Hamil­ton seeks last hur­rah in Malaysia

Bri­tish driver ‘lov­ing’ bat­tle with Vet­tel at Sepang swan song

Global Times - Weekend - - SPORTS -

Lewis Hamil­ton says he is “lov­ing” his world cham­pi­onship bat­tle with Se­bas­tian Vet­tel so much that he has ban­ished any thoughts of re­tire­ment as he heads into Sun­day’s last-ever Malaysian Grand Prix.

At Sepang a year ago Hamil­ton thought the world was against him, spout­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries when his Mercedes en­gine ex­ploded while lead­ing, which handed a 23-point cham­pi­onship cush­ion to team­mate and even­tual cham­pion Nico Ros­berg.

It left the three-time world cham­pion at such a low ebb that there were ru­mors he could re­tire.

But a re­ju­ve­nated Hamil­ton this sea­son broke Michael Schu­macher’s record for career pole po­si­tions, and even spoke about at­tempt­ing to match the Ger­man great’s record 91 race vic­to­ries af­ter his 60th win – and third in a row – in Sin­ga­pore.

“I def­i­nitely have thought about [re­tire­ment],” the Mercedes driver ad­mit­ted on a Bri­tish TV chat show at the week­end.

“But then we’re in the heat of this bat­tle right now and I’m lov­ing it more than ever. It’s the great­est feel­ing ever so I’m go­ing to keep go­ing for as long as I can and see what I can do.”

Hamil­ton’s calami­tous luck of last sea­son has turned full cir­cle, epit­o­mized by his win in Sin­ga­pore 10 days ago af­ter pole-sit­ter Vet­tel’s Fer­rari was shunted by Max Ver­stap­pen and team­mate Kimi Raikko­nen on a rain­sod­den first lap.

Hamil­ton, who started fifth on the grid, avoided the car­nage and emerged vic­to­ri­ous to ex­tend his cham­pi­onship lead over Vet­tel from three to 28 points with six races to go, start­ing with Malaysia’s swan song.

Wolff warn­ing

But Mercedes chief Toto Wolff warned Hamil­ton to stay fo­cused as the cham­pi­onship is far from over.

“We will need to be on top of our game at ev­ery track to main­tain our lead,” said Wolff.

“The last race was a strong re­minder that sport al­ways has the power to surprise. We have been on the re­ceiv­ing end of those bad mem­o­ries be­fore.”

Fer­rari team prin­ci­pal Mau­r­izio Ar­riv­abene vowed to keep the pres­sure on Mercedes. “Sin­ga­pore doesn’t mean the bat­tle is over,” he said. “Just that it has be­come more dif­fi­cult.”

Vet­tel will look to strike back on a track where along­side Schu­macher he has the best record of any driver, with four vic­to­ries. Hamil­ton’s lone Malaysian suc­cess came in 2014.

A year ago Red Bull, who this week an­nounced As­ton Martin as ti­tle spon­sor from 2018, ben­e­fited from Hamil­ton’s melt­down as they com­pleted a one-two and they have been get­ting steadily stronger.

Daniel Ric­cia­rdo 12 months ago shared a “shoey” – cham­pagne from his driv­ing boot – with Ver­stap­pen af­ter his surprise win.

But a group of over-ex­u­ber­ant Aussie fans were ar­rested for cel­e­brat­ing by strip­ping down to their un­der­wear, a huge no-no in con­ser­va­tive Malaysia.

“My vic­tory last year was def­i­nitely un­ex­pected,” said Ric­cia­rdo this week. “It just goes to show you never know what can hap­pen.”

Check­ered flag for Sepang

One cer­tainty is that the driv­ers will not re­turn next year to ex­pe­ri­ence the heat, hu­mid­ity and un­pre­dictable weather of steamy Sepang that have made the race a clas­sic since it joined the cal­en­dar in 1999.

In April Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak an­nounced this year’s race would be the last.

The vast stands at the Sepang cir­cuit, which can ac­com­mo­date 120,000, drew just 45,000 in 2016 and TV rat­ings were poor.

“Last year, the num­bers were re­ally bad,” Ra­zlan Razali, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the gov­ern­ment-owned cir­cuit, told AFP.

The gov­ern­ment, he said, was fork­ing out $67 mil­lion an­nu­ally to stage the race. “Two num­bers we looked at, spec­ta­tors go­ing to the track and TV rat­ings,” said Razali.

“At the end of the day, host­ing For­mula One is about pro­mot­ing the coun­try as a global des­ti­na­tion and if the num­bers are not there, the in­vest­ment is not jus­ti­fied.”

There will be one new face in the pit lane as young French GP2 cham­pion Pierre Gasly, 21, will make his For­mula One de­but with Toro Rosso af­ter re­plac­ing Daniil Kvyat, who has man­aged just four points this sea­son.

Mercedes’ Bri­tish driver Lewis Hamil­ton takes a pic­ture with a fan in Kuala Lumpur on Wed­nes­day ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

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