgent Ferrari

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For the last three years, Mercedes was the undisputed top dog in Formula One. Its drivers battled each other for the title, and no one else really had a shot.

No longer.

Ferrari has come roaring back into contention this year, as Sebastian Vettel won two of the first three races to take the standings lead ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Still, there were questions over whether that success was more about smart tactics and Mercedes’ slip-ups than Ferrari’s raw pace.

The Italian team proved it has the speed Saturday, as Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen snatched a one-two in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix. For the first time in 31 races Sunday, there won’t be a Mercedes on the front row.

“We knew at a certain stage it was going to change. Now it’s exactly the challenge that we embrace,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying.

“The Ferraris have done a very good job over the winter, and so it’s the two teams that are miles ahead of everybody else. Now we just need to be rigorous in the analysis of what’s missing, put the dots together and outdevelop Ferrari throughout the season. That is not easy.”

Ferrari’s recovery partly comes down to new regulations – which Mercedes opposed – introducing wider tires and more downforce for 2017. Getting the new tires to work at their best has been a struggle for Mercedes.

The last time Formula One had two teams in a tight, season-long battle, it was 2012 and Vettel was at Red Bull, narrowly beating Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the title. That was followed by a season of pure Vettel dominance in 2013, then three years of inter-Mercedes battles between fractious teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning last year’s title.

When Mercedes was out in front, there was little risk in letting Hamilton and Rosberg fight each other on the track, since other teams were typically too far back to take advantage of any consequences. That’s not the case this year, and Mercedes has indicated it will impose team orders that could force Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas to let their teammate past if his pace is faster.

Bottas starts third for Sunday’s race and is keen to take the fight to Ferrari after missing out on his first win in Bahrain two weeks ago, when he started from pole but ended up third behind Vettel and Hamilton.

Hamilton, starting fourth, is downbeat after two days of struggles to find a balanced setup.

“Not every weekend goes perfectly smoothly. We worked toward improving the car, but generally it got worse and worse,” the British driver said.

Vettel seemed surprised by Ferrari’s competitiveness in Sochi, and even suggested after Friday’s practice that Mercedes had been deliberately concealing its true pace. On Saturday, Vettel was delighted to take pole position. “The car was phenomenal,” he said.

Regardless of whether Ferrari can repeat its qualifying one-two in Sunday’s race, Wolff acknowledges Mercedes’ unquestioned dominance is over.

“Every series ends,” he said. “And we cannot win forever.”

Adam Enticknap paves the way for the ‘Other 19’

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Once the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season kicks off in Anaheim, Calif. on January 4, eyes inevitably will begin to focus on the front of the field.

One rider will win that race. Two will stand on either side of him on the podium. Nineteen others will ride quietly back to the garage and if they’re lucky, get a few minutes to tell the tale of their race to a few members of the media. On their way off the track, the other 19 will take a minute to wave to the fans in the stands.

Adam Enticknap will motion for them to follow him.

One of the most engaging riders in the sport, Enticknap not only recognizes his role as a dark horse on Supercross grid, he revels in it.

“Not everyone is going to win,” Enticknap said last week at the Supercross media sessions. “There’s only one winner on a weekend; that’s it. There can’t be more than one winner. And everyone else has got to go home and eat too.”

A recognized Hip Hop artist known for his video ‘My Bikes Too Lit’, Enticknap is bringing new fans to the track – and as a result, he is putting a spotlight on riders deeper in the field.

Last year Enticknap was coming off a broken femur that marred his SX season. He made only three Mains with a 20th in Indianapolis, 15th at Houston, and an 18th at Las Vegas. In October, he earned a career-best 14th in the Monster Energy Cup at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. He got there by being consistent in the three heats, finishing 16-15-15.

But that’s not the point for Enticknap. Yes, he wants to win but it is just as important to be the ambassador for those riders who are known only to their fans.

“I’ve made a path for riders that are not going to win,” Enticknap said. “And that’s not saying that I don’t want to win, or that I’m not going to win, but I’ve made it so that the guy who’s finishing 20th and barely making the Mains can make a full career out of it. I’m probably the most famous, slowest guy on the track. It’s come from the way I’ve marketed myself and the way I’ve been with my fans and I’ve appreciated every second that I’ve been here.”

On a good weekend, Enticknap is one of the “other 19” in the Main Event.

“Without all of us, there really is no winner. Everybody’s got to show up and everybody’s got to compete during the weekend. In our sport, everyone is so hyper-focused on the guy who is winning all the time, but I hope that I’ve opened people’s eyes that sometimes it’s not just about the guy who wins the race as much as it is about the guy who is succeeding during the weekend.”

For Enticknap, success looks different than for last year’s champion Cooper Webb or Eli Tomac who won six of the 17 races in 2019. It’s about knowing that when it’s time to ride back to the hauler – whether that is at the end of the Main or after a Last Chance Qualifier – that nothing was left on the track.

“My best finish was a 14th at the Monster Energy Cup – ever in my career,” Enticknap emphasized. “Making my way from the bottom is huge. I made my way from not even making the top 40 to finishing 14th in A-Main Event. That’s huge.”

And that’s progress.

In his second season with H.E.P. Motorsports, Enticknap predicts he will make 10 Mains this year.

Even if he advances to only half of the Features, it will be his best season in eight years at this level. Enticknap qualified for seven Mains in 2017 with a best of 18th at Vegas. He was in five Mains in 2018 with a best of 16th at San Diego before signing with his current team – and getting injured without rightly being able to show what he could do with them.

“I want to break into the top 10 – that’s my goal for the year – but as of right now I’m succeeding in all the little goals that I’ve set and I want to keep succeeding,” Enticknap said.

It’s not enough to want to finish well, however; riders have to visualize a path to success. For Enticknap, that will come with because of how he approaches stadium races. Towering over the field, Enticknap is not a small man by anyone’s measure so it’s ironic that he makes a comparison between Supercross and ballet. The indoor season is about precision, technical mastery, and finesse. And that is where Enticknap believes he shines.

“Supercross is more of a ballet. It’s more perfection. It’s something that takes so much talent – and you can see it in real life. When you watch an outdoor race, you’re like ‘that guy’s a beast’; he’s manhandling it; he’s hammering the throttle. And when you see a Supercross race it’s just so rhythmic and flowing and light. So much finesse on everything. Just such a fluent, technical race.”

Enticknap credits his background in BMX racing as one of the reasons why he is so fluid on a tight track.

“Supercross fits my riding style a lot,” Enticknap said. “I don’t like to just hang it out and get all sideways and just swap, swap, swap. I like to be very precise in all my movement. I’m a perfectionist. It helps in Supercross because everything is just timed by the millisecond.”

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