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F1: Lewis Hamilton cruises to win at Japanese GP, closes in on title

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SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Lewis Hamilton stormed to victory at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, claiming his fourth straight Formula One win and moving a step closer to a fifth world championship.

Starting from pole, the Mercedes driver was never seriously challenged and crossed the finish line 12.919 seconds ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, 14.295 seconds back.

“The whole weekend has been incredibly strong for the team,” Hamilton said. “It’s a great 1-2 for Mercedes and shows you the strength and depth of our team.”

Hamilton has won six of the last seven races and now leads Sebastian Vettel by 67 points with four races left. He only needs to outscore Vettel by eight points at the next race in the United States to clinch a fifth world championship.

“We’ve gone from strength to strength as a team,” Hamilton said. “And Austin is usually a good track for us so I can’t wait to unleash this beast there.”

Vettel started eighth and quickly moved up to fourth place, overtaking both Toro Rosso cars that started ahead of him.

But the Ferrari driver attempted to pass Max Verstappen on the ninth lap and the two cars collided with the Ferrari spinning off into the runoff. The move dropped Vettel back to 18th place.

“I’m not the one who makes the rules,” Verstappen said. “It was a similar situation to what happened in China with him. He could have been more careful.”

Vettel worked his way back up to sixth but couldn’t move higher than that.

It was an impressive day for Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo who started 15th but finished fourth ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Force India’s Sergio Perez was seventh ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean. Force India’s Esteban Ocan was ninth while Renault’s Carlos Sainz rounded out the top 10.

There was an early collision with Sauber driver Charles Leclerc hitting the rear tire of Kevin Magnussen resulting in a puncture and bringing out the safety car.

Verstappen was given a five second penalty for an incident with Raikkonen where he clashed with the Ferrari as he rejoined after running off at the chicane.

“Kimi chose the wrong line in the chicane, he could have also just waited for me to come back on the track,” Verstappen said. “We touched a little bit but I really think it’s ridiculous those five seconds.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”