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Vettel must handle pressure better to beat Hamilton in 2018

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel must handle pressure better if he wants to wrestle the Formula One title back from Lewis Hamilton.

Vettel should be kicking himself after missing out on a fifth F1 title. He lost his way in September and never regained the momentum as Hamilton went on to earn his fourth title, and third in four seasons with Mercedes.

Hamilton’s winning margin of 46 points over Vettel does not reflect an often tense title battle, one in which Ferrari had a genuine chance of breaking Mercedes’ stranglehold until Vettel’s alarming dip.

“I’m very hungry for next year,” Vettel said on Sunday after the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “For the team it’s flat out from now.”

It’s back to the factories until the cars are rolled out again for preseason testing in late February. The season begins with the Australian GP on March 25.

Vettel has been fair play in defeat and has detailed why he thinks Mercedes was the superior team.

“Look at the amount of pole positions, of race wins. Overall, we were not quick enough. Simple as that,” he said. “In the end you can break it down to a lot of details, this and that, but overall the package wasn’t good enough.”

It is a somewhat convenient argument, too, for statistics tell only part of the story.

Chasing its first drivers’ title since 2007, Ferrari was faster than Mercedes several times. The huge speed advantage Mercedes enjoyed since new engine changes came into play in 2014 was wiped out by Ferrari this year.

The uncomfortable conclusion is that Vettel self-destructed when poised to crank the pressure up on Hamilton.

For all of his experience – 47 wins from nearly 200 races – Vettel is still prone to emotional swings that undermine him. He showed glimpses of that when bickering with his former Red Bull teammate Mark Webber and with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen last year.

After the Azerbaijan GP in June, Hamilton publicly spoke about Vettel’s vulnerability under pressure as something he could exploit.

Vettel played a very weak hand in Baku.

Irritated by what he perceived to be Hamilton’s deliberately slow driving behind a safety car – known in F1 as backing up – he accelerated alongside the British driver and then inexplicably swerved into the left side of his Mercedes.

It was a clear error of judgment and Vettel subsequently apologized for dangerous driving. The two exchanged heated barbs afterward.

Vettel’s red mist that day was as bright as his gleaming Ferrari.

He escaped with a time penalty when a one-race ban was spoken of. The penalty itself was damaging, however, since it prevented him from finishing higher than fourth and so valuable points were needlessly lost.

A second and momentous mistake from Vettel came at the Singapore GP. It perhaps defined the season itself.

Before the race, Vettel was only three points behind Hamilton in the championship with seven races remaining. He was inspired in qualifying and took pole position on the sinewy street circuit. Better still, Hamilton was starting from fifth on the grid.

It was the perfect scenario for Vettel to both regain the lead and pad it out at the next race in Malaysia – another track suited to Ferrari.

A few seconds later, jaws were dropping and eyes bulging in the Ferrari garage – but for all the wrong reasons.

Vettel went diagonally across the track to cut off Verstappen, starting from second. A four-car collision ensued that took them both out, along with Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

With 25 points beckoning, on a track where no F1 driver has more podiums than him, Vettel scored none. The nightmare scenario concluded with Hamilton profiting from the chaos to win.

It was a total gift, but somehow Vettel minimized the incident and the team spared him justifiable reproach.

F1 observers pointed to Vettel’s previous verbal spats with Verstappen. In theory, he simply could not accept losing ground to Verstappen even though the Dutchman was not a title threat.

While Hamilton strengthened his title bid Vettel went out of his way – literally – to undermine his own.

Vettel will need to think twice if the red mist starts descending next year.

 

Could Scott Dixon someday break Foyt, Andretti wins and championships records?

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With five races left in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Scott Dixon is in the driver’s seat to potentially earn a fifth career IndyCar championship.

After winning Sunday at Toronto, Dixon now has a 62-point edge over second-ranked and defending series champ Josef Newgarden and a 70-point lead over third-ranked Alexander Rossi.

The triumph north of the border was Dixon’s third there, as well as his 44th career IndyCar win, third-highest in IndyCar annals.

Add in the four IndyCar championships and those are stellar numbers indeed.

What makes things all the more amazing is Dixon has done all that in under 18 full seasons on the IndyCar circuit. Heck, he’s only 37 years old, too (although he turns 38 on July 22).

Dixon’s championships have come in 2003 (his first full season in IndyCar after two prior seasons in CART/Champ Car), 2008, 2013 and most recently in 2015.

The quiet, unassuming New Zealander has been one of the most successful drivers ever not just in IndyCar, but in all forms of motorsports.

When his name is mentioned, it’s typically included with the only two drivers who have more career wins than he does: A.J. Foyt (67 wins and seven championships, both records) and Mario Andretti (52 wins and four titles).

That’s a pretty lofty pair to be part of.

One might think that after all the success he’s had, Dixon could easily walk away from IndyCar and Chip Ganassi Racing and enjoy an early retirement.

But competing in and winning races isn’t really a job for Dixon. He enjoys what he’s doing so much that he easily could keep doing what he’s doing – and at a high level – for another seven or more years, at least.

So, can Dixon catch Mario and A.J.? The former would be easier than the latter, for sure.

Numerically, it’s possible – at least part of it:

* Dixon can easily be competitive into his mid-40s.

* He’s averaged three-plus wins every season since 2007 (37 wins from then through Sunday). That means if he can keep that average going, he could reach 24 more wins – to overtake Foyt – by 2026. Yes, that may be a stretch to even imagine, but if there’s any current driver who potentially could overtake Foyt, it’s Dixon.

* Dixon already has three wins this season, and with five more races still to go, he could easily win another one, two or maybe even three more in 2018 as he continues his road to the championship. And let’s not forget that with each additional win, that’s one win closer to overtaking Andretti and Foyt.

In his usual modest and humble manner, Dixon downplays not just talk comparing him with Andretti and Foyt, but also overtaking one or both.

“I think A.J. is pretty safe,” he said. “He’s a long ways ahead. … Eight (championships) is an infinity away. Takes a long time to get eight.”

But that doesn’t mean Dixon can’t keep working at approaching Foyt’s mark.

“I think for us, we take it race by race,” he said. “We’re in the business of winning races. If we’re not doing that, I won’t have a job for too long. That’s the focus for right now.”

If he wins the championship this year, he’ll pass Andretti’s championship mark. That would be one record down, three to go.

And if he can win nine more races over the next few seasons, he’ll pass Andretti’s 52 career wins, making it two records down and two more to go.

“Right now with 44 wins, next on the list is Mario I think at 52 or something,” Dixon said after Sunday’s win. “We’ll see how it goes. Right now, we’re just trying to get the job done for the team.”

And he’s doing a darn good job at that indeed – with likely even more success still to come.

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