Sometimes it seems reasonable to question Lewis Hamilton’s appetite to stay in Formula One indefinitely. He is 32, boasts three world titles, and maintains a diverse portfolio of interests that extends from laying down hip-hop tracks in a Los Angeles studio to making a star turn at Milan Fashion Week. But there is nothing like the resurgence of Sebastian Vettel, one of the few fellow drivers he both likes and respects, to rekindle his passion for the sport.
While Vettel’s convincing victory at the Australian Grand Prix was frustrating to Hamilton, he did not slip into the sulk to which he was all too susceptible whenever Nico Rosberg managed to beat him. On the contrary, he suggested that an intense duel between Mercedes and Ferrari would energise him as never before. “While you would think the hunger could not be any more, it has doubled,” Hamilton said, en route back to his two pet bulldogs in Monte Carlo. “I am going home after this. Usually I stay out in Asia and train in the hot weather. But I’ll get my head down, rest, and make sure I come back fighting for the next race.”
Hamilton keeps up a level of globe-trotting that would challenge Jules Verne and it has occasionally landed him in trouble, not least when he took a picture of himself riding a motorbike in New Zealand, against local traffic laws. But he disputed any idea that his constant travels were scrambling his concentration. “I have been touring, out enjoying himself,” he said. “This is what I always do. I think people are quick to judge off the things they see, but if you compare this to previous years I have arrived at the first race as fit as ever. If anything, the fitness levels are higher than before.”
The increased g-forces generated by the latest cars’ faster cornering have compelled Hamilton to become more creative with his conditioning. He incorporated boxing sessions into his winter training as well as ‘Muay Thai’, the ‘art of eight limbs’, a form of combat requiring fists, elbows, knees and shins. His nutritional regime has also been doubly disciplined.
“Definitely my discipline has gone up in terms of how specific I am with my diet,” he explained. “I watch my sleep, all of these different things. Every year you try to improve, but I would say I have taken a good step this year. I have trained myself. That was the challenge I set myself: could I have the motivation to do it myself, to get myself ready to turn up? I’ll need to keep working, because there are going to be some really tough races this year.”
Vettel will see to that. The German has greatness within his grasp, recognising before his 30th birthday that Ferrari have given him the machinery that could make him a five-time world champion, a feat only ever achieved by Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. Fittingly, he has called his car ‘Gina’, short for Regina, queen of the track. “I hope this is the beginning of a big love affair,” he said, with that impish smile. “The long nights and hard work were finally rewarded.”
Both drivers, who seem primed in 2017 to wage the battle for which F1 has long waited, are playing a neat psychological game where each insists on calling the other the favourite. Not even a conclusive Ferrari victory could persuade Vettel to change tack. “I still believe that Mercedes are ahead,” he argued. “After all, they have been in front for the past couple of years. But a heavy burden has been lifted from our shoulders. Now we have to do our thing and not let anybody distract us.”
Would that Fernando Alonso enjoyed the same luxury. If ever there was a race to convince him to leave ailing McLaren later in the year, it was this Australian Grand Prix, where he used all his prodigious skill to move up to 10th, only for a suspension failure to sabotage his race late on. The Spaniard was furious, refusing to make any feeble attempts at diplomacy. “I think we are last,” he said. “That’s the performance we have now. In normal conditions on a normal circuit, we should be last.”
It is difficult to see when McLaren will ever find a remedy to their engine woes. Eric Boullier, their racing director, has been making frequent visits to Tokyo to urge manufacturers Honda to discover a solution soon, but this famous marque only appear to be slipping further backwards. Alonso, at 35, is unlikely to suffer such mediocrity much longer. A double world champion, perhaps the only driver capable of holding a candle to Hamilton and Vettel in a competitive car, he is likely to agitate for a move this summer even if it means tearing up his £25 million-a-year contract.