Opinion: Vettel vs Hamilton – tug of war

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Azerbaijan, Baku Street Circuitaz

The 2017 championship battle changed gear over the weekend of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The respect between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel is seemingly over, the protagonists cannot pretend anymore that perfect harmony exists between them.

Seven world titles in their pockets, fourteen points between them, 101 race wins, 201 podium places, 113 pole positions and myriad of enthusiastic fans.

Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are connected in many ways: both are genius on the track, both are blessed with immense talent, both are cursed by infinite hunger for success and the professional way of both are crowned and paved by thrilling success.

However, there is an aching dissonance between them: their differing personality. Hamilton is a man of the stage, the fashion world, flirting with superstars while Vettel has a low-key life with a peaceful, quiet estate in Switzerland and a supportive family with two kids.

Despite of the similar age and starting the career in the same championship year, the two have not been involved in championship fights at the same time so far. In 2007, Hamilton fought for the title, but Vettel joined the Circus only in the USA as a substitution for Robert Kubica. In 2008, the Briton was fighting against the Ferraris while Vettel was gaining experiences with Toro Rosso. In 2009, Vettel went for the title, Hamilton had a car with fluctuating performances. Between 2010 and 2013, Hamilton had a good car, but he had also personal ups and down while Vettel’s Red Bull hardly gave any chance to the competition to have any word. Between 2014 and 2016, Mercedes took over the reign from Red Bull and the sweeping dominance of the Anglo-German squad meant Hamilton had only his team-mate to bowl out.

However, 2017 opened a new chapter in their mutual book. Ferrari upped its game in terms in pure performance and operational matters and has posed a real challenge to Mercedes so far even if the Italians’ SF70-H still lacks of a tiny bit of peak engine power which seems to be especially evident when and where the energy deployment plays an important part.

Sebastian has earned triumph three times so far and Lewis scored the same number of victories. Both showed respect, friendliness towards the other, Hamilton even cried for fierce on-track battles after the pair did not manage to meet really face-to-face on track in the early part of the season due to various reasons. In many races, the pair got disconnected by difference in speed, differing strategy or misfortunes.

However, their first race where the pair seemed to be bound tightly together ended in a clash and in eyes brimming over with tears.

Ferrari did not find the pace on the never-ending straights and tight section of Baku due to different woes. Firstly, Mercedes’ power unit still enjoys a slight edge over the Ferrari’s one in terms of peak power which was demonstrated by the resurgence of the other Mercedes-powered teams Williams and Force India. Secondly, Sebastian Vettel was forced to use a power unit which has already completed five races. It was still the first-specification of Ferrari’s 2017 power unit and it had to run slightly detuned due to the high mileage in it. Thirdly, Ferrari could not switch the ultrahard Pirelli tyres on with its Monza-spec ‘spoon’ rear wing in the qualifying session. However, the scarlet red car came alive in race trim.

Ferrari was the fastest through the first two sectors, but Mercedes had the upper hand in the last sector due to its power advantage on the start-finish straight. The fight of the duo became a thriller when Hamilton bunched up the field at the end of the second safety car period. The Briton slowed down on the exit of Turn 15, surprising Sebastian Vettel who hit him in the back. Vettel ran very close to the race leader at the time in an attempt not to lose out when Hamilton would start to accelerate to continue racing. Unsurprising, given that the subsequent 2km straight could offer great overtaking opportunities.

Did Vettel have the right to act as a judge and reprimand Hamilton for his doubtful behaviour at the end of that safety car period? No, definitely not as he is not entitled to set up an on-track court. However, his nervousness was perhaps understandable. Vettel came off the Canadian GP very angry after he was hit by Max Verstappen which caused serious front wing damage which forced the German to pit and joining the race in the dead last position.

Moreover, the iffy manoeuvre of the three-time world champion was not his first one behind the safety car, he also usually backs up the field at the end of the warm-up lap before races in a manner which could be deemed dangerous. His aim was probably to back up the field in the hope that some Mercedes-powered cars could overtake Sebastian on the never-ending, 2km long full-throttle section.

Hamilton was already punished for bunching up the field in the 2007 Fuji GP which shows that the Briton is often on the edge of the rules regarding the safety car periods. The Briton might have also forgotten how unprofessional he was in the 2008 Canadian GP when he crashed into Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari in the pit lane which forced both to retire from the race. The Briton escaped that without any penalty.

But of course, Vettel who has been one of the driving forces in Ferrari’s surprising resurgence, can’t behave in such a childish manner especially given the fact the he is usually a very intelligent guy with a good sense for humor off the track. He needs to get his act together and focus on driving Ferrari ahead in the development war and in its ceaseless fight with the reliability of its power units.

While Hamilton said Vettel “disgraced himself” with his revenge move, the Briton also feels the pressure. He came to the point that he urged his team with a desperate cry to force Bottas to act as a dummy and slow the late charging Vettel down to give him the chance to overtake his championship rival. As that would have been a complete and open disgrace for Mercedes, the team refused to do that. Furthermore, Mercedes was well aware that Bottas escaped a penalty for driving Kimi Räikkönen into the walls and the Finn endured rare luck with the series of safety car and red flag periods. Hamilton who now kindly speaks of sportmanship might have also forgotten what a dirty game he was playing against his own team-mate Nico Rosberg in the dying minutes of the 2016 championship.

Can Sebastian and Lewis bury the hatchet? That is rather doubtful. As the championship is progressing, the fight is intensifying. As the German might get one or probably two grid penalties for exceeding his power unit allocation, he will do his utmost at every single lap of every single race to grab every single point from his fierce rival. As for the Briton, he is blessed (or cursed) by a Flying Finn team-mate who is involved in a different war: he fights for the extension of his contract at Mercedes and therefore he will do his utmost to avoid suffocating in the ocean of different personal controversies and fights.

This year’s Formula One championship evokes the old battles between the greats of the past. We can only hope that Mercedes will not be able to surpass Ferrari in the development war so Vettel and Hamilton can settle the matter on the track in a year when F1 is fully spoiling its fans with the clash of these two great drivers