Back in 2008, a fresh-faced Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren was overtaken by an even fresher-faced Sebastian Vettel in his Toro Rosso on the penultimate lap of the final race, the Brazilian GP. Vettel took 5th, the position Hamilton needed to win the title. Only the skidding Toyota of Timo Glock, barely able to keep his dry tyres on the wet island spared Hamilton’s blushes, gifting him 5th place and his first world championship.
Fast forward 9 years, and Vettel now has 4 world titles, and Hamilton three. However, over the course of that time, it is arguable that there has never been a time where both drivers have held a title-winning car at the same time. Vettel’s dominance came in a Red Bull that was in a different league to Hamilton’s McLaren.
Hamilton’s switch to Mercedes and their dominance in the new hybrid era meant that Vettel, now at Ferrari, was left feeding on scraps, picking up a few race wins and nothing more.
Finally, we have two of the most talented drivers of this generation (along with Fernando Alonso) head-to-head in a battle of silver v red, Ferrari v Mercedes. Hamilton undoubtedly does not like that Vettel has a world title more than him, while Vettel must acknowledge that Hamilton is generally seen as the faster driver on his day, possessing a God-given talent for speed shared only by that most prodigious of talents, Ayrton Senna.
“New cars, bigger, more powerful, able to push on the limit for longer, drivers clearly exhausted from the physical effort”
A number of interesting sub-texts punctuate this battle, and it is not just the drivers. Mercedes have been dominant since the hybrid era began in 2014, and looked a little rattled in early races this season as a serious challenge appeared. Ferrari, by contrast, have not had the pace since Felipe Massa ran Hamilton as close as possible in 2008, in the Formula One equivalent of Sergio Aguero’s late-late show for Manchester City in 2012.
So then, we have the biggest team in the paddock, clad in red, deprived of success of late, against the noisy neighbours who have been dominant over them recently. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
So far, after five races this season, both Hamilton and Vettel have two wins each, with Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas grabbing the other one in Russia. Just six points separate the two going into the Monaco GP, where a win for Hamilton would put him top of the championship leaderboard.
Hamilton’s win in Catalunya was in no small part down to a great drive by Hamilton, one where he was pushed to the physical limit to such an extent that he was breathless of the team radio on a number of occasions. Team calls also played a massive part in the win, with Bottas holding Vettel up on slower tyres for four laps, and Mercedes pitting Hamilton under the Virtual Safety Car, with Vettel having to do so at full race pace, wiping out an 8-second gap.
When Vettel re-joined the race track, he and Hamilton went into the first corner side by side, with Vettel squeezing Hamilton off of the track and forcing him to surrender the position. Hard racing, yes. To be expected? Absolutely. If anyone thinks Hamilton would not have done the same if he was in Vettel’s position, they are delusional.
This is what fans have wanted to see, at least since 2014. New cars, bigger, more powerful, able to push on the limit for longer, drivers clearly exhausted from the physical effort.
Where it is arguable that Vettel’s titles at Red Bull and Hamilton’s at Mercedes were based around superior machinery, this year can honestly be judged on who shows the most skill, the most bravery, the ability to handle the pressure.
Personally, I have always considered Hamilton the superior racing driver. His speed, and ability to find pace where no-one else seems to be able to edges him above Vettel, who seems to require the perfect set-up to thrive, and wilts whenever this is not the case.
“Win in Monaco and I would place Hamilton as clear favourite for the title”
Hamilton, however, needs to ensure he cuts his off days to a minimum, however. Russia last month is an obvious example. Yes, Bottas’ victory limited the effect it had with regards to Vettel, but the world championship isn’t going to be won if there are too many 4th place finishes.
The difference will undoubtedly be consistency of drivers, with a little help in the battle of the pit walls and pit crews. Mercedes won in Spain, but were out-thought in Bahrain. Bottas was used to hold up Vettel too, and no doubt Raikonnen will be employed for similar tactics if required (regardless of whether he is happy about it).
So we go on to Monaco, a race that often brings the best out of Lewis Hamilton, and where qualifying position means so much in the race. Win in Monaco and I would place Hamilton as clear favourite for the title. If he drives like he did in Spain, he will win in Monaco. If he drives like he did in Spain for the rest of the season, I do not see Vettel being able to stop him.
But then again, what do I know?