Pre-season, Lewis Hamilton said he was “dying for” wheel-to-wheel battles with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in 2017. It looks like his wish has been granted. After three Grands Prix (at the time of writing) the Hamilton-Vettel fight has been enthralling. It’s also a fight race fans are savouring as two of the sport’s greats slug it out, toe-to-toe in comparable machinery.
By Graham Duxbury
Significantly, despite racing together for 10 years, sharing 181 Formula One starting grids (as at Bahrain 2017), and winning seven of the last nine world drivers’ championships between them, Hamilton and Vettel have never yet finished first and second to each other in the same championship.
Consequently, fans have never witnessed a true test of skills between these two drivers who have great mutual respect for one another. More, according to Hamilton, than he has experienced in past rivalries. (The Nico Rosberg inference is obvious.)
For Hamilton, the idea of a close fight with the opposition is appealing. He still views go-karting as one of his favourite forms of racing because “it’s wheel-to-wheel all the way from start to finish … it’s what I grew up living for,” he says.
From the fans’ perspective, for too long F1 has been dominated by intra-team battles. (Vettel/ Mark Webber at Red Bull and then Hamilton/ Rosberg at Mercedes-Benz.) A head-to-head battle between opposing teams – Mercedes and Ferrari – is what fans have been wanting for some time.
Who do we have to thank? The boys in red at Maranello have done an outstanding job – in both the chassis and aero departments. Pre-season excitement around Ferrari’s 2017 car has been fully justified. Some pundits say it’s the best Ferrari in more than a decade. Hopefully the season’s results will bear them out.
Many believe that Ferrari’s greatest strength is the passion it engenders in all who work on the F1 team. Others think it’s also their greatest weakness. When under pressure, Ferrari passion has often appeared to reign over rational thought. As the 2017 season wears on and tensions rise, the team’s ability to make clear, aggressive and unambiguous decisions – particularly in the heat of battle – will be put to the test.
Let’s not discount Mercedes’ ability to carry the fight to its conclusion at season’s end. There is tremendous strength and depth within the team.
Importantly, James Allison, who many credit with laying the foundations of the current Ferrari when he worked at Maranello, is now employed by Mercedes.
Understandably, he is in the process of acclimatising to his new surroundings, but his design and engineering skills are well respected up and down the pit lane and his expertise could well bear additional fruit for Lewis and the team before the season is much older.
Let’s hope the title battle can be a straight head-to-head without disruptions from outside influences such as accidents or the mechanical failures that marred Hamilton’s 2016 campaign.
Glitch-free, 2017 could well be a vintage year for F1. Unless Red Bull gain a boost in performance, it could rival the 1956 season (the Mercedes factory team’s last until 2010) when all the wins were shared between the Silver Arrows and Ferrari.
Finally, we also have to thank the F1 management who have overseen the biggest rules change in many years. For the first time since 1966, the rules encourage cars to go faster.
But more than speed, the cars also look fantastic. They’re wide and low, recalling the “golden era” of F1 in the 1970s and 1980s when fat, sticky tyres and amazing, on-the-limit cornering were de rigueur.
As a bonus, it appears as if the DRS (drag reduction system) is not as effective as it was in the past. This is a positive development, encouraging drivers to race wheel-to-wheel and pass using old, “organic” methods such as making decisive overtaking moves in the corners rather than sailing past on the straights.
Behind the scenes, F1 is also changing, breaking the long-accepted patterns established decades ago by Bernie Ecclestone.
For example, the rules allowing teams to make videos in the pit lane and trackside have been relaxed, together with regulations limiting the use of social media.
F1 is also providing more informative, up-to-date content on its own YouTube channel.
These and others moves are significant steps forward that will collectively help make 2017 a great year for a host of re-energised, re-engaged F1 fans.