Vettel needs to keep pressure on Hamilton in Germany

Second placed Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain gestures on the podium after the British Formula One Grand Prix at the Silverstone racetrack, Silverstone, England, Sunday, July 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Sebastian Vettel needs to keep the pressure on Lewis Hamilton at this weekend's German Grand Prix

HOCKENHEIM, Germany — Sebastian Vettel needs to keep the pressure on Lewis Hamilton at this weekend's German Grand Prix.

At the midway point of the Formula One season — the 11th of 21 races — Vettel holds an eight-point lead over Hamilton.

Vettel started strongly, then Hamilton took over, and now Vettel appears to be in the ascendancy again.

While he leads Hamilton only 4-3 in wins this season, Vettel's most recent victory was particularly poignant because it was at Hamilton's home track at Silverstone, where the British driver has had huge success. Vettel's win heaped more misery on Hamilton, considering he had experienced a rare retirement at the Austrian GP one week earlier.

In previous years, Ferrari was the team experiencing technical problems and frustrating inconsistency. Now the roles appear reversed, and Mercedes is the team under pressure.

"We are getting stronger and we have a very, very good group of people," Vettel said Thursday. "The car has potential."

After winning the last four drivers' and constructors' championships, often by huge margins, Mercedes lags 20 points behinds Ferrari. There have been communication errors and strategy mistakes within Mercedes. For Hamilton, who along with Vettel is vying for a fifth F1 title, these problems are hard to accept.

Last year, the pressure seemed to affect Vettel more, but this time Hamilton is the one showing signs of strain.

Rapidly overtaken from pole position at the British GP, Hamilton was then shunted off the track following a collision with Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen.

After Hamilton fought back from last place to an impressive second, he made comments about Ferrari's "interesting tactics" — implying Raikkonen had done it on purpose as part of team strategy. Hamilton subsequently apologized, calling his own comment "dumb."

Vettel says it was a "silly" thing for Hamilton to say, but understood why he spoke out of turn.

"We've all been there. It's never great if you get hit without doing anything wrong," Vettel said. "It's also fine to express your opinion, even if it's not right or reasonable. It's human. It was two weeks ago, we move on."

Mercedes has often taken the blame for Hamilton's setbacks, right up to the top.

"We've left points on the table and had to do damage limitation more often than we would have wanted," said Toto Wolff, the team's head of motorsport. "A lot of that was down to our own mistakes."

With Mercedes wobbling, and Hamilton getting agitated, the timing seems right for Vettel to strike another blow at Hockenheim on Sunday.

Vettel won the German GP driving for Red Bull in 2013, but that was at the Nuerburgring. A Hockenheim victory holds special significance.

"I'm literally from here, it's half an hour away from where I was born and grew up," Vettel said. "It would mean a lot to me to."

The German race is returning after being dropped last year for financial reasons. Home fans will be in the unusual position of cheering a German driver (Vettel) in an Italian car, competing against a British driver (Hamilton) and his Finnish teammate, Valtteri Bottas, in German cars.

If any one of the three wins, it will feel like a victory for Germany.

The Hockenheimring, as the circuit is called, is in southwest Germany's Baden-Wuerttemberg region which borders France. It features fast straights in the first half of the 4.6-kilometer (2.85-mile) track, meaning fans can hope for a 67-lap speed duel between Mercedes and Ferrari.

But Red Bull is waiting to pounce.

While Red Bull is not as quick as its main rivals, the gap has been closed this season, and Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have three victories between them.

Ricciardo has won two, while Verstappen is driving impressively after a rocky start.

The 20-year-old Dutchman — the youngest to win an F1 race and to qualify on the front row at 18 — has four podium finishes in the past six races and is showing the kind of form which earned him a bumper new contract last year.

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

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Follow Jerome Pugmire on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromepugmire

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