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F1: Hamilton pushing toward 5th F1 title after imperious drive

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SINGAPORE (AP) Lewis Hamilton sounds unsure of just one thing: whether Ferrari can bounce back after he dealt another crushing blow to Sebastian Vettel’s title hopes.

Hamilton was imperious at the Singapore Grand Prix, securing one of the best pole positions of his Formula 1 career with an astonishing drive in qualifying on Saturday and then controlling Sunday’s race perfectly.

It all went so smoothly for Mercedes as Hamilton moved 40 points ahead of Vettel with six races left in the season. But for Ferrari, it was yet another weekend on the back foot.

“We’re not over-confident, we’re diligent. We just want to keep hammering as hard as we can,” Hamilton after Sunday’s win, still sounding elated long after his victory. “If (Ferrari) have got an answer to that, we don’t mind that, we like that battle. If they don’t, we also don’t mind that.”

These are big “Ifs” for a Ferrari team lurching into crisis after a strong start – as Vettel won the first two races and four of the first 10. They were neck and neck heading into the summer, but Hamilton has won four of the past five races despite acknowledging his car is not as quick.

“Ultimately, I think we’re over-delivering,” Hamilton said. “We’ve out-performed a car that’s often slightly better – out-performed them as a team.”

As a driver, too, Hamilton has the edge on Vettel – particularly in terms of composure under pressure.

Both are four-time F1 champions and vying for a fifth win to move level with Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and within two titles of F1 great Michael Schumacher’s record. But Vettel, who crashed in the rain while leading the German GP in July – where victory would have given him the championship lead – makes mistakes Hamilton simply does not.

During the Singapore GP, Vettel hit a wall during Friday practice and lost valuable track preparation time for qualifying.

It triggered a set of baffling events and poor decisions unbefitting of such a proud team.

His team botched qualifying when a poor strategy call put Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen on the wrong tires. Ferrari compounded that by bringing Vettel in too early for a tire change during Sunday’s race, hoping to gain advantage by pre-empting Hamilton’s anticipated move. Instead, Vettel lost one place in the race and ended up third, wasting points he cannot afford to lose.

Ferrari’s mistakes this season have started to pile up, while Mercedes is making the right calls and Hamilton is making the most of it.

Hamilton said Vettel’s crash in practice was not Mercedes “lucking in,” but more about the differing approaches of the rival teams.

“I take pride in not putting myself in those positions,” Hamilton said. “The team’s relying on me as his team’s relying on him.

“There’s a lot of pressure on us as drivers, it’s only small percentages and (when) you get wrong it has bigger ramifications.”

While Vettel was again publicly critical of his team following qualifying and the race, Hamilton has faith in Mercedes – to such an extent that he’s now spending far longer in team debriefs than he ever used to.

When he arrived Sunday night to give his final comments to the media, it was nearing 1 a.m. local time. Yet Hamilton was buoyant and seemed galvanized by his intensive leadership role with his engineers.

“I encourage them to ask me questions, and they did. More than ever, the communication has been an addition,” Hamilton said. “We’re going from strength to strength in terms of our understanding of the car.”

It is quite some turnaround from 2016, when Hamilton – who was at odds with Nico Rosberg and lost the drivers’ title to his teammate- was unhappy at certain decisions.

Now all the pressure is in the Ferrari garage.

With six races left, starting in Russia in two weeks’ time, Vettel has to find his best form and hope Hamilton slips up.

Given Hamilton’s focus, the way he is talking, and his uncanny ability to stay fresh for the races, that seems very unlikely.

If anything, Hamilton could well beat Vettel by more than the 46-point margin he did last year.

“I’ve got a few days off, probably doing yoga and training hard Tuesday onwards,” Hamilton said. “The focus has to remain the same, if not more.”

Hunter McElrea wins Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship

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Hunter McElrea bested 18 competitors to win the third annual Road to Indy USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout on Sunday at Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Ariz.

The two-day contest featured on-track competition in Formula Mazda cars as well as interview sessions and assessment from a panel of judges.

“I can’t believe it,” McElrea said at IndyCar.com. “This is definitely the most exciting opportunity that I have had in my racing career. I cannot thank Mazda and everyone enough for making this possible for me. The fact that I am going to be on the grid next year thanks to them is a dream come true.

“They have given me the opportunity to prove myself in such a high level that I never even thought I would be able to reach. I have to thank Andersen Promotions, Cooper tires, all of the judges, everyone from Mazda, the Bondurant Racing School and the other competitors, who literally pushed me to the limit.

“I am just so happy. It is still sinking in, but I just can’t wait to get next year started, and I’ll be representing Mazda in that nice Soul Red USF2000 car.”

MORE: Michael Carter wins Mazda Road to 24 shootout

The 19-year-old McElrea was born in California, but reared in Australia.

As a result of winning the award, McElrea will compete in the 2019 season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

McElrea won the Australian Formula Ford Championship this year on the strength of 13 victories in 21 races.

Early competition resulted in a final field of six drivers that included Jake Craig, Michael Eastwell, Braden Eves, Flinn Lazier and Ross Martin. They competed in a qualification session and 30-minute simulated race. McElrea won that race.

“Today was an incredible day,” said Tom Long, Mazda Motorsports factory driver and one of the judges. “There was so much talent here for the shootout. Hunter McElrea just rose to the top when it was time to shine, but our decision was very, very difficult.

“In the end, given all of the circumstances, we were able to make a pretty good decision and we are really, really proud of not only Hunter but our whole team here with Mazda to be able to grant this $200,000 scholarship for his opportunity in USF2000 next year.”