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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Cricket - Oliver Brown

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

Aus­tralia Canada As a ve­gan, he will ditch his leathers USA Italy A fan of the works of John Cleese

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’

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