Vettel & Hamilton – Too Philosophical For F1?

Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – two drivers who have won all Formula 1 Drivers’ Championships since 2010 (barring 2016), have displayed a rare philosophical side to their personality at the last few Grands Prix. Personally, I wish we had ‘boxing-style’ rivalry in the sport of Formula 1. 

The 2018 Mexican Grand Prix was never meant to be an ordinary race. For starters, it was the likely stage for Lewis Hamilton to decisively beat Sebastian Vettel and seal the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship. Adding to this was the fact that this circuit is one of the few where Mercedes has not managed to stamp its authority, with Red Bull Racing clearly offering the quickest package (Max Verstappen had won this race last year as well). The higher altitude certainly brought the top-6 cars closer by eliminating the engine advantage that Ferrari and Mercedes usually possess. However, the purist Formula 1 fan would wonder if tyres got an excessive share of voice (literally, everyone’s radio feed was dominated by tyre wear!) when it came to deciding the elements would help us find a worthy race winner.

Hamilton: Champion of the World

If there’s one man in Mexico who has excitedly partied through the night, it is probably Lewis Hamilton, the newly crowned champion of the world. He clinched his fifth world championship, elevating him into the elite company of Formula 1 legend Juan Manuel Fangio, the sport’s other five-time world champion (only Michael Schumacher has more titles, at seven). While sealing the championship was essentially a formality, Hamilton and Mercedes will be relieved to have gotten the job done.
This season started off as a tight, intense duel between Ferrari and Mercedes and their lead drivers, Vettel and Hamilton. Even as the balance of favour swung between the two through the initial parts of the season, Hamilton emerged as the more dependable driver, and Mercedes, as the better package and team. However, when it came to sealing the title for their driver, Mercedes suddenly seemed to lose their edge. Leave aside stamping their dominance, Mercedes lost out from podium scoring positions in Mexico and failed to convert their pole position into victory in United States.
Said a triumphant Hamilton as he stepped out of his Mercedes, “It’s a very strange feeling right now. I have been at Mercedes since I was 13 so to complete the title, and Fangio won two championships with Mercedes, is an incredible feeling. It feels very surreal.”
Added Hamilton, “It’s something that I dreamed of, but I never in a million years knew that I would be a 5-time Formula 1 World Champion. I feel very humbled by the whole experience, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who’s helped me to achieve this.” While celebrating Hamilton’s greatness, it would be worth noting that apart from these five titles, he went down fighting for another three at the last race of the season in 2007 (Raikkonen), 2010 (Vettel) and 2016 (Rosberg).
Given Hamilton’s form, Mercedes’ dominant advantage in this era of the sport and the general excitement to see records tumble, it was only fair for scribes to immediately question Hamilton on his possible equalling or even beating of Michael Schumacher’s record of seven Formula 1 World Championships. “Let me just try to realise first that I’ve won this one!”, quipped Hamilton.

The Red Bull Racing saga

Mexico has conventionally been a track that suits the Red Bull Racing package, and this was evident all through the race weekend. During qualifying, Daniel Ricciardo snatched a surprise pole position right from under teammate Max Verstappen’s nose, and in the process, also denying Verstappen his best shot at breaking the record for the youngest-ever polesitter. Coincidentally, this allowed Verstappen to create another record on Sunday – most race wins (five) without a pole. On Sunday, Ricciardo failed to get off to a good start and fell back, as pileaped into the lead, a place that he commandingly held all through, finishing over 17 seconds ahead of his closest rival, Vettel. He also won the coveted ‘Driver of the Day’ award. Expressed a delighted Verstappen after the race, “It is incredible to win again in Mexico! I was determined to win today and luckily we did just that. Again, a perfect job done by the team.”

The mood on the other side of the Red Bull Racing garage is probably very different. Despite a slow start, Ricciardo managed to claw his way back to P2 (thanks to Red Bull Racing’s one-stopping strategy for the Australian) after getting past both Hamilton and Vettel. However, his recovery was short-lived as with just ten laps to go, Ricciardo’s car suffered a mechanical malfunction, going up in a plume of smoke. It was heartbreak yet again for the Australian, who has notched up eight DNFs this season, the highest of any driver. The reliability of the Renault engine has been questionable, which will make him less confident about his move to Renault next season. Said a visibly deflated Ricciardo, “Helplessness is the best word. I had yet another problem with the car. It seems that things are happening on Sunday which I have no explanation for.”

