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