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F1: Lewis Hamilton looks for luck to change amid 3-way title fight

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Lewis Hamilton needs his luck to change in Azerbaijan.

Already nine points behind Sebastian Vettel, the defending champion has yet to win a race this year.

Baku’s emphasis on straight-line speed could favor Hamilton and Mercedes this weekend, but the British driver has struggled in both previous races held at the track. In 2016, he crashed in qualifying, while last year the seemingly trivial issue of a loose headrest forced him into the pits, where he lost valuable time. He finished fifth on both occasions.

“Baku has not been a particularly great hunting ground for me,” said Hamilton, who has gone six races without a win since the U.S. Grand Prix in October.

“This year is going to be tough,” he added. “I’m hoping I’ve got a car this weekend to really battle it out with Sebastian.”

Mercedes dominated the last four seasons but is in a three-way fight with Ferrari and Red Bull this year. Hamilton’s team leads the constructors’ standings.

“The others have definitely stepped up. I think we’ve made a step forward but they’ve made a big leap,” Hamilton said, but expressed hope Mercedes could match that pace. “It’s always easier to catch up than to be a pioneer.”

Mercedes has been trying to better understand how to get the most pace out of the soft tires, especially in qualifying.

Vettel said Mercedes remained the favorite but the differences are minuscule.

“We have three cars that are a match,” Vettel said. “Whoever gets all the small issues right will be out in front.”

Vettel arrives in Azerbaijan as the championship leader with two wins, but needs to bounce back from finishing eighth in China after a collision with Max Verstappen.

Baku’s contrasting features are its long seafront straight and twisty section around the city’s Old Town. That makes it crucial to find the right degree of downforce to produce enough speed but also grip in the slower corners.

The track is also very narrow in places, making it likelier the race will be stopped if there is crash debris. Last year, there were two safety car periods before a red flag restart. Tempers flared, with Hamilton and Vettel making contact behind the safety car.

Daniel Ricciardo, who won in Baku last year and is coming off a victory in China two weeks ago, said he wasn’t yet thinking of the title and that his team needed to show it could consistently challenge Mercedes and Ferrari. That’s also a factor in Ricciardo’s musings about a possible move to Mercedes or Ferrari next year.

“It’s still early but I think we proved if we’re there we can do a lot with (the car),” Ricciardo said. “Because we’re not winning every weekend, when you have a sniff of a victory that’s all the motivation and the hunger that I need.”

Besides the tendency of Verstappen to collide with his rivals, Red Bull is also struggling to match Ferrari’s qualifying pace. Neither Red Bull has qualified higher than fourth in the three races so far this season.

“I think Saturday we’ll probably not be there, but Sunday we can turn it around,” Ricciardo said.

At the other end of the grid, misery continues for Williams.

Nearly a year after Canadian teenager Lance Stroll earned a surprise third place in a chaotic race in Baku, Williams is well off the pace.

Stroll’s three 14th-place finishes are its best results so far this year and he’s not expecting much improvement this weekend. Speed is crucial in Baku – and Williams doesn’t have the pace.

“Those long straights were our strengths last year and unfortunately a bit of a weakness this year,” Stroll said. “With a really competitive and really good race, we are P14 or P13, and last year we were comfortably in the points many times.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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