As Vettel vs Hamil­ton looks set to go to the wire, we ask a panel of ex­perts to as­sess their chances

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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?

MIND GAMES

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?

CON­CLU­SION

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…

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