We’ve never had it so good. Sure, F1 has altered its DNA by rejecting open cockpits in favour of the ‘Halo’ head protection device and yes, aerodynamic complexity and uninspired circuit design have combined to make racing more difficult than ever, but in terms of quality drivers fighting for the championship, we’re living in a golden age. That’s because for the first time ever, two four-time world champions will battle it out in roughly equivalent machinery.
Sebastian Vettel racked up his four titles in quick succession, from 2010 to 2013 inclusive, but it’s been slim pickings since. He came close last season before Ferrari suffered a couple of infuriatingly small failures (spark plug, inlet manifold) that eased Mercedes’ passage to both championships. They’ll try not to make that mistake again, but even with the quickest car, the pressure of carrying Ferrari’s hopes is immense. Kimi Räikkönen remains a very skilful driver, but in what looks like being his final year of F1 competition he can’t realistically be counted as a title contender. Sebastian can, but it’s a big year for Vettel as he attempts to prove that he’s learned from his personal mistakes of 2017.
There’s less weight on Lewis Hamilton’s shoulders because he’s had so much recent success. Mercedes has built the fastest car, but has also been smart enough to figure out how to build the fastest Lewis: keep him happy. To be fair, McLaren knew that a happy Lewis was a fast Lewis, but there was something about the Ron Dennis culture of control that meant Hamilton felt boxed in – almost suffocated towards the end of his time there. Mercedes has let Hamilton loose. For example, this winter he embarked on activities that were great fun, but any one of which could have resulted in a broken leg or knee, or knackering of numerous other performance-critical faculties. Lewis started off skiing in Colorado, but was unimpressed with the snow – so flew to Japan for some snowboarding. Bones and ligaments intact, he flew to Hawaii, to knock out a bit of bigwave surfing with Kelly Slater. Hamilton says he was chuffed to have progressed to a 6ft 2in surfboard, whatever that means. One half expects him to come back from his next holiday boasting how he can now juggle four chainsaws.
“Hamilton says he was chuffed to have progressed to a 6ft 2in surfboard, whatever that means.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff recognises the risk that Lewis might injure himself while having fun, but firmly believes that not letting him do it in the first place will make him less happy – and therefore less rapid – in the long run. So while he’s cheerful, Lewis is also motivated. ‘I’ll continue to stay in F1 and stay with Mercedes while I have the fire,’ he said recently. ‘Life is a journey – I’m here to better myself every day and make sure I’m living my best life.’ All that stands between Hamilton and his fifth world championship, then, is the car, and Mercedes shows no sign of messing that up. The designers have shrinkwrapped the rear of the car to within an inch of its life – it looks as if someone has put a racing engine and gearbox into a giant Capri- Sun juice pouch and sucked out all the air.
The engine is equally impressive. This year’s rules restrict each driver to only three engines – one fewer than last year – meaning that each power unit needs to last seven races, rather than five. Renault has already admitted it is having to sacrifice peak performance to achieve this kind of durability, but not so Mercedes. It thinks it can have more performance and better reliability at the same time. Whether it will be turning everything up to hit its suspected 1000 horsepower peak remains to be seen. However, a thousand horsepower from a 1.6-litre V6, even with the best energy recovery system on the planet, is pretty bloody impressive.
Renault’s reluctance to turn up the wick could cost Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo their chances of a first title. Verstappen’s impatience for success is admirable, but if race wins don’t come, for whatever reason, Max runs the risk of falling into a negative mindset that feeds off itself and ends up affecting the rest of his team. In this and many other ways, Verstappen reminds me of Nigel Mansell: the rough-and-tumble racing style, uncompromising overtakes and sheer guts, blended with prodigious natural speed. Max is quickly establishing himself as Red Bull’s number one driver, which is curious, as Ricciardo is just as good. He can qualify, he can race and he can overtake – qualities that may see him in a Mercedes before too long.
So, the fight is on. A repeat for Hamilton, revenge for Vettel or an inaugural for Verstappen? We’re in for a treat.