Friendly ri­valry faces test in Monaco

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JEROME PUGMIRE

MONACO — The chummy ri­valry be­tween For­mula One cham­pi­ons Lewis Hamilton and Se­bas­tian Vet­tel could be tested at this week­end’s Monaco Grand Prix, an un­for­giv­ing cir­cuit where driv­ers are of­ten pushed to the limit.

Af­ter five races, four-time F1 cham­pion Vet­tel is six points clear of three-time cham­pion Hamilton. They have two wins each and are rel­ish­ing what is, sur­pris­ingly, their first cham­pi­onship tus­sle.

When Vet­tel was dom­i­nat­ing for Red Bull, win­ning his ti­tles from 2010-13, Hamilton lagged be­hind with McLaren. As Hamilton started dom­i­nat­ing for Mercedes the fol­low­ing year, Vet­tel strug­gled with Red Bull. Af­ter switch­ing to Fer­rari in 2015, the Ger­man driver failed to sig­nif­i­cantly chal­lenge Hamilton or his for­mer Mercedes team­mate, Nico Ros­berg.

Although they share a to­tal of 99 F1 wins, this is the first year Hamilton and Vet­tel have re­ally gone head-to-head on track.

“You have to re­spect if other peo­ple do a good job,” Vet­tel said. “We’re very dif­fer­ent. But I think we have a very strong con­nec­tion.”

Hamilton has been equally praise­wor­thy.

“To have that close bat­tle with him, with a four-time champ, is awe­some,” the Bri­tish driver said. “This is what the sport needs to be every sin­gle race.”

Fans are thrilled, and it is equally a re­lief for Hamilton to be chal­leng­ing a driver he re­spects so much and, ad­di­tion­ally, one from an­other team.

For the past three years, Hamilton was em­broiled in a tense fight with Ros­berg and their thorny re­la­tion­ship caused fric­tions within Mercedes.

An air of re­lief has swept through Mercedes since Ros­berg re­tired af­ter win­ning last year’s ti­tle. Not be­cause he was un­pop­u­lar, but be­cause the team no longer has to deal with an on­go­ing saga that the media feasted on.

“This sea­son I have re-dis­cov­ered why I love the sport,” said Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes motorsport. “We are in a mas­sive fight with Fer­rari.”

In other words, the fight has been taken out­side of Mercedes it­self and the ri­valry with Vet­tel is more healthy.

How­ever, an in­ci­dent in Spain two weeks ago, where Hamilton won ahead of Vet­tel, sug­gested cracks could start ap­pear­ing in the smooth fa­cade of their re­la­tion­ship.

Vet­tel came per­ilously close to nudg­ing Hamilton off the track as they fought for space head­ing into a turn. Hamilton had seemed some­what irked by Vet­tel’s ag­gres­sion — although it was ex­actly the kind of in-your­face driv­ing Hamilton rev­els in.

With the F1 ti­tle shap­ing into a two-way race, nei­ther can af­ford a slip.

That will heighten the pres­sure on both in glitzy Monaco, where F1 lovers min­gle with mil­lion­aires, and which Wolff de­scribes as “the crown jewel” of F1.

The small­est brak­ing mis­take on a tight and sinewy 3.4-kilo­me­tre (2.1-mile) cir­cuit through the wind­ing streets of Monte Carlo, past its famed casino and around its glit­ter­ing, yacht-laden har­bour, can send a dis­tracted driver into the bar­ri­ers.

“There is no such thing as a low risk lap in Monaco, it doesn’t ex­ist if you want to be fast,” said Red Bull driver Max Ver­stap­pen, who crashed in last year’s race.

With over­tak­ing no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult, pole po­si­tion holds in­creased value. That makes qual­i­fy­ing cru­cial, where driv­ers juggle speed with not push­ing the car too hard.

“It is a men­tally ex­haust­ing week­end,” Mercedes driver Valt­teri Bot­tas said. “One mis­take will cost you.”

But one ad­van­tage for driv­ers this year is that the Pirelli tires are far more durable, in­creas­ing time on track and lim­it­ing pit stops. Still, that ad­van­tage is off­set by an­other fac­tor: the size of the cars.

F1 rule changes this year led to cars be­ing made faster and wider. On a nar­row track, this poses “a mas­sive chal­lenge” when push­ing the car close to the limit, Hamilton said.

“It’ll be a real test of your aware­ness of where the car is,” the English­man said. “You need to be sharp and clear.”

DAVID RAMOS, GETTY IM­AGES

Lewis Hamilton leads Se­bas­tian Vet­tel of Ger­many dur­ing the Spanish For­mula One Grand Prix.

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