Pole-sit­ter Hamil­ton taunts Vet­tel: I was wait­ing to wipe that smile off your face

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Formula One - By Oliver Brown in Mel­bourne

It has taken just one race week­end for Lewis Hamil­ton to start needling Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, as he cel­e­brated a record-ex­tend­ing 73rd pole po­si­tion in Aus­tralia by telling his world ti­tle ri­val: “I was wait­ing to put a good lap in, to wipe that smile off your face.”

Al­ready, the Hamil­ton-Vet­tel duel, the first in For­mula One his­tory be­tween two four-time world cham­pi­ons, is pro­vid­ing the an­tic­i­pated sparks.

Hav­ing as­serted his au­thor­ity with a stun­ning pole lap at Mel­bourne’s Al­bert Park, eclips­ing the Fer­raris of Vet­tel and Kimi Raikko­nen by over seven-tenths of a sec­ond, Hamil­ton could not re­sist plung­ing the knife in a lit­tle deeper with his press con­fer­ence taunt.

Vet­tel took it with a blank face, but mut­tered, darkly: “What goes around, comes around.” This could be con­strued as a ref­er­ence to the pair’s feud in Azer­bai­jan last year, when the Ger­man was sanc­tioned for de­lib­er­ately bump­ing wheels with Hamil­ton be­hind a safety car. On that oc­ca­sion, the Bri­tish driver la­belled his arch-ri­val a “dis­grace”.

The ten­sion be­tween the two is pal­pa­ble, as they vie to match Juan Manuel Fangio’s mark of five world cham­pi­onships. At the height of their squab­bling, af­ter last sea­son’s Baku in­ci­dent, Hamil­ton all but chal­lenged Vet­tel to a fist-fight, ac­cus­ing him of dan­ger­ous driv­ing and say­ing: “If he wants to prove that he is a man, we should do it out of the car, face to face.”

This is a con­tretemps that promises to last all year, and pos­si­bly be­yond, with both yet ca­pa­ble of sur­pass­ing Michael Schu­macher as the most dec­o­rated driver of all time.

A fur­ther fas­ci­nat­ing sub-plot is the in­creas­ing like­li­hood that Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, the Aus­tralian lo­cal hero, known as much for his ready quips as his au­da­cious driv­ing, will be­come Hamil­ton’s team-mate in 2019.

Ric­cia­rdo, who has one year left on his Red Bull contract, has al­ready ex­pressed a de­sire to race along­side Hamil­ton. Mercedes, for their part, would have Ric­cia­rdo at the top of their wish­list should Valt­teri Bot­tas, on a one-year deal, fail to keep Hamil­ton hon­est this sea­son.

The Finn hardly helped his chances of stay­ing be­yond 2018 when he crashed spec­tac­u­larly in the fi­nal ses­sion of Mel­bourne qual­i­fy­ing.

Sources in the pad­dock be­lieve that the Ric­cia­rdo move is all but as­sured, with Max Ver­stap­pen, the only other re­al­is­tic con­tender for the sec­ond Mercedes seat, hav­ing com­mit­ted to Red Bull un­til the end of the 2020 cam­paign.

F1 moves in capri­cious ways, how­ever and Ric­cia­rdo needs an­other cam­paign like 2014, when he eclipsed reign­ing four-time world cham­pion Vet­tel by three vic­to­ries to none, to con­vince Mercedes that he is wor­thy of the hon­our.

That quest hardly be­gan aus­pi­ciously here, as the Aus­tralian re­ceived a three-place grid penalty for speed­ing un­der red-flag con­di­tions in prac­tice. “I’m p-----, to say the least,” he said. “It’s pretty bit­ter for me. Com­mon sense should have pre­vailed.”

While Ric­cia­rdo has also been tempted by a move to Fer­rari – in part be­cause of Raikko­nen’s im­mi­nent re­tire­ment from the sport, in part be­cause of his own Ital­ian an­ces­try – it is the prospect of a duel with Hamil­ton that holds the greater ap­peal.

“Fer­nando Alonso’s get­ting to­wards the tail end of his ca­reer, so Lewis, at the mo­ment, is more de­sir­able for me to go up against,” he said re­cently.

“I would like that. While Lewis is in his prime, I would like to chal­lenge and see.”

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