F`1 Pun­dit

One half ex­pects Lewis Hamil­ton to come back from his next hol­i­day boast­ing how he can now jug­gle four chain­saws

Evo India - - BRIEFING - @ted­kravitz TED KRAVITZ Ted is the pit­lane reporter for Sky Sports F1

WE’VE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD. SURE, For­mula 1 has al­tered its DNA by re­ject­ing open cock­pits in favour of the ‘Halo’ head pro­tec­tion de­vice and yes, aero­dy­namic com­plex­ity and unin­spired cir­cuit de­sign have com­bined to make racing more dif­fi­cult than ever, but in terms of qual­ity driv­ers fight­ing for the cham­pi­onship, we’re liv­ing in a golden age.

That’s be­cause for the first time ever, two four-time world cham­pi­ons will bat­tle it out in roughly equiv­a­lent machinery. Se­bas­tian Vet­tel racked up his four ti­tles in quick suc­ces­sion, from 2010 to 2013 in­clu­sive, but it’s been slim pick­ings since. He came close last sea­son be­fore Fer­rari suf­fered a cou­ple of in­fu­ri­at­ingly small fail­ures (spark plug, in­let man­i­fold) that eased Mercedes’ pas­sage to both cham­pi­onships. They’ll try not to make that mis­take again, but even with the quick­est car, the pres­sure of car­ry­ing Fer­rari’s hopes is im­mense. Kimi Räikkö­nen re­mains a very skil­ful driver, but in what looks like be­ing his fi­nal year of F1 com­pe­ti­tion he can’t real­is­ti­cally be counted as a ti­tle con­tender. Se­bas­tian can, but it’s a big year for Vet­tel as he at­tempts to prove that he’s learned from his per­sonal mis­takes of 2017.

There’s less weight on Lewis Hamil­ton’s shoul­ders be­cause he’s had so much re­cent suc­cess. Mercedes has built the fastest car, but has also been smart enough to fig­ure out how to build the fastest Lewis: keep him happy. To be fair, McLaren knew that a happy Lewis was a fast Lewis, but there was some­thing about the Ron Den­nis culture of con­trol that meant Hamil­ton felt boxed in – al­most suf­fo­cated to­wards the end of his time there. Mercedes has let Hamil­ton loose.

For ex­am­ple, this win­ter he em­barked on ac­tiv­i­ties that were great fun, but any one of which could have re­sulted in a bro­ken leg or knee, or knack­er­ing of nu­mer­ous other per­for­mance-crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties. Lewis started off ski­ing in Colorado, but was unim­pressed with the snow – so flew to Ja­pan for some snow­board­ing. Bones and lig­a­ments in­tact, he flew to Hawaii, to knock out a bit of big­wave surf­ing with Kelly Slater. Hamil­ton says he was chuffed to have pro­gressed to a 6ft 2in surf­board, what­ever that means. One half ex­pects him to come back from his next hol­i­day boast­ing how he can now jug­gle four chain­saws.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff recog­nises the risk that Lewis might in­jure him­self while hav­ing fun, but firmly be­lieves that not let­ting him do it in the first place will make him less happy – and there­fore less rapid – in the long run.

So while he’s cheer­ful, Lewis is also mo­ti­vated. ‘I’ll con­tinue to stay in F1 and stay with Mercedes while I have the fire,’ he said re­cently. ‘Life is a jour­ney – I’m here to bet­ter my­self ev­ery day and make sure I’m liv­ing my best life.’ All that stands be­tween Hamil­ton and his fifth world cham­pi­onship, then, is the car, and Mercedes shows no sign of mess­ing that up. The designers have shrinkwrapped the rear of the car to within an inch of its life – it looks as if some­one has put a racing en­gine and gear­box into a gi­ant CapriSun juice pouch and sucked out all the air.

The en­gine is equally im­pres­sive. This year’s rules re­strict each driver to only three en­gines – one fewer than last year – mean­ing that each power unit needs to last seven races, rather than five. Re­nault has al­ready ad­mit­ted it is hav­ing to sac­ri­fice peak per­for­mance to achieve this kind of dura­bil­ity, but not so Mercedes. It thinks it can have more per­for­mance and bet­ter re­li­a­bil­ity at the same time. Whether it will be turn­ing ev­ery­thing up to hit its sus­pected 1000 horse­power peak re­mains to be seen. How­ever, a thou­sand horse­power from a 1.6-litre V6, even with the best en­ergy re­cov­ery sys­tem on the planet, is pretty bloody im­pres­sive.

Re­nault’s reluc­tance to turn up the wick could cost Max Ver­stap­pen and Daniel Ric­cia­rdo their chances of a first ti­tle. Ver­stap­pen’s im­pa­tience for suc­cess is ad­mirable, but if race wins don’t come, for what­ever rea­son, Max runs the risk of fall­ing into a neg­a­tive mind­set that feeds off it­self and ends up af­fect­ing the rest of his team. In this and many other ways, Ver­stap­pen re­minds me of Nigel Mansell: the rough-and-tumble racing style, un­com­pro­mis­ing over­takes and sheer guts, blended with prodi­gious nat­u­ral speed. Max is quickly es­tab­lish­ing him­self as Red Bull’s number one driver, which is cu­ri­ous, as Ric­cia­rdo is just as good. He can qual­ify, he can race and he can over­take – qual­i­ties that may see him in a Mercedes be­fore too long.

So, the fight is on. A re­peat for Hamil­ton, re­venge for Vet­tel or an in­au­gu­ral for Ver­stap­pen? We’re in for a treat.

McLaren knew a happy Lewis was a fast Lewis, but some­thing about the Ron Den­nis culture of con­trol meant Hamil­ton

felt boxed in

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