Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, who together have won six of the last seven Formula One drivers’ titles, claim that they are ready to forge a rivalry that could electrify their sport. Already, the stars are aligning. Ahead of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix, there is barely the width of a cigarette paper between Mercedes and Ferrari as the teams’ two marquee names prepare for a compelling duel.
“I have not had a lot of battles with Sebastian, so I would love to have that,” said Hamilton, noticeably relaxed in the absence of Nico Rosberg, the team-mate with whom he sparred psychologically at every race. “The fans want to see it.”
While the internecine strife at Mercedes last season was an entertaining plot, a prolonged battle with Vettel would be a blockbuster. It contains all the ingredients of a potent cocktail: the emotional Hamilton versus the mischievous Vettel, whose reputation for Teutonic coolness does not always hold up when events conspire against him. Plus, it promises the contest of two iconic F1 marques, between a Mercedes team that has dominated for three years through sheer bludgeoning brilliance and Ferrari rivals restless for a first championship in a decade.
“If the team are strong, then they will a build a strong car the year after, no matter what happens with the rules,” Vettel said. “We are just trying our best to catch up. How much we have succeeded, we will see. But whoever is in a good place at the beginning will have a chance.”
Hamilton could not help but laugh at Vettel’s coded language. He even threw the “favourites” tag straight back at the German, just to stir a little tension between two drivers normally diplomatic with one another. “I see Ferrari being the quickest, and they will definitely be favourites,” he said. “It is interesting to see Sebastian as he is usually a lot more hyped. I can tell that he is excited, that he is trying to keep a lid on it.”
One more title would haul Hamilton level with Vettel and Alain Prost as a quadruple champion, with only the records of Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher left to chase. His determination to do so is palpable. He cannot expunge the memory of last year’s finale quickly enough, having lost out in the title quest despite winning each of the final four races. Certainly, in the late summer sunshine of Melbourne’s Albert Park on Thursday, he gave no sense he was pining for the absent Rosberg.
Pointing to Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, Hamilton said: “When I walked in, I thought it was neat, because there is a champion here, another champion there, and a potential champion, too. So, it does not make a difference whether the reigning champion is here or not.”
We can rest assured that Hamilton will not countenance any of the early errors that sabotaged his 2016 campaign, when the euphoria of a third championship seemed briefly to scramble his concentration. A dreadful start in Melbourne 12 months ago, when he was forced down to sixth after the first corner, set the tone for a year in which his frustrations outweighed the joys.
This time, he is far more specific in setting his targets. Quite apart from trying to cement his own greatness, Hamilton explained that Mercedes were preoccupied with becoming the first team to survive wholesale rule changes with their dominance intact. Revised regulations, which in 2017 are designed to encourage faster cornering and record lap times through extravagant shark fin designs, usually produce a stark change in the order – think of privateer Brawn’s breakthrough in 2009 – but the Silver Arrows intend to buck the trend.
“No team have won back-to-back with regulation changes, so that is our goal,” Hamilton said. “We are here to win and to do something that no one else has done. I have every belief that we can.”
He has been fastidious about working himself into the best physical condition possible. Hamilton is as fit as he has ever been, and he knows it. When he was told at testing in Barcelona of Rosberg’s remark that drivers would need to be “gladiators” to withstand the latest cars’ heightened G-forces, he replied, only half-joking: “I’d like to think I look like a gladiator anyway.” Even by his standards, the winter training block has been intense, encompassing everything from surfing to Thai boxing.
How fellow drivers must wish they could adapt to the increased workload so seamlessly. One of those struggling is Force India’s Sergio Pérez, who made the remarkable admission that he was having difficulty losing weight to compensate for the heavier car. “I have been on a crash diet,” the Mexican said, morosely. “I’m hungry all the time.”
It will be fascinating to see not just how Hamilton and Vettel cope with mutual hostilities but with their team-mates. While Hamilton is widely expected to pulverise Valtteri Bottas in a straight fight, the Finn has been admirably composed both on track and in his public comments, matching the senior man at every stage of testing.
Vettel, likewise, has the challenge of fending off Kimi Raikkonen, who has been handed a one-year contract at the age of 37 and whose form is a study in consistency. He is the highest-paid driver in the paddock, on a staggering £39 million a year, and needs to start convincing his employers at Maranello that he is worth it. A tear-up with Hamilton would be as good a place as any to start.