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Hamilton says Mercedes will have earned F1 title despite Ferrari mistakes

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Lewis Hamilton said Thursday that another Formula One championship would be one earned by him and Mercedes – not one thrown away by Ferrari.

Sebastian Vettel won the first two races of 2018 to set up what promised to be a dramatic chase for a fifth career championship between him and Hamilton. Now Hamilton’s dominant second half of the season, helped by a rash of mistakes by Vettel and Ferrari, has the Mercedes driver set to win the crown even if he finishes as low as seventh Sunday.

“I see a lot of people write a lot of stories saying things have been `handed’ to Mercedes this season,” Hamilton said. “That naturally takes away from the job the team and I have done.”

Vettel has taken criticism over Ferrari’s season of miscues. That includes last week at the U.S. Grand Prix, won by his Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen while Vettel missed the podium.

Vettel said the driver with the most points at the end of the season deservedly wins the title. Saying another driver lost it wouldn’t be fair, he said.

“For the words to come from a four-time world champion, that’s positive to hear,” Hamilton said in advance of this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix. “He’s been a great competitor this year. It’s been so hot for both of us. I look forward to many more years of us racing together right at the top.”

Ferrari’s blunders certainly made Hamilton’s season easier. There have been crashes, pit stop and tire mistakes, and practice penalties that cost Ferrari wins and race position.

Vettel’s last victory came in Belgium six races ago and he’s missed the podium three times in the last five. The U.S. Grand Prix included Vettel’s three-spot starting grid penalty and an early-lap bump with Red Bull’s Daniel Riccardo that caused him to spin.

Vettel had the car for the podium in Texas, maybe even the win, but he didn’t have the patience.

Other drivers on the grid were reluctant to criticize Vettel’s season, but noted the German might have driven too hard out of desperation..

“I think Sebastian is a fantastic driver. It’s very hard to judge the performance of someone when you’re not on the team and you don’t know exactly what is going on,” said Force India’s Sergio Perez. “Obviously we have seen some mistakes. Probably at the end he was just desperate, trying to achieve what was probably not possible, but he’s a four-time world champion.”

Raikkonen, who has only three races left with Ferrari before he switches to Sauber in 2019, tread lightly.

“Sometimes it happens and he pushes and he pushes and he pushes and sometimes he gets it wrong and unfortunately it happened to him a few times,” Raikkonen said. “I think we’ve all gone through it. It’s part of the game.”

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American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida