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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

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

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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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.”