Vettel, Hamilton and more

For Vettel to retain any (slim) chance of winning the Drivers’ Championship this year, he needed to win in Mexico, and hope that Hamilton finished lower down the order. Despite a solid drive and Ferrari employing a different strategy for their cars, Vettel was clearly the “next best” after the Red Bull Racing cars (although he got gifted P2 after Ricciardo’s engine blew up). Kimi Raikkonen bagged the last podium spot, making it a double podium for him in the double header. Even though Ricciardo retired, he did enough damage to Vettel’s softer (than Verstappen’s) tyres by holding up for several laps, a move that dented Vettel’s charge for the lead of the race, something that seemed very certain after Ferrari’s aggressive tyre strategy unfolded.
A grim Vettel admitted post-race, “Max was the best driver in the race today, Lewis was the best driver this season.” He further added, “There can only be one winner and Lewis Hamilton is the one who deserves it this year. There are lessons to be learnt but one thing is clear: We are a very talented team, with huge potential… some of which still needs to be unleashed.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton had a tough afternoon, definitely one of his more forgettable races, despite a good start that saw him jump Ricciardo and challenge Verstappen for the lead. After snapping at his race engineer to “leave him to it” Hamilton spent the afternoon struggling for pace and struggling to manage his tyre degradation, going on radio to demand from the team, “why did you give me the wrong tyres!” Hamilton was forced to stop for a second time for a fresh set of tyres (ultimately, the team had to give him the used ultra-soft tyres because of lack of options), which cost him time on track. Surely, Hamilton would have loved to sign off his fifth world championship with a race win or at least a podium, but he won’t be complaining about his P4 finish, only the second time this season that he failed to finish on the podium! His teammate Bottas finished in P5.

The storyline of the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix would read similar to the one from 2017 – ‘Verstappen’s wins the race, Hamilton clinches the title.’ Also like last year, it was disappointing to not see Hamilton on the podium, a change that the sport should have made by now, given Liberty Media’s focus on the ‘show’. In fact, should the trophy unveiling ceremony be made public? Currently, it is awarded at a formal FIA ceremony, Hamilton will receive his trophy at the FIA Gala on 7th December at St. Petersberg; imagine handing the trophy over in front of thousands of fans that were present in the stadium section of the Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez.

The midfield and beyond

For the second race in a row, Nico Hulkenberg bagged P6, bringing home his Renault as the best-of-the-rest. Sauber will be delighted with their double points finish, with Charles Leclerc in P7 and Marcus Ericsson in P9, a finish that helped them overtake Toro Rosso for eighth in the Constructors’ Championship. Interestingly, Stoffel Vandoorne, who has failed to score points since the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in April, claimed P8 and its valuable points for McLaren. This ends his 14-race points drought, but seems like too little too late to save his F1 career.
Renault’s championship challenger, Haas, failed to score points for the second race in a row, helping Renault grow their lead to 30 points, an almost insurmountable one given that only two races remain this season. Racing Point Force India will be disappointed to not score any points in Mexico as they too chase McLaren for 6th place in the standings, especially given all the support for local hero Sergio Perez, who recorded a rare DNF. Testament to his and the team’s consistency is the fact that this is only Perez’s third classified retirement in the last 68 Grand Prixs.
Apart from mid-field battle in the Constructors’ Championship, Hulkenberg’s back-to-back ‘best of the rest’ finishes have helped him build a 12-points gap over Sergio Perez for seventh place in the Drivers’ Championship. Also, P8 to P11 (Perez, Magnussen, Alonso and Ocon) are only separated by nine points, expect this battle to be fought all the way till the last lap of the season in Abu Dhabi. Ocon and Magnussen’s challenge was hampered by a disqualification from last Sunday’s United States Grand Prix followed by a non-points scoring finish in Mexico.

The Mexican Grand Prix was a raging fiesta. It was one of those race venues where the stands were packed even on Saturday and fans genuinely looked like they are having a blast. Their podium celebration took the party up several notches as it featured the superstar DJ Armin van Buuren and Verstappen, as the race winner, got to “start the party” by pressing a button. Surely the celebrations would have continued into the wee hours of the morning for our race winner and the newly crowned five times Formula 1 World Champion.
As the action shifts to Brazil in a fortnight, Mercedes will be keen to move towards sealing the Constructors’ Championship as well. With Hamilton’s title decided, will Mercedes finally ‘allow’ Bottas a race win? Ferrari will be looking to unleash the magically recovered power of their cars to salvage some pride and glory on the Constructors’ front. Racing Point Force India is running out of time to leapfrog McLaren, but this is one team that never says never. All in all, the season is far from over, so stay tuned.

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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