As Vettel vs Hamilton looks set to go to the wire, we ask a panel of experts to assess their chances
This championship battle has been ten years in the making. Remarkably, since they first burst onto the F1 scene, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have never properly fought head-to-head for a world title – until now.
Between them they have claimed seven convincingly earned drivers’ championships, yet Hamilton and Vettel have seldom shared a racetrack while on peak form in closely matched machinery. When Hamilton won his first championship, in 2008, Vettel was busy confirming his future-star status with some storming drives for Toro Rosso, culminating in that unforgettable victory at Monza – a first for both team and driver. Vettel was promoted to the senior Red Bull team a year later, just as the Milton Keynes massive were about to hit their stride with a series of Adrian Newey-authored cars that enabled Vettel to be largely dominant over four seasons from 2010 to 2013.
Until the end of 2012, Hamilton remained at the wheel of a Mclaren, which, for the most part, lacked the final edge of competitiveness needed for him to string together a title bid. He came close in 2010, only to fall out of mathematical contention at the final grand prix in Abu Dhabi. Then, in 2011, he seemed unfocused and off the boil, and it was his Mclaren team-mate, Jenson Button, who finished second to Vettel. Hamilton came back fighting and switched to Mercedes for 2013, just as they were about to emerge as the pre-eminent team of the hybrid era. He added two drivers’ titles (2014 and ’15) while Vettel was a frustrated bystander – first in a less competitive Red Bull, then, from 2015, a Ferrari.
Under this season’s new regulations, however, Ferrari have closed the gap to Mercedes, their SF70H capable of being a pace-setter – in Vettel’s hands at least. And both Seb and Lewis have been at the top of their respective games and generally neck-and-neck, prompting flashpoints such as ‘biff-gate’ at Baku, more of which anon.
It has made for a fascinating contest, but just as Hamilton’s fights for the title with former team-mate Nico Rosberg began amicably enough, only to descend into rancour, so 2017 kicked off with our combatants seemingly on good terms. Vettel won at the season opener in Australia, then Hamilton struck back in China. At the Spanish GP they went wheel to wheel for the lead, making contact, but afterwards maintained their mutual respect. Hamilton was victorious that day, but Vettel won in Monaco, and then Lewis fought back with a win in Canada. Then came Baku. Here, previously hidden tensions revealed themselves, as Vettel, feeling that he had been brake-tested, side-swiped Hamilton. Vettel’s composure has cracked before, usually in the form of tirades over the team radio, but rarely has he exercised that frustration physically. The events of the race also tested Hamilton’s composure, for while Vettel was penalised and ultimately finished fourth, Hamilton had to stop for a loose headrest to be re-fixed, consigning him to fifth. How much will temperament play a part as we race towards the season’s end?
At the next round in Austria, Hamilton discovered he would take a five-place grid drop for a new gearbox. Mercedes admitted that in their quest to keep up the development race with Ferrari, they had been more aggressive with their engineering solutions – and, as a result, had suffered with reliability. Could this year’s title race yet be decided by mechanical failings?
Other factors will doubtless come into play. How, for example, will both teams manage their drivers as the championship nears its conclusion? What role will their team-mates play? On the evidence of Monaco and Hungary, Ferrari are clearly putting their weight behind
Vettel; Mercedes, though, have committed to equal treatment. When Bottas let Hamilton past in Hungary for a tilt at the Ferraris, Lewis honourably returned that position at the final corner, even though it cost him three points.
What effect could that have on the outcome? How will each driver react to team strategy? How do you manage Vettel or Hamilton in a showdown? Will one beat the other? What weaknesses can they exploit? We asked team bosses Christian Horner and Paddy Lowe, who oversaw all of both protagonists’ titles; Vettel and Hamilton’s team-mates, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg; and sports psychology author Clyde Brolin, who looks at their mental makeup. We also asked F1 tech guru Pat Symonds to analyse the machinery at the pair’s disposal.
We’ve waited a long time for this 20-round fight between Hamilton and Vettel. After ten rounds, only one point separated them. Now there are seven to go. Who will prevail?
