F1’s prize fighters prepare for face-off
The battle between two four-time champions will grip viewers from the first green light next week
cloying display of mutual reverence, thanking each other for the quality of each other’s overtakes in Barcelona.
It took just a few seconds in Baku, where they almost came to physical blows after banging wheels behind a safety car, for that facade of bonhomie to fracture, as Hamilton described Vettel’s antics as “disgusting”. “If he wants to prove that he is a man, then maybe he should do it out of the car, face-to-face,” he muttered.
It is no accident that Liberty’s
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breathless one-minute advert for next Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix features a snapshot of two drivers having a punch-up. For it is this type of simmering tension that elevates F1 for a mass audience far more than any talk of oil-burning regulations or Pirelli’s hypersoft tyres.
And it is the fair-weather fan that F1 should be most keenly courting, if it is to justify commercial director Sean Bratches’s claims that the sport sits on the same plane as the Olympics or the World Cup. For now, the HamiltonVettel dynamic can hardly be placed in the same bracket as, say, Senna-Prost. The two have never raced for the same team and are never likely to, with Hamilton poised to negotiate a three-year, £120million contract extension at Mercedes that is expected to be his last.
Given Ferrari’s alarming implosion late last season, the battle between them has yet to be tested in a final-race face-off. Never, though, has F1 enjoyed the spectacle of two such decorated drivers on the same grid. The imperative in 2018 is that their performances match their pedigree.
We can be assured, at least, that their cars will be blisteringly quick.
James Allison, the Mercedes technical director, has described with relish how the Silver Arrows’ newly minted W09 – the big sister to the “diva-like” W08 that propelled Hamilton to glory last year – would crush its predecessor with ease. For the sake of healthy competition, it must be hoped that the huge gap that Mercedes opened up on the field in winter testing is not mirrored with a waltz to maximum points at Albert Park next Sunday.
To sustain wider interest, the reigning four-time champions need to be kept honest both by Ferrari and Red Bull, who suggested a return to form amid the dying embers of the 2017 season with two wins in four starts for Max Verstappen.
The machinery will also have a distinct look, now that the FIA has acquiesced to safety demands by mandating a ‘halo’ shield around the cockpit of each car. In a briefing at the Royal Automobile Club last week, Jean Todt, the FIA’s president, produced a letter signed by Vettel and Jenson Button in 2015, urging F1 to do more to protect drivers’ heads when racing at over 220mph. The result is the fishbone-like halo design, so aesthetically dubious that Mercedes’ Toto Wolff has said that he would remove it “with a chainsaw” if given the chance.
Todt is plainly not impressed by such responses. Asked by The Sunday Telegraph about Wolff ’s remark, the Frenchman said: “It is a childish game. It’s very inappropriate, whoever you are, to deny publicly something that is introduced. Last year, around the world, we had 42 fatalities in motor racing. It’s unacceptable.”
Australia, then, promises to provide a fascinating litmus test of F1’s future. The traditional curtain-raiser, with its dramatic fighter-jet fly-pasts and its beachfront ambience, is regarded as a template for other city venues by Liberty, which is looking at adding further races in Miami, Argentina and Vietnam for 2019. These exotic backdrops need compelling sporting drama, though, if they are to work to their fullest effect.
Melbourne’s parkland circuit does not tend to produce sustained wheel-to-wheel action – the best race of recent memory came in 2013, when Kimi Raikkonen won for Lotus – but it should tell us much about where the latest instalment of Hamilton versus Vettel is heading. For so long a slowburner, theirs is a rivalry that, for the good of the sport, needs to explode.
‘If he wants to prove he’s a man, maybe he should do it out of the car’
‘If I had the chance I would remove the ‘halo’ with a chainsaw’