KING LEWIS III
Peter Windsor evaluates the triple champ’s chances against Ferrari’s Seb Vettel in 2016
Now Ferrari have refound their mojo, the fight between comeback kid Sebastian Vettel and newly crowned triple champ Lewis Hamilton could be 2016’s hottest story. Peter Windsor anticipates an epic contest
“A RIVALRY TO MARK THE END OF DAYS”
Hamilton-vettel. Mercedes-ferrari. Silver-red. England-germany. As of the time of writing, prior to the 2015 Brazilian GP, they have a combined total of seven drivers’ championships (Vettel 4, Hamilton 3) and 85 wins (Hamilton 43, Vettel 42).
So on the one hand we have Lewis Hamilton. Global superstar. A loner among his peers; a genius behind the wheel. On the other, Sebastian Vettel. The next German to take Ferrari by the neck and make it a winning machine. Informal and urbane, a Michael he is not.
There have been no slanging matches and nor, to date, has there been any ill-feeling – no past history over which the paparazzi can stir
IT COULD BE STEWARTRINDT ALL OVER AGAIN. OR SENNAPROST. OR SCHUMACHERHÄKKINEN. IT COULD BE ALL OF THESE AND MORE. IT COULD BE A RIVALRY TO MARK THE END OF DAYS.
the brew. Sure, Sebastian played with Lewis’s ego after the 2015 Russian GP, asking him, provocatively, about who had set fastest lap – ha, ha. If they do genuinely think about one another, however, it is in terms of another enticing car/ driver package there to be beaten. Just another notch in the wood. They are both that clinical.
This is, though, merely the overture – merely the start of it all.
The best is yet to come.
Both are approaching their primes. Both arrived in F1 at around the same time. And both made immediate impacts. Seb breezed into a BMW Friday F1 drive from Formula BMW and F3, scored points on his F1 debut and won for Toro Rosso in his first full season (2008). He collected the first of his four world titles two years later. Lewis dominated GP2 before almost winning the world championship in his debut year (2007) and winning it for the first time in 2008.
Both, too, have had unsettled years. For Seb, it was 2014, the first year of the hybrid era, when he was stretched by his team-mate at Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo. Outqualified (7-12) and outpointed (167-238), Seb had no answers to Daniel’s superior ability to manipulate the rear of the car, particularly when the front was
also wayward. Seb compensated for this with renewed determination: with four world titles behind him, at a time when his talents could have been left to stagnate, he gratefully accepted a Ferrari drive and a new challenge for 2015. The slate was wiped clean.
On pace, Lewis had no major problems with his team-mates at Mclaren, with Fernando Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button. But Nico Rosberg posed a few questions for him at Mercedes in 2013. In the W04, Lewis, for the first time, found himself a little behind the beat. He couldn’t feel the back end; couldn’t always tame it. If he was going to progress, going into the new F1 technical era, he was going to have to maximise a new, less organic brake pedal. He was going to have to master brake-by-wire.
Lewis did. He worked at it. He looked at what Nico was doing and took the process a step further, multiplying Nico’s brake shape with his own ability to release the brake-pedal pressure at precisely the correct rate. This was no simulator thing: this was Lewis, thinking deeply over the winter, and finding, to his delight, a muchimproved W05 back end for the 2014 season.
Results flowed. Over the past two years, Lewis has become the first Briton ever to win backto-back titles, and has become one of only ten drivers ever to have won three championships or more (joining Fangio, Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet, Prost, Senna, Schumacher and Vettel). Nor should we forget that Lewis in the Mclaren years won races like Fuji in the wet in 2007, or the torrid British GP of 2008. Both were classics, as was his drive to fifth in Brazil, 2008, when he won his first world title; his first win (Canada, 2007); many of his Monaco GPS; and his four wins in America (2007, 2012, 2014 and 2015).
In James Allison, meanwhile, Seb found just the right replacement for Adrian Newey. Where Adrian was becoming increasingly detached from the ever-more draconian F1 technical regulations, culminating in Red Bull’s frontwing deflection skirmish in Abu Dhabi, 2014, Allison was eager to produce a car with four wheels on the ground. Downforce, on the Ferrari SF15-T, would be secondary to balance, and that compromise would dovetail nicely with Seb’s philosophy. Months before, Maurizio Arrivabene had listened to Seb’s exhortations about Allison and had accordingly promoted Allison into a position of overall control. Everything at Ferrari seemed to be heading in a new, logical direction.
Still, Seb was unsure as January turned to February. He was now the Big Name at Ferrari, but there was the question mark: could he drive the new Ferrari the way he had driven the 2013 Red Bull? All became clear at Jerez, when Seb first drove the car. He had a back end! He had a front end! Seb celebrated by setting fastest time and dazzling them in the wet. His garage stood and applauded as he climbed from the car. Kimi was already reduced to a supporting act.
