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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.”

Dakar Stage 8 Highlights: Ricky Brabec blows engine, retires

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The motorcycle class of the Dakar Rally has been a seesaw affair through seven stages, but Ricky Brabec seemed poised to win the class for the USA. Until he blew an engine in Stage 8 that is – and gave up a more-than seven second lead. He was the second rider to retire after starting the stage as the leader. Joan Barreda retired in Stage 3.

Brabec was looking to become the first American rider to win in 27 years, but his fate was eerily similar to last year. Three days from the end of the stage, he retired about 50 kilometers into the stage, which is precisely when and where he retired in 2018.

With Brabec’s trouble, Toby Price leapfrogged from third to second in class despite riding with a metal pin in his wrist. In the world’s most grueling endurance event, it has never been more obvious that it isn’t over till it’s over.

Meanwhile, Nasser Al-Attiyah continues to run a consistent rally. With a 46 minute advantage over Nani Roma and Sebastien Loeb, all he needs to do is stay error free for the final two stages to win his third Dakar.

Here are some of the other highlights:

In the cars class, Sebastien Loeb scored his fifth stage win of the Rally by seven minutes over Nasser Al-Attiyah, but problems in Stage 3 have kept him from being competitive for the overall lead. … Jakub Przygonski earned his third podium of the Rally. All of these have been third-place finishes.

Class Leaders: Al-Attiyah holds an advantage of 46:29 over Roma and 46:45 over Loeb.

In motorcycles, Ricky Brabec’s blown engine opened up the class once more. … Matthias Walkner narrowly edged Pablo Quintanilla by 45 seconds. … But it was Toby Price’s third-place finish that helped elevate him to the class lead. … Sam Sunderland was supposed to blaze the path for the riders, but a malfunctioning navigation system kept him from rolling off first. Blazing the trail is a disadvantage and officials adjudged him to have tampered with his system to avoid that fate. Sunderland was penalized an hour to finish 35th on the stage. He dropped to ninth in class.

Class Leaders: Price inherited the lead over Quintanilla by 1:03 and 6:35 over Walkner

In side by sides, Francisco Lopez Contardo scored the victory over Cristian Baumgart by 4:47. … Gerard Farres Guell rounded out the top three.

Class Leaders: Contardo holds an advantage 0f 54:10 over Rodrigo Piazolli and one hour, 08:09 over Guell

In quads, there was no surprise in Nicolas Cavigliasso winning his seventh stage of the season. … He padded his overall advantage over Gustavo Gallego by more than nine minutes. … Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli finished third.

Class Leaders: Cavigliasso holds and advantage of one hour, 24:52 over Ferioli and one hour, 44:04 over Gallego

In trucks, Dmitry Sotnikov won the stage to take over the class lead. He beat Ton Van Genugten by 22:01. … Siarhei Viazovich rounded out the top three. … Eduard Nikolaev lost the class lead by finishing eighth – nearly one hour behind Sotnikov.

Class Leaders: Sotnikov holds an advantage of 26:49 over and one hour, 7:43 over Gerard de Rooy

Stage Wins

Motorcycles
Sam Sunderland [2] (Stage 5 and 7), Matthias Walkner [2] (Stage 2 and 8), Joan Barreda [1] (Stage 1), Xavier de Soultrait [1] (Stage 3), Ricky Brabec [1] (Stage 4) and Pablo Quintanilla [1] (Stage 6)

Quads
Nicolas Cavigliasso [7] (Stage 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8) and Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli [1] (Stage 3)

Cars
Sebastien Loeb [4] (Stage 2, 5, 6 and 8), Nasser Al-Attiyah [2] (Stage 1 and 4) and Stephane Peterhansel [2] (Stage 3 and 7)

Side-by-sides
Francisco Lopez Contardo [4] (Stage 2, 6, 7 and 8), Reinaldo Varela [1] (Stage 1), Gerard Farres Guell [1] (Stage 3), Sergei Kariakin [1] (Stage 4) and Rodrigo Piazzoli [1] (Stage 5)

Trucks
Eduard Nikolaev [3] (Stage 1, 2 and 5), Andrey Karginov [2] (Stage 3 and 4), Dmitry Sotnikov [2] (Stage 6 and 8) and Gerard de Rooy [1] (Stage 7)

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