Friday 23 February 2018

Red predator looms large in Hamilton's mirrors

World champion Lewis Hamilton has hit the ground running but rivals are circling
World champion Lewis Hamilton has hit the ground running but rivals are circling

David Kennedy

The status quo in Formula One, as we head to the first European round in Barcelona GP on May 10, by all accounts, looks pretty much like where we left off last season with Mercedes carrying on its winning trajectory, seemingly invincible; the silver bullet blessed with the Midas touch.

Lewis Hamilton's driving is as dazzling as his diamond earrings and he's looking pretty smug and cosy on it, so much so that Nico Rosberg must be wondering what he can do to wipe the Colgate ring of confidence off his team-mate's complacent face. A bit like Daisy in The Great Gatsby Hamilton is gleaming in his silver arrows, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor . . . opposition.

Last season Hamilton was a bit slow getting out of the starting blocks and Sebastian Vettel won the opening round but the Englishman recovered and the Hamilton/Rosberg duo dominated every pole and every race win of the first four events.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Hamilton has every right to strut his stuff. He's claimed all four poles and has won every race bar Malaysia, He's had two of the four fastest laps (Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen took the other two in Malaysia and Bahrain respectively). If the champagne-soaked podiums look a bit like repetitive spraying injury, aimed at his competitors, do not fret because keeping him honest and looming large in his mirrors is an ominous red predator.

Sebastian Vettel in his new job at Ferrari took a fine victory in Malaysia. Suddenly Mercedes were no longer invincible. Chinks were detected in their armour. A German driver was beating a German team. A summary of the first three podiums sounds like a nursery rhyme: Hamilton, Rosberg, Vettel/Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg/Hamilton, Rosberg, Vettel. Then Raikkonen comes along and changes all that by finishing second in Bahrain last Sunday. So now we have another Ferrari nibbling at Mercedes' impregnable domination.

But Hamilton is maintaining his focus. He's a man after a third drivers' world championship. Because that's the minimum number of titles great drivers in the history of the sport have amassed. Hamilton is not likely to take his foot off the throttle. If Ferrari is getting closer he knows must be relentless early on in the season.

If that means slowing your pace to force your team-mate into the jaws of Ferrari, it's a rearguard strategy he's prepared to employ - although he denied doing so in China. Champions show no mercy, least of all to team-mates.

In the Ferrari camp, a first and a second in four races has put a smile on the face of the new guard. It also brought tears when Vettel cried on the podium. He's been vindicated following ongoing criticism that he could only win in a Red Bull. In 2013, he was booed in Monza by the Tifosi. If he keeps up Ferrari's resurgence and he wins in Monza in September, he'll live in their hearts forever. From a Red Bull to red overalls, it's incredible how redemption comes from just changing your racesuit!

But has the pram in the pits made Vettel pragmatic? Does being a new father knock the edge off ruthlessness? Unlike Hamilton, Vettel prefers to stay under the radar of publicity, living quietly in Switzerland instead of Monaco, very anti-bling, eschewing tattooing and generally leading a low-profile life with his childhood sweetheart. Vettel prefers a camper van to Hamilton's private plane.

But if he and Hamilton are in wheel-to-wheel combat, Lewis may have the edge now in the emotional stakes. All will be revealed in that split second which determines who gets into the corner first and who backs off. Let's hope we're in for a few such battles this season.

Vettel is revelling in his life with Scuderia Ferrari. It's the ambition of every driver in F1 to achieve the glory of racing for the Maranello team. It is history, success, emotion, loyalty and love all wrapped up in an Italian tricolour. Eddie Irvine famously said that being an F1 driver meant he could have any woman he wanted but when he joined Ferrari he could have any man as well. It was said in jest but racing for Ferrari must be exhausting and that's before you even sit in the cockpit. For those who want to believe the Ferrari dream could be a reality, the omens are looking good. Another German is taming the red-blooded beast. Ferrari waited 21 years before Michael Schumacher delivered five drivers' titles in the new millennium. Following Vettel's win in Malaysia, Schumacher's manager sent a message of congratulations. It brought tears to the eye of Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari's new team principal. Vettel's win ended a 34-race drought for Ferrari. His victory came in just his second race with the team whereas Schumacher took seven. Raikkonen went one better by winning in his debut in 2007, the same year he took the title for Ferrari. 2008 is the last year Ferrari won a constructors' or indeed any title.

Perhaps the only surprise is Ferrari retaining Raikkonen. As a former world champion, he is never going to play second fiddle to Vettel. It's early days but at least we have a new, exciting interloper.

Eddie Jordan conducted a revealing interview with Bernie Ecclestone for the BBC which was shown last Sunday. When Eddie put it to F1's supremo that Audi would only enter F1 if Ecclestone wasn't at the helm, the ringmaster agreed to step down if that happens.

Some say Ecclestone has taken the 'F' out of 'F1' and replaced it with a pound sign. There's no German GP this season and yet two German drivers and a German team dominate in F1. There may be no Italian GP if Monza doesn't pay up. That might be replaced with a race in Azerbaijan. Does he have plans for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to replace Silverstone, Barcelona and Monaco?

Meanwhile, Status GP made its GP2 debut in Bahrain last weekend. Having been fastest in pre-season testing, the results were disappointing. Lotus F1 Junior team member Marlon Stockinger finished 11th although he was happy enough with his debut in the feature race. Marlon won for Status in GP3 in Monaco in 2012 and has returned to the fold.

New Zealand's uber-talented Richie Stanaway was unhappy with 15th. On the Sunday the reversed grids saw the drivers almost reversing their positions too. Richie was 11th and Marlon 19th. The GP2 times were just eight seconds off F1 speeds. Bernie might just redeem F1 by merging the two series. Now that would make for a spectacle.

Sunday Indo Sport

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