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F1: Vettel still prone to errors despite past F1 successes

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MONZA, Italy (AP) Even after winning four Formula 1 titles, Sebastian Vettel is still prone to worrying errors.

Vettel made some key mistakes last season, allowing rival Lewis Hamilton to win the title, and the Ferrari driver appears to be throwing away his chances this year, too.

Ferrari was quicker than Mercedes all weekend at the Italian Grand Prix, even achieving a front row lockout in qualifying. That set the stage for what should have been Ferrari’s first victory at its home track since 2010 and for Vettel to cut further into Hamilton’s overall lead after winning the previous race in Belgium.

However, an early misjudgment cost Vettel as he hit Hamilton’s Mercedes and briefly lost control, dropping back to 18th. Vettel eventually finished fourth but Hamilton won the race and extended his advantage to 30 points.

Last year, Hamilton publicly spoke about his rival’s apparent vulnerability under pressure as something he could exploit. That might work even better this season, with the intensity ramped up even further.

“The heat is there and it is unavoidable for all of us, for me and him,” Hamilton said. “It is very difficult for people watching who are not naturally in it to feel what we feel. The pressure is at its highest I can ever remember.

“That’s the pressure you put on yourself, because you want to succeed. That’s the pressure of all your desires and all your fears and also all the people who are depending on you, which is a lot of people.”

Vettel insisted he had not been at fault in the collision but Hamilton pointed out that he and Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen engaged in an identical exchange later in the race with both drivers exiting the chicane cleanly.

It was the latest in a series of mistakes by Vettel, who crashed under no pressure while leading the rain-soaked German GP in July and gifted victory and the championship lead to Hamilton.

Vettel and Hamilton are both chasing a fifth F1 title to move level with Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio and go two behind record-holder Michael Schumacher.

Ferrari has arguably had the better car this season but Hamilton and Mercedes still have the advantage in the drivers’ standings.

“The pressure is so high, all I can do is really focus on trying to deliver every single weekend, which obviously I’m trying to do,” Hamilton said. “I definitely feel I’m extracting everything and more out of the car, but these last races, considering we’ve definitely felt we’ve not had the upper hand, we have been one or two steps behind to then finish ahead by one step, that’s an incredibly proud feeling for everyone in the team.”

Vettel has not been helped by his Ferrari team making errors, too, despite the team’s new-found speed.

In Hungary, Ferrari botched the pit stops of Vettel and Raikkonen, while the decision not to invoke team orders in Monza was criticized as an “own-goal” by the Italian media.

Vettel was furious after Ferrari’s rotation policy in qualifying saw him miss out on pole position after completing his final lap in front of Raikkonen and giving his teammate a vital tow.

Vettel tried to pass Raikkonen right at the start in Sunday’s race but the move was fended off by the Finn.

In contrast, Valtteri Bottas sacrificed himself for the good of the Mercedes team again, waiting to come in for fresh tires so he could hold up Raikkonen and allow teammate Hamilton to close the gap after the British driver’s pit stop.

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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