Lewis Hamilton: Australian Grand Prix could be start of one of most competitive seasons in recent memory

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Lewis Hamilton won the Formula One driver’s title in three of the last four years, but the Mercedes driver said Thursday on the eve of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix that he believes this year could be one of the most competitive yet in the sport.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who pushed the British driver hard last season, performed well in testing a few weeks ago in Spain, along with teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

And Hamilton said F1 fans will “be surprised just how competitive” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will be in Melbourne after putting a frustrating and inconsistent 2017 behind them.

“There’s a lot of hype around our team,” Hamilton said. “I’m excited to see how we all fare up when we get to practice.”

For Mercedes, the hype at the start of each season is well-deserved: the team has dominated Formula One since 2014, winning four straight constructors’ championships and 63 of 79 total races.

But Ferrari demonstrated it could challenge Mercedes for a good portion of last season – Vettel actually led Hamilton through 12 races before the Mercedes driver took the lead for good at the Italian Grand Prix.

Vettel said although he still believes Hamilton is the favorite to win the title again this year, his team has reason to be confident.

“Our car is great . there’s plenty to look forward to,” he said. “Usually around this point, you don’t know where the others are. That’s why it’s a bit pointless to come here and say you’ll blow everyone away based on testing. I think we are in good shape. We could be in better shape, but it’s always like that.”

Hamilton and Vettel have something else to vie for this year – a chance to pull even with former Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio for second place on the all-time championship list. Both drivers are tied with four titles, one short of Fangio’s five. Michael Schumacher leads the list with seven titles.

But for both Hamilton and Vettel, this statistic isn’t top of mind. At least not at this early point of the season.

“It’s a long, long season,” Hamilton said. “You don’t really think about what could be, in the sense of matching others.”

And don’t count out Red Bull. After a disastrous 2017 that saw the team struggle with engine problems and Ricciardo and Verstappen fail to finish 13 races combined, Red Bull is coming into the new season with hopes of challenging for victories again.

“I think the car, compared to last year, definitely made good improvements,” said the 20-year-old Verstappen, who finished last season strongly with two wins and a second-place finish in his last six races.

“From my personal feeling, we have quite a strong car, but we have to wait and see how good our overall package is with the straights here (in Melbourne).”

Ricciardo said anything will be better than last year’s Australian GP, when he crashed in qualifying, started the race from pit lane due to a mechanical problem and then was forced to retire on the 28th lap.

“Last year, we missed the anthem on the grid because I was in the garage trying to get the (car) going. I missed a lot of the Sunday build-up which was not fun,” he said. “So, for sure this preparation is going to make more fun this weekend and we’ll see where that fun takes us.”

It could take Red Bull all the way to the top of the podium – a result that couldn’t come at a better time for Ricciardo, whose contract with the team expires at the end of 2018.

“He’s in a great place still with Red Bull,” Hamilton said. “I think this year, he can really have a fighting chance to win the championship.”

Ricciardo, who’s also facing a spirited challenge from his precocious teammate for the No. 1 position on Red Bull, said he’s putting contract talks on hold to focus on starting the season strongly.

“This is the year,” he said. “Obviously, our prep’s been good and I really, really hope Lewis is right and we will have a chance to fight for title and that will ultimately make me happy.”

Hamilton, though, isn’t about to give an inch. He sounded a bit world-weary on Thursday, saying that after 12 seasons he’s “not the most excited” about doing media conferences anymore, but he believes he still has as much passion for the sport as he did when he started out.

“In my mind, I’m trying to break down new barriers, push the envelope,” he said. “I’m seeing how far I can take the opportunity I have and obviously the ability I have to my full potential. I don’t know what that is, and that’s what I’m discovering.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”