Clyde Brolin, author of In the Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, gives his view on the psychological battle between the two rivals
With seven titles between them, Lewis Hamilton and Seb Vettel are the undisputed big-hitters of modern F1. Yes, most of the glory arrived during dominant periods for their teams. But, at their imperious best, each has become well acquainted with sport’s ultimate sensation of peak performance ‘in the zone’ – flying around the world’s tracks with effortless grace.
Once anyone samples this sporting nirvana, they invariably crave the return of the fast track. The only problem is that this ‘zone’ isn’t available on tap. Now, as Lewis and Seb finally go headto-head in similar machinery, every weekend it’s clear whose head really is ahead. When they take it in turns to go missing, out come the monosyllabic answers. No wonder the friendly facade is beginning to fray.
First came Vettel’s Baku road rage, then Hamilton’s apparent own goal: missing F1 Live London to ‘mentally prepare’ for Silverstone. It worked, but only because the ensuing critical scrutiny piled on the sort of pressure that motivates him and allows him to thrive.
We can expect the mind games to intensify, so is either racer a bona fide head master? Not according to mind coach Don Macpherson, who has worked with champions in every sporting arena – from pro tennis to F1.
“I like both Hamilton and Vettel for the way they’re driven to be winners,” he says. “But the moment there’s real pressure, the clear thinking goes out of the window. We hear Lewis on the radio getting breathless: “What’s going on? Come on, talk to me…” then “Shut up, don’t talk to me!” That’s a sign anxiety is taking over and it can lead to poor decisions.
“Vettel does that, too, and he’s vulnerable to red mist when he doesn’t get his way, as in Baku. I’d give him the slight edge for his steely resolve, but neither would make my all-time top ten for mental strength. They don’t come near Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher – or Fangio,
Moss and Brabham. Even today, Alonso is number one – and I’d put Bottas ahead, too.”
Stewart once famously cast his own doubts over Hamilton’s mind management, yet Hamilton insists he won’t use specialist coaching. When I recently asked Lewis how far he’d grown mentally, he insisted the difference since his F1 debut was ‘night and day’; his Hungarian GP ‘deal’ with Bottas was notably mature. But Nico Rosberg’s 2016 success – founded on mental training – suggests Lewis might just be missing a trick that could help take him head and shoulders above the rest.
MAN AND MACHINE
Former Renault and Williams technical chief Pat Symonds weighs the strengths of the Ferrari SF70H against those of the Mercedes F1 W08
For the first time in quite a few years we’re seeing the battle for the drivers’ title contested between two different chassis. The advantage has ebbed and flowed, and the correlation between circuit and car characteristics to results achieved has not been particularly clear.
Toto Wolf has described the Mercedes W08 as “a bit of a diva” – an appropriate simile for a car that was so dominant in qualifying in Azerbaijan and Britain, yet distinctly second rate in Monaco, Russia and Hungary.
While it’s generally accepted that the Mercedes power unit’s qualifying modes are superior to those of Ferrari, it is only qualifying that gives an unobscured picture of performance. So, to compare the strengths and weakness of the two cars, I’ve examined the correlation between the best qualifying times of the two chassis at each race (irrespective of driver) and the primary factors of engine power, downforce, mechanical grip, tyre energy and aerodynamic efficiency ranked for each circuit. The results are interesting because they show that the Mercedes gains more superiority from a good lift-to-drag ratio than it does from outright power, even if power is a close second.
On circuits requiring ultimate downforce, such as Hungary and Spain, Ferrari show a small advantage, but their greatest strength appears on those circuits where mechanical grip is at a premium and tyre energies are high. Unfortunately none of the correlation coefficients in my analysis are particularly high, and, since it’s a multi-variable analysis, combinations of factors can disguise the extremes.
Above all, while it’s possible to push the 2017 Pirelli tyres harder than was the case last year, they are still by no means easy to use, and preevent simulation appears to get Ferrari closer to the mark than it does Mercedes.
Mercedes have sometimes used information gathered on Friday as a path to a successful Saturday, while at other times they’ve struggled for single-lap performance in the afternoon.
