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F1: Vettel under pressure to start closing gap on Hamilton

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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) — Sebastian Vettel needs to quickly start closing the gap on Lewis Hamilton or he risks watching the Formula One title slip out of his grasp once again.

Vettel lost his way after the summer break last year, winning only one of nine races compared to five by Hamilton.

As the second half of the season resumes at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, the situation is urgent. He already trails Hamilton by 24 points.

“We went into that break with the best feeling as a team,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We know the areas we need to improve on … There’s more juice to come.”

Vettel led Hamilton by 14 points at the same stage last year and still lost the title by 46.

Hamilton acknowledges his position of strength has boosted him after Vettel seemed in the ascendancy earlier in the season.

“When you do have a little bit of a buffer, subconsciously for sure there must be some positive effect,” Hamilton said. “But I still have exactly the same approach as the previous races, which naturally means extension (of the lead). I don’t want that pendulum to go back the other way. So how do I stop that? That’s the question.”

Both drivers are chasing a fifth F1 title – to move level with Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio – but it’s Vettel who has more questions to answer.

Hamilton took the momentum from Vettel last month by winning back-to-back races heading into the summer break, aided by a glaring error from Vettel when he crashed out of the rain-soaked German GP while leading by a comfortable margin of 10 seconds.

Vettel then made errors in qualifying at the Hungarian GP – once again in the rain – effectively gifting Hamilton a win from pole when Mercedes was struggling with a slower car.

“He can only tell you if he feels the pressure,” Hamilton said. “The pressure on me is as great as it can be, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I welcome it.”

While Hamilton rarely loses his composure, Vettel remains prone to lapses in concentration and makes unusually sloppy errors for a four-time F1 champion.

The German GP at Hockenheim last month and the 2017 Singapore GP – where he crashed from pole position when poised to regain the championship lead – are the most striking examples. In the space of three races last year, Vettel dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

The German driver must find a way to avoid another slump. He will have no excuses if he doesn’t with Ferrari’s car arguably quicker than Mercedes.

This weekend’s Belgian GP at the Spa circuit – which at 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) is the longest in F1 – could offer Vettel a way back in.

“They seemed to have a step in power and this is a power circuit,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know how we will fare with them power-wise.”

Hamilton recharged his batteries during the summer break by travelling extensively and turning his phone off, he said – he’s usually very active on social media.

“I left the phone in my hotel, in the safe, didn’t charge it every day and went through several days without it,” Hamilton said. “It was one of the best things.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.