Tuesday 21 November 2017

Vettel's victory heralds start of epic duel with Hamilton

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel celebrates after being presented with the trophy following his victory in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. Image: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel celebrates after being presented with the trophy following his victory in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. Image: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Oliver Brown

Victor and vanquished, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton sat together in a picture of uneasy harmony.

The German had swept into the press room in jubilation, almost lifting his manager, Britta Roeske, clean off her feet as he celebrated Ferrari's restoration to their accustomed place at the summit of Formula One.

Beside him Hamilton was respectful but pensive, as if recognising that his rival's win here at Albert Park perhaps heralded a sudden changing of the guard.

Toto Wolff knew it, too. When Vettel emerged on track ahead of Hamilton after the decisive pit-stop, the normally composed Mercedes principal was caught on TV banging his fist on the desk, twice.

"Yes, I need to work on my emotions during the race," Wolff said, acidly. "Perhaps I need to see someone professionally about it."

For three years, Mercedes have enjoyed a stranglehold over this sport, but Ferrari wrenched it away yesterday with a display of exceptional pace and cunning. The Prancing Horse has discovered a kick in its legs once more.

Even more tantalisingly, the long-awaited battle between Vettel and Hamilton, two drivers who have won six of the past seven world titles between them, has at last begun to become a reality.

It is a duel conducted, for now, in an atmosphere of intense mutual respect.

One can count the drivers for whom Hamilton has genuine regard on one hand, but in Vettel, who has amassed four championships to his three, he seems to have found a kindred spirit.

Both made stunning early statements in their careers - Vettel when he won at Monza in a Toro Rosso, Hamilton when he audaciously passed Fernando Alonso at the first corner of his first race in 2007 - and both men share a mischievous streak of humour.

Belatedly, on this evidence, the pair looked likely to be locked in combat for the next 19 races.

Vettel, who had not won for 18 months, could barely keep the smile from his face.

A quadruple champion at Red Bull, he moved from Milton Keynes to Maranello to join the realm of legends. Yesterday, at last, after an Australian Grand Prix that he controlled exquisitely, he is on the path to do so.

He dare not think about it yet, but a fifth title has only ever been accomplished by two men: Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. Vettel is still just 29.

His preference, he made clear, would be to enjoy the toughest confrontation with Hamilton first.

"I would love to have a close battle with Lewis," Vettel said. "It looks like we have equal machinery, and I hope it stays that way.

"I have great respect for him - I still remember his move on Alonso here 10 years ago. He made other people look very silly."

Hamilton never quite pulled off the same dazzling effect this time. While he started strongly from pole position, Ferrari's superior performance on the ultra-soft tyres meant the odds were always stacked against him to retain the lead.

Regretted

He felt under pressure from Vettel's pace to dive into the pits early, and immediately regretted the decision, as he ended up caught in traffic behind Max Verstappen.

An irritable exchange ensued. "It's race-critical that we get past Verstappen," Pete Bonnington, his chief engineer, said over the radio. "How do you expect me to do that right now?"

Hamilton shot back. "There's no way I can overtake this guy."

So it proved, and when Vettel returned after his own pit-stop with a comfortable lead, the contest was effectively over.

It is clear beyond doubt that Ferrari's restoration is real. Wolff, having seen the Scuderia's startling pace in winter testing, had warned that Mercedes faced "one hell of a fight" to retain their supremacy, and this was a day that did nothing to contradict his logic.

It is a decade since Ferrari were last able to call themselves champions, but after several faltering campaigns, Vettel's Melbourne masterclass has revived confidence in F1's most fabled marque.

There was a reason why actress Nicole Kidman had gravitated to their corner of the paddock during the race. There is simply no team to match them for glamour.

They look unsurpassed for speed, too, although Mercedes will work feverishly to close their fractional deficit before the next race, in Shanghai.

"The fact we are very similar pace-wise will make it a long, hard slog this season," Hamilton said.

"It has been a privilege to race in the same era as Sebastian, and finally we can have a real race.

"It will be physically and mentally demanding, but racing the best is what F1 should be about."

Chase Carey, glad-handed by all and sundry on his grid-walk as the sport's new chief executive, clearly liked what he saw. It is not healthy for business to have one team as remorselessly dominant as Mercedes have been, and it is refreshing that Ferrari have shown the calibre to reel them in.

A measure of how much the Italian team are adored is that even here, 10,000 miles from their home, hundreds of fans - the Antipodean tifosi - flocked on to the track after the chequered flag to share in Vettel's triumph.

It is rare these days that F1 lends itself to such spontaneous outpourings of joy. But the sparking of a head-to-head battle between two iconic teams, not to mention the two most celebrated drivers of their generation, seemed worthy cause for a party.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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