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A year on from Malaysia misery, all is well with Hamilton

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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) One year ago, Lewis Hamilton was questioning whether some people inside his own team actually wanted him to win.

Now all is harmonious within Mercedes as Hamilton heads into this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix with a 28-point lead in the title race.

“I’m loving and enjoying racing more than I ever have before,” Hamilton said Thursday.

When asked if he’s in the best form of his Formula One career, he added: “Feels like it, yeah.”

It’s a far cry from last year when a furious Hamilton demanded answers from his team after a sudden engine failure late in the Malaysian GP cost him victory on the Sepang circuit. The blip handed former teammate Nico Rosberg a 23-point lead. Rosberg went on to win the championship, denying Hamilton a fourth title and deepening the rift between them.

Hamilton’s frustration was such that he pointed the finger at his own team, hinting at foul play and stopping just short of accusation.

“Someone needs to give me some answers because this is not acceptable. We are fighting for the championship and only my engines are failing. It does not sit right with me,” a dejected and confused Hamilton said after the 2016 race. “Someone doesn’t want me to win this year.”

He hasn’t failed to finish since – a run of 19 races.

“When you arrive on weekends knowing reliability is good, it’s a great feeling,” Hamilton said in the Mercedes motorhome on Thursday. “I’ve just got to make sure I keep performing as I have been.”

With Rosberg now out of Hamilton’s way, there is a much more relaxed aura to Hamilton this year. He has spoken in glowing terms of his new teammate Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish driver who replaced Rosberg after he suddenly retired days after winning the title.

The drivers have shown admirable sportsmanship toward each other this season.

Hamilton gave up third place in Hungary in July to let Bottas pass him, as a return favor after Bottas had earlier let Hamilton overtake him in order to chase down the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, who finished 1-2. It cost Hamilton valuable points.

“I felt like I made the right decision, but even if I’d stayed ahead I think he would have understood,” Hamilton said. “That decision only made things better. But I don’t think if it was the other way round it would have gone sour. It’s a very good working relationship.”

Such a return of favor would have been unthinkable between Hamilton and Rosberg.

Their relationship degraded from a friendship forged in their teenage karting years, to one of hostility and near enmity in the three years they spent together challenging for the title with Mercedes. Hamilton rarely speaks about Rosberg these days.

Without Rosberg around, Hamilton’s focus is clearer because it is geared toward an external rival in Vettel, rather than an internal opponent – making for a far healthier and manageable rivalry.

Earlier this month, Hamilton said he was expecting to extend his contract with Mercedes beyond 2018, when it runs out.

It remains a key decision as the 32-year-old British driver weighs up his future, with his many interests outside of F1 extending into music and fashion.

“I’m quite happy where I am. But I still contemplate what decisions I’ll take,” said Hamilton, who recently spoke of wanting to start a family. “The longer I delay my departure from the sport, the longer my next life is delayed. It’s just trying to weigh up the balances. But at the moment I’m here to stay.”

Having won the last two races, he has put Mercedes back on top and favorite to secure the drivers’ and constructors’ championship for a fourth straight year.

“It’s not a bad time to negotiate. I’m in pretty good form,” he said. “You always want to negotiate when you’ve got two wins in your pocket.”

One domain he will not enter into, after his eventual retirement, is politics.

“I don’t have the greatest understanding of it and I absolutely hate politics,” Hamilton said.

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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