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Despite recent win, Hamilton says Ferrari still favorite

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Despite his recent win at the Canadian Grand Prix, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton still considers Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to be the Formula One favorite.

Hamilton’s win in Montreal came after a terrible weekend in Monaco, underlining how unpredictable Mercedes has been after three years of dominance.

“Consistency is the key to winning the championship,” Hamilton said Thursday at a news conference. “Up until now, Sebastian has had the consistency of a winning championship, so we have to improve on our consistency if we are going to have a shot at winning this title.”

Victory at this weekend’s Azerbaijan GP would give Hamilton back-to-back wins – and would be a further boost after cutting Vettel’s overall lead to 12 points with his Canada GP win two weeks ago.

But he remains circumspect as to whether Mercedes has truly turned the corner.

“(Ferrari) have had a more consistent season so far. We’ve had more of an up-and-down season,” Hamilton said. “I think they (Ferrari) still are favorites in terms of the fact their car seems to work everywhere. But I think there’s more unlocked potential in our car.”

Hamilton believes the Belgian GP in late August will show whether Mercedes can release that potential, and topple Ferrari in the title fight.

“I’m hoping by August, coming into September, by then we are the favorites,” said Hamilton, who is chasing a fourth F1 title.

Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s new teammate and the only other driver to win a race, is in third place and trails Vettel by 48 points. Whether or not Bottas can become a title contender remains to be seen, however. Most observers conclude that Hamilton undoubtedly holds No. 1 status at Mercedes.

“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the last five years since he joined the team,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “He is coping so well with the difficult days. This is what the very best are made of.”

Vettel, who is gunning for a fifth F1 title, also appears to be No. 1 at Ferrari ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

Ferrari has been more reliable and might even be slightly faster than Mercedes. That bodes well considering that the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) Baku circuit, which glides through the city’s medieval walls and passes the Caspian sea, has F1’s fastest top speed of 370 kph (230 mph).

Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

Although Ferrari missed out on a podium place in Montreal, with Vettel finishing fourth, there was some bad luck because his car was damaged by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull heading into the first corner.

It would have been more worrying for Ferrari had Vettel finished fourth in a straight, trouble-free contest with Hamilton. Encouragingly for Ferrari, the way Vettel cut through the field following his early trouble showed the German driver is back to his very best.

Vettel’s previous title came in 2013, the last of four straight with the once-dominant Red Bull, and there are clearly shades of the confident Vettel of old this season.

Verstappen, tipped to be F1’s next big star, needs a strong performance in Baku.

Last year, the 19-year-old Dutch driver became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But he has secured only one podium and failed to finish three races so far this season.

Worse still is the misery two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is enduring at McLaren.

Although still widely considered the equal of Hamilton – and slightly ahead of Vettel – on pure ability, Alonso has not won since the Spanish GP in May 2013.

He can hardly even finish a race these days, such is the unreliability of McLaren’s Honda engine.

McLaren is the only team yet to score a point. Between them, Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have completed only four races, with a best finish of 12th by Alonso.

Considering how demanding the Baku circuit is on engines, it promises to be another frustrating weekend for Honda amid growing rumors McLaren is considering a new engine supplier deal with Mercedes. An embarrassing but realistic possibility for beleaguered Honda.

“Like Canada, we don’t have very high hopes,” Vandoorne said Thursday.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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