French GP: Vettel and Hamilton locked at top of F1

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany, back, signs autographs in the pit lane at the Paul Ricard racetrack, in Le Castellet, southern France, Thursday, June 21, 2018. The Formula one race will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

The car that is fastest to the finish line of the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard Circuit on Sunday could be poised to open up a wider gap in the coming weeks

LE CASTELLET, France — Only one point separates Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton at the top of Formula One heading into the French Grand Prix.

The pair of four-time champions have traded blows through the first seven races of the season. Just when one seems to get a slight edge in the title race, the other hits right back.

Vettel won the first two races for Ferrari, only for Hamilton to steer his Mercedes to victory in Azerbaijan and Spain and invigorate his title defense.

But when Hamilton appeared to have reestablished Mercedes' dominance, Vettel earned a commanding wire-to-wire victory in Montreal in the last round on a track where Hamilton had won six times.

Toss in another two wins for Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, and F1 has a fan-pleasing championship fight on its hands as it makes its return to a French tarmac after a 10-year absence.

"It has been a very close battle with the other two teams," Hamilton said on Thursday. "We expect that it will be the same this weekend. We hope we will perform better than in recent weeks."

The car that is fastest to the finish line at the Paul Ricard Circuit on Sunday could be poised to open up a wider gap in the coming weeks.

The French GP will be the first part of an unprecedented tripleheader of three races on consecutive weekends. That means teams will have less time to improve their cars with the Austria and British events coming in quick succession.

"In general, we are positive," Vettel said. "Three wins in seven races is not bad. We have been competitive in all the races and that makes us quite confident."

Mercedes was supposed to bring an engine upgrade to the Canadian GP. But its engineers failed to deliver in time, and Hamilton had a disappointing fifth-place finish.

Hamilton said on Thursday that Mercedes still didn't know what upgrades it would be able to make, but they hoped to know by Friday's practice sessions.

"Montreal was a very average week performance-wise," Hamilton said. "We come here determined to do a better job, including me, so we can all squeeze more out of ourselves and the car."

Mercedes' No. 2, Valtteri Bottas, has tallied four second-place finishes to position himself within striking distance of the lead.

Red Bull is, once again, safely entrenched in its role as the beat team in F1, after Mercedes and Ferrari.

Ricciardo is in fourth place behind Bottas. His future is also in the air amid speculation that Ferrari, Mercedes and other teams are interested in signing him for 2019.

For Ricciardo, the title is still in the hands of Hamilton or Vettel.

"If you looked at last year you would say Mercedes is the favorite, but they don't seem to be as strong as they were last year," Ricciardo said. "It's up to Seb."

Fernando Alonso will have to shift from the heights of winning the 24 Hours Le Mans on his debut last week to the mediocrity of McLaren. The former two-time champion has failed to finish the past two F1 races.

The last time an F1 race was at Le Castellet was in 1990 when Alain Prost won for Ferrari.

The 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) circuit features several fast corners, including a Turn 10 that is designed for speeds of up to 290 kph (180 mph).

Hamilton said he scouted the track on his motorbike.

"I rode it around hoping I wouldn't get caught," Hamilton said. "I really like going to new circuits. I am really excited that (the French GP) is back on the calendar and I want to win it."

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

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