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Hamilton closing in on Schumacher's 7 F1 titles

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

By JIM VERTUNO

AP Sports Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) One by one, Lewis Hamilton has passed the great drivers of Formula One.

Except one.

And now Hamilton is quickly approaching the legacy of the great Michael Schumacher. His chances of catching him, once thought to be impossible, now look very, very good.

Hamilton won his sixth career F1 championship Sunday with a second-place finish at the U.S. Grand Prix, leaving him one shy of the seven won by Schumacher in the German's run of dominance between 1994 and 2004.

Hamilton's sixth title - his fifth since 2014 - moved the British driver past Argentina's Juan Manuel Fangio, the "Godfather" of Formula One, who won five titles in the 1950s. Hamilton now stands alone behind Schumacher.

"It's an honor to be up here with these greats," Hamilton said.

Hamilton may be in a hurry to catch him.

Although Hamilton has said he'll most likely stay with Mercedes after his current contract expires in 2020, he's 34 years old and one of the oldest drivers on the grid. Formula One will usher in some rules changes in 2021 that it hopes will bring big racing changes with technical tweaks to cars and a budget cap to constrain big teams like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

And while Mercedes has won six consecutive constructor's championships behind Hamilton, Ferrari and Red Bull have made enough strides that many see a wide open championship on the table next year.

Many thought the same for 2019 until Hamilton and Mercedes lapped the field again. Hamilton has 10 wins this season, a figure that put him so far ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas he only needed to finish eighth or better in Texas to secure the title.

Hamilton has arguably made easy work of the F1 grid the last three years. In 2017 and 2018 he clinched titles in Mexico City in races he didn't even finish on the podium.

He won the title on Sunday despite falling short of a win that would have put an exclamation point on the championship. Hamilton could have settled into an easy drive, but instead chased after a victory when he bolted from fifth to third on the opening lap. He later grabbed the lead and held it until Bottas passed him in the final laps.

"You can see how motivated Lewis still is, he wants to win every race and get the best result possible," Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said.

Hamilton won his first championship at age 23 with McLaren in 2008, winning by a single point with a pass on the last corner of the last lap in the last race in Brazil. He didn't win another until hooking up with Mercedes.

Mercedes' early dominance in the hybrid engine era caused some to question whether it was the car or driver winning the titles.

But Hamilton has been the pilot guiding those silver missiles around the racetracks and his driving has silenced much of that. He fought off challenges from former teammate Nico Rosberg in 2014 and 2015, then battled Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in 2017 and 2018.

Serious talk of catching Schumacher began in 2017 when Hamilton matched Vettel's four titles. After the race Sunday, Vettel came to the post-race cool down room to give Hamilton a handshake and a hug.

Hamilton called 2019 one of the toughest championships yet. He's started from pole position just four times and won from the front spot just twice. He also noted the death in May of friend and former F1 champion Niki Lauda, who had served as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team and was a race fixture in the team garage.

"I miss him so much. Today, he'd have taken his cap off. I wouldn't have been able to do this without Niki," Hamilton said.

Now the chase for Schumacher is truly on. Hamilton just wants to slow it down for a few days or months.

"Reaching Michael was never a target for me," Hamilton said. "I definitely thought that getting anywhere near Michael was just so far-fetched. I remember having my one (championship) for a long period of time. And then getting the second and it was so far away. Now it seems so close and yet is so far away ...

"And I don't want to build up the idea of trying to get to Michael's seven, because at the moment, I've got to enjoy right now," Hamilton said.

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Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno

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More AP Formula One news: https://apnews.com/FormulaOne

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Updated November 4, 2019

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