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F1: Vettel needs to keep pressure firmly on Hamilton in Germany

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HOCKENHEIM, Germany (AP) — Sebastian Vettel needs to keep the pressure firmly on Lewis Hamilton at this weekend’s German Grand Prix.

At the midway point of the Formula One season – the 11th race out of 21 – Vettel holds only an eight-point lead over rival Lewis Hamilton in an intriguing title contest.

Vettel started strongly, then Hamilton took over, and now Vettel appears to be in the ascendancy again.

While he leads Hamilton only 4-3 in wins this season, Vettel’s most recent victory was particularly poignant seeing it was at Hamilton’s home track at Silverstone – where Hamilton has enjoyed huge success. Vettel’s win there heaped more misery on the British driver, considering he’d experienced a rare retirement at the Austrian GP one week earlier.

In previous years, Ferrari was the team experiencing technical problems and frustrating inconsistency. Now the roles appear reversed, and Mercedes is the team under pressure.

Having won the last four drivers’ and constructors’ championships, often by huge margins, Mercedes lags 20 points behinds Ferrari. There have been communication errors and strategy mistakes within Mercedes. For Hamilton, who along with Vettel is vying for a coveted fifth F1 crown, these problems are hard to accept.

Last year, the pressure seemed to affect Vettel more, but this time Hamilton is the one showing signs of strain.

Rapidly overtaken from pole position at the British GP, Hamilton was then shunted off the track following a collision with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

After Hamilton fought back brilliantly from last place to an impressive second place, he made comments about Ferrari’s “interesting tactics” – implying Raikkonen had done it on purpose as part of team strategy. Hamilton subsequently apologized, calling his own comment “dumb.”

While Vettel has upped his level from 2017, Hamilton has still shown his trademark speed and consistency, aside from a poor start at Silverstone.

Mercedes has often taken the blame for Hamilton’s setbacks, right up to the top.

“We’ve left points on the table and had to do damage limitation more often than we would have wanted,” said Toto Wolff, the head of motorsport. “A lot of that was down to our own mistakes.”

With Mercedes wobbling, and Hamilton getting agitated, the timing seems right for Vettel to strike another blow at Hockenheim on Sunday.

The German race is returning after being dropped last year for financial reasons. Home fans will be in the unusual position of cheering a German driver (Vettel) in an Italian car, competing against a British driver (Hamilton) and his Finnish teammate Valtteri Bottas in German cars.

If any one of the three wins, it will feel like a victory for Germany.

“Going to Hockenheim always feels like coming home,” Wolff said. “It’s only about a 90-minute drive from the Daimler headquarters in Stuttgart.”

The Hockenheimring, as the circuit is called, is in in southwest Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg region which borders with France.

It features fast straights in the first half of the 4.6-kilometer (2.85-mile) track, meaning fans can hope for a thrilling 67-lap speed duel between Mercedes and Ferrari.

But Red Bull is waiting to pounce.

While Red Bull is not as quick as its main rivals, the gap has been closed this season, and Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have three victories between them.

Ricciardo has won two, while Verstappen is driving impressively after a rocky start.

The 20-year-old Dutchman – the youngest to win an F1 race and to qualify on the front row aged just 18 – has four podium finishes in the past six races and is showing the kind of form which earned him a bumper new contract last year.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).