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Sebastian Vettel expected to be Lewis Hamilton’s main 2019 foe

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When asked who would likely be his primary challenger in 2019, Lewis Hamilton told Formula1.com “I would imagine it’s going to be Sebastian (Vettel). And Valtteri (Bottas) alongside me.

There is a good reason for that assessment. Hamilton and Vettel spent the entire season either first or second in the standings. Vettel held the top spot six of the first 10 weeks; Hamilton led the series the other four weeks and the average difference between first and second was 9.2 points.

Then came Germany.

(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Vettel crashed on Lap 51 while leading – handing the top spot over to Bottas for one lap before Hamilton took command for the final 15 circuits. The 25 points lost dropped Vettel from top rung of the championship by eight points to the second rung by 17. He would never recover and after the Italian Grand Prix, race 14 of 21, Vettel continuously slipped further behind Hamilton.

The only race after Italy in which Vettell finished ahead of Hamilton was in Mexico and by then, the championship was decided. Vettel finished second in the Mexican GP; Hamilton was only six points back in fourth.

If not Vettel, Hamilton is keeping his eye on Max Verstappen.

“They’ve got a great car,” Hamilton said. “They’ve been very strong at the end of the year, they’ve got a new engine next year. Will it be able to compete with ours? I hope so, because that would be epic if Red Bull could really start to mingle with us a bit more, weekend in, weekend out.

“They’ve got to obviously improve on their reliability, which has been a big downfall for them this year. So there’s lots of areas [to work on], but I really wish them all the best – and we are down for the competition that’s for sure.”

As Vettel was slipping behind, Verstappen was catching up. He outscored the Ferrari driver in the second half of the season and came within one point of securing third in the driver’s championship behind Kimi Raikkonen.

Of course, overtaking Mercedes is going to be a challenge for everyone. They have won the last five championships – four for Hamilton and one for Nico Rosberg. Before that, Red Bull Racing and Renault were on a four-year winning streak with Vettel behind the wheel.

Points Standings by the Week

Week Grand Prix Leader Second Third
1 Australian Vettel Hamilton (-7) Raikkonen (-10)
2 Bahrain Vettel Hamilton (-17) Bottas (-28)
3 Chinese Vettel Hamilton (-9) Bottas (-14)
4 Azerbaijan Hamilton Vettel (-4) Raikkonen (-22)
5 Spanish Hamilton Vettel (-17) Bottas (-37)
6 Monaco Hamilton Vettel (-14) Ricciardo (-38)
7 Canadian Vettel Hamilton (-1) Bottas (-35)
8 French Hamilton Vettel (-14) Ricciardo (-49)
9 Austrian Vettel Hamilton (-1) Raikkonen (-45)
10 British Vettel Hamilton (-8) Raikkonen (-55)
11 German Hamilton Vettel (-17) Raikkonen (-57)
12 Hungarian Hamilton Vettel (-24) Raikkonen (-57)
13 Belgian Hamilton Vettel (-17) Raikkonen (-85)
14 Italian Hamilton Vettel (-30) Raikkonen (-92)
15 Singapore Hamilton Vettel (-40) Raikkonen (-107)
16 Russian Hamilton Vettel (-50) Bottas (-117)
17 Japanese Hamilton Vettel (-67) Bottas (-124)
18 United States Hamilton Vettel (-70) Raikkonen (-125)
19 Mexican Hamilton Vettel (-64) Raikkonen (-122)
20 Brazilian Hamilton Vettel (-81) Raikkonen (-132)
21 Abu Dhabi Hamilton Vettel (-88) Raikkonen (-157)

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.