THE INTRA-TEAM TACTICS
Both have had their intra-team brawls. Mark Webber usually set high qualifying benchmarks for Seb – and was sometimes right there in the race, too, occupying road that Seb, wished to use. The apogee came in Turkey, 2010, when the impenetrable barrier (Webber) was confronted by the inexhaustible force (Vettel). Seb lunged for a narrow, high-speed gap… and on that occasion lost. Webber recovered to finish third.
There was more tension. Webber would speak often of Seb’s tantrums; and, after winning at Silverstone in 2010, Webber icily declared his own performance was “not bad for a number
two driver”. Then, in Malaysia 2013, Seb defied orders by passing Webber when both were supposedly lapping within rigid parameters. Webber and Adrian Newey were incensed.
Daniel Ricciardo also posed challenges for Seb: the difference was that Red Bull were not consistent frontrunners in 2014. Seb thus remained relatively quiet and withdrawn that year, even if his nirvana for 2015 was easy to see: as well as a car that sat square on the road, he wanted a team-mate who wouldn’t run into trouble. Kimi Räikkönen, now in the autumn of his career, would be the perfect foil.
Lewis right from the start proved to be a match for Fernando Alonso at Mclaren, but was unprepared for the backlash: incensed to have been “held up” by Lewis early in qualifying in Hungary, 2007, Fernando refused to leave his pitbox in Q3, thus killing Lewis’s pole attempt. Heavy stuff – particularly from a double world champion – but Lewis’s reaction was exemplary. He stayed quiet and won the race on Sunday.
That year, Lewis the rookie was rocked by aggression from all quarters: from the Spanish race crowds, from the FIA, from his peers, from Fernando Alonso. Racism bubbled below the surface. Mclaren were fined $100m for possessing drawings stolen by a Ferrari employee. Lewis seemed stunned – a newcomer who would never in a million years have imagined that Formula 1 could be like this. Yet he kept his head and stretched his championship to the final round, in Brazil.
Alongside Jenson, Lewis found harmony. Even when Jenson arguably forced Lewis into the wall in Canada, 2011, Lewis defused the mood as Jenson awaited the restart. As F1 gestures go, this was sportsmanship of the highest calibre.
It wasn’t until 2014, alongside Nico in a championship-winning car, that Lewis again had to fight intra-team. Nico contrived to lock the rears going into Mirabeau at Monaco in Q3, thus depriving Lewis of his pole attempt; Lewis filed away the incident for further reference.
“A RIVALRY TO MARK THE END OF DAYS”
The opportunity came in Japan and then in Austin this year: on both occasions Lewis made brilliant starts from P2, giving himself the inside run into the first corners. On both occasions, Lewis hung Nico out to dry.
Lewis has the harder team-mate to beat, so here Seb has the advantage: if there’s to be a Ferrari win on any given day, the chances are that it’ll be Sebastian’s. If, by contrast, Mercedes have the edge, Lewis will still always have the Nico factor to overcome… and that will never be easy. There may be races, for example, when Lewis can beat Nico only through superior tyre management when Mercedes decide not to put their drivers on different strategies.
Lewis has dealt calmly with Mclaren and Mercedes politics when they have arisen. Seb’s hope is that Ferrari’s team politics will be minimal: his influence is already that profound.
THE RACERS WITHIN
Seb remains a question mark. Think Silverstone, 2014, when he was racing wheel-to-wheel with Fernando, or any of the three races he’s won with Ferrari in 2015, and you have the perfect, racing counterpart to the super-organised Red Bull clone who won four world championships in a row. He’s the winner who now also races…
What, though, was Seb thinking on the opening lap of the 2015 Mexican GP? This was Turkey 2010, revisited; this was Seb still showing an unusual degree of assumption. Bear in mind also that it was Daniel Ricciardo he drove into and a few more pieces fall into place: the dominant, all-consuming winner in Malaysia, Monza and Singapore still has a red-mist side
to him – and it isn’t pretty. It’s my road, and I’m Seb Vettel. Even at the opening corner I’m entitled to every millimetre of it.
Afterwards, Seb blamed Daniel, explaining that he, Seb, was ahead and that everyone else should have filed in behind him. Excuse me? How does that square with Niki Lauda’s titlewinning philosophy of always avoiding someone else’s accident? And what was with all the other mistakes that ensued in Mexico?
Lewis, by contrast, has in recent years been forceful and aggressive to the limit of the rules and of what is acceptable. He ran Nico wide at Suzuka and Austin – but he did so to perfection. Nico, on both occasions, was still left with the option of tucking in behind for the undercut or running wider still. It was pure, open racing.
There’s another thing, too: the Ferrari pitwall these days exhorts its drivers into gaps that exist only partially. “Pass him Kimi! Go for it!” Jock Clear may straighten this out in 2016, but, until then, the Mercedes boys can relax in the knowledge that Lewis seems to know precisely when to push… and when not to. He’s a racing driver. Guidance from the pitwall he doesn’t need.
