Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Polar ends of the racing driver spectrum; one, a flamboyant celebrity, with fingers immersed in various social pies, who courts controversy away from the track, be it through lewd driving in Australian car parks, creative tax returns or simply through a line of dodgy hats.
The other is a quiet, social media shy, strong-words-softly-spoken kind of guy out of the car, with a penchant for throwing the toys out of the pram when in it. No dodgy hats here, just a Johnny-two-straps rucksack.
Like all geniuses, both men are flawed. Unlike many geniuses however, both these men arrived at the pinnacle of their chosen craft in the same era, culminating thus far in the battle for the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship.
For Scuderia Ferrari, the 2016 season had been winless. (Winless: Italian for not-bloody-good-enough.) 2017 simply had to see them restored to their accustomed place at the head of the F1 field and Vettel was the man charged with doing just that.
For Lewis Hamilton the 2017 path had been cleared with the departure of his long-time rival Nico Rosberg at the end of 2016. To lose the title to someone else now would be almost embarrassing.
The first seven races of the year were a tit-for-tat battle of anything you can do, I can do too as Hamilton and Vettel shared three wins a piece – with only Hamilton’s new team-mate Valtteri Bottas getting in on any victory action.
Ferrari woke Mercedes and the rest of the F1 world to their resurgence from the very start of the year, at the Australian Grand Prix, as Vettel and the Scuderia not only out-paced Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team, but out-foxed them too, leaving a certain Mr. Wolff huffing and puffing and banging his fist on a desk.
Hamilton hit back at a damp and miserable Chinese Grand Prix to draw level on points with runner-up Vettel before the roles were reversed once again in Bahrain, where Vettel snatched the win from Mercedes once more.
And so it went, tit-for-tat, Vettel, Hamilton, the Prancing Horse and Silver Arrow for the first seven races, Vettel leading home a stunning Ferrari one-two on the streets of Monaco and Hamilton, likewise, claiming wins in Spain and yet another victory at the Canadian Grand Prix.
It meant that by the time the F1 circus arrived in Baku for the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix there were just 14 points separating Vettel and Hamilton in the world championship.
Fans were out of breath, journalist’s keyboards were beginning to catch fire and even the bookies couldn’t call a favourite. All the while there were wry grins and mutual respect shared between the two title protagonists. “How long will that last?”, people asked.
Azerbaijan was supposed to be a chance to catch our breath. The first event held on the streets of Baku the previous year was hardly a barnstormer; it was dull, the equivalent of a nil-nil draw, a test match with no winner declared, a rainy afternoon with nothing good on the television.
The 2017 event was another story and a turning point in the Hamilton versus Vettel saga. Hamilton may have seen scarlet red in the opening seven races, either in the distance ahead or in his rear view mirrors but it was Vettel who saw red in Baku.
The incident behind the safety car in which Vettel committed the ultimate sin of deliberately barging into Hamilton’s car was deemed a deliberate act of road rage by the stewards; an act of utter stupidity by outraged fans on social media, and the first sign of the Ferrari/Vettel championship campaign unravelling. Although Vettel managed to beat Hamilton that day in June – courtesy of Hamilton’s loose headrest – the cracks were showing in Vettel’s patience and Hamilton knew it.
As for the relationship between Vettel and Hamilton, it soured marginally in the days after Baku and the pair held each other at extended arm’s length from there, but an underlying respect remained.
Bottas would win again in Austria, forcing the question as to whether the Finn could steal the thunder from the top two, while a disastrous British Grand Prix for Vettel saw his slim championship lead cut to just one point as Hamilton won at home.
The Hungarian Grand Prix became key, therefore; it was the last race before the summer break, an opportunity to buoy teams and boost driver’s morale with solid performances. Vettel’s championship challenge had began to fade, despite holding on to a slender lead, and his reputation remained tarnished from his moment of madness in Baku.
The Hungaroring became a key battle ground.
Focus at the mid-way stage not only rested on the drivers at the heart of the championship fight but their machines, too. Hamilton’s Mercedes W08 had shown “diva” tendencies, reacting unpredictably to changes in temperature and tyre compounds, while Vettel’s Ferrari SF70H had remained finely balanced throughout the year so far…but gremlins lingered.
In Hungary, those gremlins found their way into Vettel’s steering, dropping his wheel to the left and costing him pace at the head of the field. Dutifully, his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, protected Vettel from the closing Mercedes and the German was able to clinch the win. Next time those Ferrari gremlins reared their ugly heads, Vettel wouldn’t be so lucky.
But then came the summer break and a chance for Ferrari to regroup and go again. But progress was being made at Mercedes too and the pendulum was about to take a huge swing in Hamilton’s favour.
Hamilton would hold off Vettel in Belgium and Mercedes would dominate in Italy, aiming the heaviest of blows right at Ferrari’s heart. But worse was to come for Vettel in Singapore, a race earmarked for Ferrari success from the very start of the year.
It couldn’t have been more of a disaster as Vettel’s attempt to rescue his lead at the wet start saw him collide with Max Verstappen and Raikkonen, all three retiring, opening the door for a third straight Hamilton victory.
It would be another five races before Vettel would win again, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, by which time Hamilton had won in Japan – where Vettel retired through spark plug failure – and the United States Grand Prix on his way to wrapping up the title in Mexico. What had started out so promising for Vettel and Ferrari had petered out to a damp squib.
Whether you celebrated Hamilton’s title triumph or shed a tear over Vettel’s defeat, the prospect of what lays ahead between these two stars is now even more tantalising. Hamilton’s 2017 title elevates him to a four-time world champion, one of just five men to ever achieve that many alongside Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and of course, Sebastian Vettel.
2018 therefore, sees the Strive for Five as both Hamilton and Vettel aim for that next title. Can Hamilton take back-to-back titles once again or will Vettel finally clinch that championship for Ferrari? Whatever happens, we should treasure a rare period in which two geniuses push each other to greater limits because ultimately, there’s only one winner: us, the fans.