Ten years is a long time in Formula One as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have learned this week

David Tremayne
The Independent
Alonso has been beset by engine troubles ahead of the season opener: Getty
Alonso has been beset by engine troubles ahead of the season opener: Getty

There’s Lewis Hamilton, convinced that Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have taken the status of favourite away from himself and Mercedes, but likely nonetheless to have a very competitive car beneath him.

And then there’s Fernando Alonso, a racer of similar calibre, wondering whether nine other teams will start ahead of his McLaren-Honda when the 20-car grid forms for Sunday’s Australian GP.

Ten years ago, when Hamilton made his debut here, the pair were team-mates at McLaren. Alonso was the big star, the reigning champion of the previous two seasons who had switched from Renault. Hamilton was the new kid who was expected to show quite well. Depriving Alonso of second place on the entry to his first Grand Prix racing corner was rather more spectacular than that, and the Englishman has continued in that same aggressive vein ever since.

He lost a fourth world championship through a combination of mechanical ill luck and the departed Nico Rosberg’s relentless pursuit of success last year, but is as determined as ever to win back his crown as Formula One moves into an exciting new era of faster, more powerful cars with wider tyres, more mechanical grip and shedloads of extra downforce.

Five times a pole winner here, and twice a victor, Hamilton loves the new cars that have been created to regenerate the thrill for disaffected fans.

“As drivers, we want to drive the quickest cars in world,” he said on Thursday. “The new cars are faster than the cars we had last year, much more of a challenge to us, and more in the direction that an F1 car should be. We are athletes, and F1 should be the most physically demanding sport. That hasn’t been the case in past years.”

As Hamilton’s star has continued to rise since his shock move from McLaren to Mercedes in 2013, the race wins have kept flooding in.

Meanwhile, a return to Renault saw Alonso win twice more in 2008, once so controversially in Singapore’s ‘Crashgate’ when team-mate Nelson Piquet Jnr assisted him by crashing deliberately. But the switch to Ferrari, which promised so much, ended in a disastrous implosion of frustration in 2014 and saw the 35 year-old Spaniard return to the McLaren team on which he had grassed to the sport’s governing body, the FIA, in that polemic-ridden 2007 season when they were accused of stealing Ferrari design secrets.

Today, Alonso finds McLaren troubled for a raft of different reasons, most of which centre upon Honda’s failure to produce an engine which is both reliable and powerful enough to challenge the might of Mercedes and the apparently resurgent Ferrari.

Somebody crassly asked Alonso yesterday if he felt he would have the chance during the year of challenging for the title. Somehow, he managed not to scream in frustration at the ineptitude of the enquiry.

“We have to wait and see how this first race will develop,” he said though gritted teeth. “There is a question mark over exactly where we are after all our troubles in testing recently, when we were not able to push the car on any lap due to different problems. Hopefully we will see where we are, but there is still a long way to go for us and a there is a lot of work to do. The team is always working 100 percent to identify the problems, so we need to see what we can find on the track.”

It’s tragic to see a driver of his calibre running round at the back, a point stressed by Hamilton who says he relishes any kind of battle and that success always tastes better when you have really had to fight for it.

“Having more teams and drivers fighting for wins is what racing is about,” the triple champion said. “Every year you go out to beat everyone, and the more of a fight you have, the more satisfying it is when you are victorious. I’m up for a challenge and a fight every year, it’s what I prepare for.

“I haven’t had a lot of battles with Seb on the track, and of course I’d love to have that and the fans want to see it. And we need this guy” - he gestured to Alonso – “to have a good car and to fight with us before his time’s up. We want to see the best of Fernando, the sport needs that and he deserves it. I’ve never seen the fans so excited about a season, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Valterri Bottas will partner Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in 2017 (Getty)
Valterri Bottas will partner Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in 2017 (Getty)

The absence of the 2016 champion, Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, doesn’t bother him at all, however.

“It doesn’t make any difference to me whether the reigning champion is here or not. We are all out there to beat each other, you just want to beat whomever you are up against. It doesn’t matter whether they are a champion or not.”

F1’s new owner Liberty Media have massive hopes for a title fight under the new rules, which have thrown so much back into the melting pot in the hope of toppling Mercedes from their domination of the turbo-hybrid era which began in 2014.

Ferrari showed very strong form during testing, but Vettel yesterday was at pains to play down their likely performance.

“So far we don’t know anything, so it’ll be exciting to find out where we are on Saturday and Sunday, when we will get our first impression,” he four-time champion said. “Last year did not go the way we expected, so we have really focused on ourselves this year. But testing times don’t matter that much, so we’ll see. Right now we are a bit in the dark, like everybody else.”

That amused Hamilton.

“I see Ferrari being quickest at the moment,” he said. “I think they will definitely be the favourite. Sebastian is normally a lot more hyped and I can see he’s excited but trying to keep a lid on it.”

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