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Heat is on Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel at Malaysian GP

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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) The heat is on Sebastian Vettel at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

After blowing pole position by causing a crash at the Singapore GP two weeks ago, the Ferrari driver threw away a golden chance to regain the championship lead from Lewis Hamilton.

Instead, he drifted 28 points behind the British driver, who clinched his sixth win of the season for Mercedes.

“The last race was a strong reminder that sport always has the power to surprise,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “We have been on the receiving end of those bad moments before.”

But with just six races remaining, Mercedes has the upper hand and Vettel’s margin for error is increasingly small. He can ill afford another blip in Malaysia, where the intense heat and stifling humidity make it one of Formula One’s toughest races.

Singapore offered some respite, since it was a night race, but this one is raced in afternoon heat with 80 percent humidity. Cockpit temperatures reach around 50 Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).

“It’s like being in a sauna. We have all of our gear on and the car is hot as well,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said. “The seat itself is warm, and then we’re surrounded in the cockpit by the electrical boxes.”

Drivers can expect to shed five percent of their body weight in fluid loss.

“Fatigue sets in,” Bottas added. “It’s more difficult to be consistent and, in the very worst cases, you can develop cramps or even problems with your vision.”

The undulating, 5.5-kilometer (3.4-mile) track – a mixture of long straights and quick, sweeping corners – is also one of the most challenging, and enjoyable, for drivers. Many are sad that the Sepang International circuit is hosting its final race.

“They are taking away the toughest, if not the toughest race of the season,” Hamilton said this week at an event by Mercedes backer Petronas in Kuala Lumpur. “It is sad to think this is our last race at Sepang.”

Neither Vettel nor Hamilton have fond memories of last year, however with both failing to finish the race as Red Bull clinched a 1-2 with Ricciardo holding off Max Verstappen.

Vettel could use a helping hand from Red Bull now.

Red Bull has been improving in recent weeks and looked strong in Singapore qualifying, placing both cars ahead of Hamilton and Bottas.

Ricciardo has been looking particularly strong, with his second-place finish in Singapore earning him a seventh podium position in the past 10 races. Without a troublesome gearbox, the Australian might even have challenged for the win.

On a track that suits Red Bull well, a similar grid position on Sunday would be ideal for Vettel – providing he can avoid crashing again.

That Vettel finds himself in a chess-like scenario is much of his own making, and he must still be waking up at night with cold sweats thinking of Singapore. He made a sloppy error of judgment heading into Turn 1, taking out his Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Verstappen – both of whom could realistically have denied Hamilton a podium finish and crucial points.

Understandably, given that it has not won a driver’s championship since Raikkonen’s title in 2007, Ferrari was not impressed.

Although Vettel deserves huge credit for turning the Prancing Horse into a contender again, he owes them a big performance here.

Far removed from the title tussle, there will be a couple of new faces appearing.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly makes his F1 debut for Toro Rosso, replacing Daniil Kvyat until the end of the season.

The 21-year-old Gasly has a great chance to push his claim to race for Toro Rosso next season, too, when Carlos Sainz Jr. leaves on a one-year loan move to Renault.

Gasly was unhappy at not getting an F1 seat at the start of the season, having won the second-tier F2 series in 2016, so is determined to prove he is good enough.

“I am not worried, I am excited,” said Gasly, who came through the Red Bull junior program. “I have worked hard for this.”

Countryman Charles Leclerc, who leads this year’s F2 championship by 59 points, is very highly rated. He will drive for Sauber in the first practice session here and again in P1 in the United States, Mexico and Brazil.

Leclerc is part of the Ferrari junior program. Sauber uses Ferrari engines, and there could be an opening at Sauber next year if Pascal Wehrlein leaves for a better team or Marcus Ericsson is replaced.

Further incentive for Leclerc to impress, even if it’s only in practice.

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.