Finally, the gloves are off in Vettel-Hamilton battle
Sunday’s Baku incident is great for F1, says Bernie Ecclestone
ILOVE the smell of napalm in the morning, as Bill Kilgore famously says in Apocalypse Now. It was a similar, strange whiff that Formula One awoke to this week after Sebastian Vettel threw a match on his rivalry with Lewis Hamilton.
Much as there was genuine outrage at the German’s behaviour in bashing Hamilton’s Mercedes in a fit of anger during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, there was also guilty relish in seeing the return to the kind of mano a mano contest that has provided grand prix racing with its most spellbinding narratives.
Up until Sunday’s conflagration, Hamilton versus Vettel had been nicey-nicey, two multiple champions cooing about the other, honoured to be pitted together at the head of the pack for the first time.
But suddenly we are looking at a hostility with echoes of Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost, Hamilton- Fernando Alonso, Nelson Piquet-Nigel Mansell - the list is long.
“What happened in Baku is good all round,” said Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s chairman emeritus, who has always understood the value of controversy.
Last year’s dynamic between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg mostly simmered behind the scenes. Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, recently lifted the lid on the antipathy by calling Rosberg the ‘vicious one’.
Nothing has quite matched the toxicity of Senna and Prost in 1988 and 1989. “He has no value as a man,” said Senna of Prost. “Ayrton’s problem is that he thinks God drives with him,” retorted the Frenchman.
Vettel has so far maintained he did nothing wrong in Baku. Not everyone agrees Vettel was in the wrong on lap 19, when Hamilton, the race leader, drove slowly behind the safety car. Vettel ran into the back of him. Angered, waving his hands, Vettel then steered into the left side of Hamilton’s car.
Ecclestone, who watched the incident live in Baku, said: “I am certain Lewis slowed down to try to damage Sebastian’s front wing. Sebastian was understandably frustrated and he just gave Lewis a little message.”
Niki Lauda, the Mercedes chairman, takes the opposite view. He knows more about heated rivalries than most. His one with James Hunt was immortalised in the film Rush.
“It is simple,” said Lauda. “Lewis did not brake. We looked at the data and he did not. He slowed, as he is allowed to do and Vettel was not alert to what was happening.”
What depths will the animosity reach? Will it again go beyond verbal jousting and gamesmanship - such as when Piquet called Mansell an ‘uneducated blockhead’ and hid the garage loo roll in Mexico in 1986 when his Williams team-mate had a stomach bug - and flare up at a higher speed than the virtual walking-pace brush on Sunday?
Wolff believes the rules of engagement have been changed radically. “What happened does not help their relationship,” he said. “The gloves are off.”
- Daily Mail