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F1: Beaten Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel knows he must improve

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Sebastian Vettel acknowledged he must improve his driving next year after a second straight season where his Formula One title challenge crumbled under relentless pressure from Lewis Hamilton.

Vettel led Hamilton by eight points after 10 of 21 races and 4-3 in wins, only to lose by 88 points overall and 11-5 in races won.

Having shaped up as a classic season between two drivers who were both chasing a fifth F1 title, it ended as a one-horse race as Hamilton cantered home. It moved the Mercedes driver Hamilton level with Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles and two behind record-holder Michael Schumacher.

And it left Vettel feeling bitterly frustrated.

“I haven’t been at the top of my game. I need to look at myself first,” Vettel said after finishing symbolically second behind Hamilton in Sunday’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix . “It’s been a difficult, exhausting year for me.”

Just like last year, Vettel’s title bid unraveled as a series of driver and team errors swung the title momentum toward Hamilton and Mercedes. This year, however, he was even more soundly beaten considering he finished 46 points behind Hamilton in 2017.

A terrible run of form saw Vettel win only one of the last 11 races – the last success coming at the Belgian GP in late August .

“Certainly I have to review a couple of things that went wrong,” Vettel said. “I’ve never had a problem raising my hand if I did a mistake.”

As Vettel’s wins dried up, problems mounted.

After taking a super pole position at Hockenheim – his home race in Germany – Vettel crashed into the barriers while leading. He was under little pressure with Hamilton nearly 10 seconds back and, even if Hamilton had overtaken him, Vettel would still have led the championship with a second-place finish.

But the rain came down and Vettel made an error unbefitting a driver of his caliber and slid off track to gift Hamilton a win.

Then, at the next race in Hungary, Ferrari looked strong in practice only to wilt when rain fell in qualifying. This essentially handed Mercedes a 1-2 on the starting grid, with Valtteri Bottas alongside Hamilton and able to fend off the Ferraris.

During the race itself, Ferrari botched the pit stops of Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen after struggling to fit a tire quickly enough. Raikkonen also drove the whole race in sweltering heat and without fluids after his team did not properly attach his drinking bottle.

It was another unfathomable mistake from F1’s most storied team, which has not won the driver’s title since Raikkonen in 2007 and the constructors’ title in ’08.

Earlier this season, too, a mechanic’s leg was broken by Raikkonen’s car following an unsafe pit release at the Bahrain GP.

Vettel did bounce back to form with a commanding drive in Belgium, but then he was furious with his team after Raikkonen took pole ahead of him at the Italian GP in Monza. His team could have imposed team orders and told Raikkonen to let Vettel past. They did not, and Hamilton jumped from third to take the win on Ferrari’s home track.

It was a crushing humiliation, and the title race slid into freefall.

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

Ferrari was being sucked into a vortex of errors, one which Vettel and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene could not prevent.

Ferrari botched Singapore qualifying when a poor strategy call put Vettel and Raikkonen on the wrong tires. Ferrari compounded that by bringing Vettel in too early for a tire change during the race, hoping to gain advantage by pre-empting Hamilton’s anticipated move.

Instead, Vettel ended up placing third and Hamilton – who had taken a brilliant pole position – won.

The meltdown was symbolic of what happened at Singapore a year earlier.

In 2017, a confident Vettel was poised to regain the championship lead from Hamilton on a track more suited to Ferrari. He took pole position in fine style but then crashed on the first corner trying to cut off Max Verstappen. Hamilton, starting from fifth on the grid, won and the title momentum shifted his way.

Ferrari needs vast improvement in 2019 to prevent a hat trick of failed title bids.

“Obviously we lost our path halfway through the year and things didn’t come together,” Vettel said. “It’s up to us to look at every single detail to make sure we come out as a stronger group.”

More AP auto racing: https://racing.ap.org

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.