Rule clarifications have undoubtedly affected both teams; oil-burning restrictions have hit both, while the ruling on front-suspension systems at the beginning of the year perhaps hurt Mercedes more. But the battle is close and Mercedes are having to push harder than ever, as evinced by their aggressive gearshift strategy in pursuit of performance, which has led to grid penalties for gearbox changes.
Indeed, reliability may yet play an important part in the championship outcome, for although Ferrari themselves are feeling confident, the fact that they fitted their fourth and final turbocharger as early as Spain does not bode well. The dichotomy between performance and reliability becomes ever more difficult to manage as the performance advantage is eroded.
CAN SEB WIN?
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner reveals that Vettel’s attention to detail and work ethic could give him the edge if the title goes down to the wire
Sebastian wears his heart on his sleeve and he is involved in a very intense battle. He sees an opportunity to be a champion again this year, and he knows he’s going to need to have everything going his way against Mercedes to achieve that. He has zero filter between what he thinks and what he says – or even what he does, sometimes, and that’s the great side of him. But it can get him in hot water as well.
He always was very expressive at Red Bull when things weren’t going his way, but things went his way more often than not. He won 39 grands prix here and four consecutive championships and he was at an early stage of his career, developing as a driver and from a boy into a young man. He’s been in the business ten years and obviously people evolve and change.
Ferrari are an emotional team, and the Latin atmosphere fuels Seb’s own emotion. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but it shows he’s human and how hungry he is to achieve his goal. He is a very focused individual and he handled pressure at Red Bull extremely well. It was almost as if the more pressure there was, the better he would respond to it – particularly towards the business end of a championship. He was remarkably strong in his head and in his approach.
Generally, when you got to the flyaway races, you knew that if you were within a sniff of the championship he’d deliver. His approach, his application, his attention to detail and his work ethic were what enabled him to win those four world titles. Two of them – 2010 and 2012 – went down to the wire. In 2012, remember, he’d won only one race in Europe, but then he won four on the bounce from Singapore onwards.
CAN LEWIS WIN?
Paddy Lowe helped guide Lewis to a first title at Mclaren and two more at Mercedes. He reckons that when the pressure’s really on, Lewis delivers
Lewis is a special driver and everyone sees that. History will place him among the best drivers of all time – and he’s not finished yet. What’s outstanding about him is his racecraft. He is incredibly good at racing. He has such a natural feel for car placement, so normally comes out best in any competition within the race.
He also has a good feel for the limit, and while he’s a tough racer he doesn’t go over the line. His sportsmanship is never in question and that’s special. I used to say to both Nico and Lewis, during recent periods of dominance at Mercedes, that sportsmanship is the most important thing because people will remember you for how you did it, not for what you did.
Sebastian seems to have a good understanding of sportsmanship as well, but in a straight headto-head I think Lewis is the better racer. So if that’s the competition, I think Lewis will win.
In Lewis’s first year at Mclaren, 2007, he kept overtaking people and I remember a bit of a mood against him for that. I understood, because racing drivers think that if somebody overtakes you then they are by definition insane, and if they hold you up they’re an idiot. Lewis was pulling off fantastic passes on great drivers and it pissed them off; it was such a blow for them – so there was a bit of that in his first year.
Towards the end of a title battle Lewis comes alive. It’s a strength because he may relax a bit too much when he’s not under pressure or thinks he’s not under pressure. But when the pressure comes and he needs get the job done, that’s when he does it. He becomes massively more focused. Not tense: he just goes out there and delivers.
So many times when he’s in a bad place he just comes back and wins three races on the bounce. We saw it last year when he realised one or two races too late that he really needed to pull it out. But he was completely dominant at the end of the season after Singapore. And that’s scary sign of what you’re trying to compete against.
WILL SEB LOSE?
Daniel Ricciardo was Vettel’s Red Bull team-mate, beating him by 71 points over 2014. He explains why Vettel’s main strength is also a weakness
When Sebastian has confidence in the car and the package, he normally takes it where it needs to go. When I arrived at Red Bull for 2014 there wasn’t anything in his driving technique that I felt I had to adopt. There were a few things I hadn’t seen before, though. He would overlap a little on the braking and the throttle to balance the car, and that was interesting because it hadn’t been a technique used at Toro Rosso. I think it had been quite powerful for Red Bull during the blown-exhaust era, and he’d carried it over. That was interesting.
