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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.”

F1 Preview: 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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