Given a straight race, then, Lewis versus Sebastian, both running on equal strategies, you’d give the nod to Lewis.
“Seb has the talent of being able to mould a team around him – something Lewis wouldn’t be interested in doing”
Both drivers are low-key people who have not lost touch with who they are and where they come from: Seb loves his F1 history, his retro bikes and his classic sportscars. Lewis has a strong spiritual faith and draws a clear line between racing cars for a living and living a life beyond racing. As much as the media like to blur the two, and as much as Lewis is sometimes bored with the finer details of the technology, he is the racer’s racer on Sundays. He breaks down the complicated and makes it look simple.
As good as Nico Rosberg is, for example, Lewis can usually find an opening around mid-race, when the track is evolving and tyre compounds assume different levels of grip. Lewis is Formula 1’s most natural, most adaptive world champion – and if that is clear in the context of Nico Rosberg and Mercedes then it will also be true in the context of Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari. This may be the decisive factor.
Both are devoted to and spend a lot of time with their fans, although Seb’s personal visage is now very much consumed by the huge brand that is Ferrari. Like Niki and Michael before him, Seb has the rare talent of also being able to mould a team around him: this is something that Fernando was unable to achieve at Mclaren or at Ferrari, that Kimi wasn’t able to do at Ferrari – and which Lewis wouldn’t be interested in doing in the first place. It’s not merely the question of swaying people into ‘your’ side of the garage. It’s the ability to know which people you need to sway and making it happen.
Like Frank Sinatra, Lewis doesn’t need to write his own music: he’s good enough merely to be a part of a great team; he will then take that team and win. For Seb, it’s a different thing. He has the ability to make his job as uncluttered as possible. Thus he has only Kimi to beat at Ferrari; Lewis has Nico.
In terms of overall pace, track craft and adaptation to the variables, Lewis has the advantage; in terms of avoiding the complications of a very quick team-mate, Sebastian has the cleaner route. Both will have powerhouses behind them: in James Allison’s second full year at Ferrari, it’s likely that the red cars will be right up there with the Silver Arrows. So how will it unfold? The heart says Lewis… but the head is inclined towards Seb…
So Lewis, how does it feel to win three world titles?
I can’t find the words to tell you how amazing it feels. I couldn’t have done it without Mercedes, who have empowered me for the past three years and helped nurture me with the car. And then my family. I love them all.
There must be a great mix of emotions?
There really are. I’m overwhelmed. I’ve been thinking about my first British championship where my dad and I drove home singing ‘We are the Champions’ – it’s crazy to think that now I’m a three-time F1 world champion. I owe it all to my family who supported me and sacrificed so much for me to be here. And the really positive energy I get from my fans.
What does it mean to win multiple championships?
It’s the pinnacle. Your ultimate goal is to win in everything you compete in. When I got my first one I was just grateful for it. I told Ron Dennis when I was ten that I wanted to be world champion in his car – and it’s crazy to think that ten years after he signed me, I was.
What does a third title mean for the Hamilton legacy?
Well, I’m not the only one who’s achieved great things in the family. My dad, coming from nowhere, never wanted his kids to struggle the way he did, so the effort he put in was remarkable. My brother, Nick, who’s seven years younger, is one of the first disabled individuals to race cars and he’s inspiring young kids to exceed expectations, so hopefully I can be a mascot for him. To be able to add to that, to know that our Hamilton name will be here past our lives… I’m super proud about it.
In conversation with
How different does it feel to clinch a title with three races remaining, instead of at the last round?
The first two titles were climactic. In 2008 it was something like 17 seconds before the end of the race, and in 2014 it was amazing but it took a lot out of us because it was a double points race so anything could have happened. This year feels just as special, if not more so, because I have equalled Ayrton Senna’s three titles.
Over the past couple of years you seem to have gone into a more spiritual zone with your driving and your private life. Do you feel that way now?
Definitely. I’ve always had that, but I express it more now. Having that freedom to express myself in the way I want, and be who I want to be, lets me drive better than I have ever driven. It’s difficult to describe the power I feel from within. I’m blessed to be able to do what I do and in the way I do it, and to have the experiences and opportunities I’ve had in my life.
Checking out the competition: loner Lewis with the Ferrari; and quadruple champ Seb with the Mercedes
In terms of teammates, Lewis has the harder job. He has the ruthless, calculating Nico Rosberg to overcome at Mercedes, while Seb has Kimi, now in the autumn of his career, playing merely a supporting role
“Both Lewis and Seb will have powerhouses behind them – it’s likely that the red cars will be right up there with the Silver Arrows”
All smiles for now, at the end of 2015. But the stage is now set for 2016 and one of the most exciting battles the sport will have seen in many years, between two compelling and ferocious competitors. Who will come out on top? Thrillingly, it could go either way...