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Ferrari’s fast F1 start reduced to late-season flop

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Ferrari began the Formula One season with a furious start. A decade removed from its last season championship, the chase with Mercedes was finally on and Sebastian Vettel was taking the fight to Lewis Hamilton.

Then came a crash in Singapore. A spark plug problem in Japan.

By the final laps of Hamilton’s victory at the U.S. Grand Prix last weekend, Vettel was just a red blur in the Mercedes rear view mirror. Again.

And by finishing second in a race it had to win, Ferrari’s season-opening roar has been reduced to a shrug and pouted lips, all but crushed by Hamilton’s second-half surge of checkered flags.

“There was no real secret other than they were quicker than us,” Vettel said. “Whoever is faster usually has a good chance of winning … We tried to fight. At least that was better than other races when we didn’t have a chance.”

Mathematically, Vettel could still win the title for the Italian team if Hamilton has a three-race collapse of epic proportions, starting this weekend at the Mexican Grand Prix. But Hamilton has scored points in every race this season and hasn’t missed a podium since the race in Hungary back on July 30.

If Hamilton finishes fifth or higher in Mexico City, he will claim his 10th win of the season, his third season championship in four years and his fourth overall, matching the four Vettel won with Red Bull from 2010-2013.

Despite Ferrari’s status as Formula One’s richest and most popular team, it hasn’t won a driver’s championship since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 or a constructor’s title since 2008. This season’s constructor’s title has already gone to Mercedes, clinched last weekend in Texas despite Vettel and Raikkonen finishing 2-3.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Top three finishers Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari and James Allison, Technical Director at Mercedes GP celebrate on the podium during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene has tried to keep a fighter’s attitude.

“We will continue to fight to the very last corner of the final race,” he said.

This season’s disappointment might hurt more than some previous failures. No one was close to Ferrari in the first two seasons after the hybrid engine change. And this wasn’t the flop of 2016 when Ferrari didn’t win a race after seeing big gains the previous year. This was grabbing the lead by the throat and letting it go.

With a surge in power and technical rules changes the cars, Ferrari began this year believing it had the muscle to trade blows with Mercedes. Vettel landed wins in Australia and Bahrain in the first three races. The high point came on the French Riviera when Vettel captured the jewel of the season by winning the Monaco Grand Prix.

The cracks began in June when Vettel rammed into the back of Hamilton while under a safety during the race in Azerbaijan. The Ferrari then pulled alongside and bumped Hamilton again. The move destroyed any friendly veneer on a rivalry that quickly heated up in Mercedes’ favor.

Vettel’s last win came in Hungary. Hamilton took the season lead for the championship two races later in Italy and then came the Asian collapse that has come to define Ferrari’s season.

In Singapore, Vettel was in pole position and Hamilton started in fifth simply hoping to limit the damage in a race Ferrari was primed to win.

Instead, Vettel undid himself. In a bizarre starting bolt across the track to block Red Bull’s Max Verstappen into the first turn, Vettel instead caused a crash that took out himself, Verstappen and Raikkonen. Hamilton zipped through, won the race and has held the lead in the title chase ever since.

Engine problems had Vettel starting near the back in Malaysia. A brilliant drive to fourth still left him losing more points to winner Hamilton. The crusher came in Japan, when Vettel’s race ended on the first lap because of the spark plug.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Sergio Marchionne, CEO of FIAT and Chairman of Ferrari talks to the media in the Paddock before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

“The things that have happened in the last three Asia races have really been a collection of the most unfortunate events,” Ferrari President Sergio Marchionne said.

Marchionne said he doesn’t expect team overhaul ahead of 2018.

“We need to win, that’s the most important thing. I don’t think it’s attributable to a single guy,” Marchionne said.

Vettel trails Hamilton by 66 points heading into Mexico and he knows his rival is poised for another title. Vettel seemed resigned to that likelihood in Texas. He briefly held the lead out of the start, but quickly surrendered it when Hamilton made an easy pass on lap six. Instead of blocking Hamilton to at least take the fight to him, he let him go.

“I was a little surprised Sebastian didn’t defend more,” Hamilton said. “I would have.”

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

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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