The big strength for Seb, which can also be his weakness, was out of the car. He has a huge amount of passion for racing. He invests a hell of a lot of time in what he does, sometimes too much. He dedicates a lot of his life to this sport and he’s passionate about getting it to work how he wants it to work.
He’s pretty intense about these things. When we were team-mates, he would take his engineers aside and have lots of private meetings with them on top of the standard briefings – trying to figure everything out in fine detail. That sort of thing can be a strength, but I also think you can overanalyse. I think he left them scratching their heads a lot of the time. I know I thought it was really nice when I knew he’d put in a truly massive amount of effort but I’d still beaten him – that would really piss him off!
It obviously works well for him, though, and he took it much further than just his small group of dedicated engineers. Seb would organise team dinners and stuff like that. He was very much into the camaraderie, and pretty conscious of having everyone together and supporting him. Not at all in a selfish way, rather in a smart way and respectful to everyone in the team. Hell, he used to send Christmas presents. In fact, he still sends me a Christmas card now. Some of this stuff makes me think I don’t do enough – but also I think he probably does a bit too much.
WILL LEWIS LOSE?
In 2016 the title went to the wire. Nico Rosberg beat his team-mate then called it a day. Here he explains how he built up a mental edge over Lewis
When I lost the 2015 title to Lewis at the US GP in Austin, it was tough. I’d put my whole life into winning on the racetrack and trying to be the best in the world – so when you suffer a loss like that, it’s hard to take. But it’s thanks to that loss that I’m now champion, because I fought through the dark moments and came out with motivation I didn’t even know I had.
Of course Lewis is one of the best drivers out there: his level is extremely high, he’s great at racing wheel-to-wheel and he’s very smart. So to compete with him I knew I had to give it everything, starting with reorganising my private life to ensure it took away the least possible energy and let me focus 100 per cent on the job.
I’ve always explored the mental side of sport – because we train our bodies flat-out, yet we don’t do much for our minds. I thought it must still be possible to find that bit extra on the mental side, so I really ramped it up last year and found a way of working intensely with a mental trainer.
My main focus was on meditation, which is a word that is often misinterpreted. In my case it was about concentration practice and learning to control your mind. You can’t switch off negative emotions but you can change the way you react to them. If you’re aware, you can slow them down and move your mind towards more positive thoughts. I worked on this for 20 minutes every morning and evening and it was beneficial – both for my racing and my life as a whole throughout the year.
Even so, the most intense feeling I ever had in a race was during those last four laps in Abu Dhabi, because my childhood dream was on the line and I didn’t know whether it would work out until the very last corner. The intensity and adrenaline were unbelievable, and in my mind I lost the championship twice in those four laps.
That may sound far from calm… but maybe it would have been even more extreme if I hadn’t done all the work on my mind. It might just have stopped me making a tiny mistake that would have been the difference between winning and losing the world championship – who knows?
After a thrilling ‘first half’ to the 2017 season, hopes are high that F1 fans will be treated to more of the same throughout its remainder. As always, the teams’ development race is likely to be the most dominant factor in determining the outcome of both titles.
Both drivers have proven their mettle in close championship showdowns (they don’t get much squeakier than those in 2008 or 2010) and both teams are of unquestionable pedigree. And each has shown commendable bouncebackability, just as his rival seemed to have established an edge.
It might seem like a cop-out, but, at the time of writing, the outcome of the 2017 drivers’ world championship is too close to call. Will Kimi Räikkönen acting as Vettel’s tail gunner – à la Hungary – be enough give Seb the edge? Or will Mercedes’ technical superiority – proved over the past three seasons –be decisive?
With bated breath, we watch and wait.
IN THE SILVER CORNER Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
Age: 32 Nationality: British World titles: 3
IN THE RED CORNER Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
Age: 30 Nationality: German World titles: 4
Mutual respect was abundant in the early races of 2017. But then came Baku…