SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) A pair of multiple world champions level on points, Mercedes and Ferrari neck-and-neck. This season’s revamped Formula One is already living up to the hype.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won a race each so far, and will continue what looks set to be a gripping title race at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
Both like this track and, with evenly matched cars, will be expecting another victory.
Hamilton won in Bahrain in 2014 and 2015, on his way to his second and third world titles with Mercedes. Vettel, then with Red Bull but now with Ferrari, won in 2012 and 2013 during a glittering run of four straight world titles.
Vettel has one more title than Hamilton, who has 54 race wins compared to 43 for the younger Vettel. There is little to separate them and they are clearly relishing the battle.
“Ferrari have shown tremendous pace,” Hamilton said Thursday. “I think the gap’s going to be even closer.”
The stifling heat of Bahrain, with temperatures hitting 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday afternoon, has led to Hamilton preparing his body for the extreme conditions.
“I’ve been running in this heat. I was in Dubai for a few days,” he said. “A couple of good runs in this heat always helps. It’s hard work.”
Hamilton’s title fights over the last three years were within his own Mercedes team, twice beating Rosberg to the title – once easily and once in the last race of the season – only to lose it to the German driver last year.
Hamilton feels much more fulfilment competing against a rival from another team.
“It is more exciting racing, much like I experienced in 2007 and 2008,” Hamilton said. “To be in among the fight with the Silver Arrows and the Ferraris, it’s more exciting than just silver at the front.”
The loss to Rosberg in the final race of last season in Abu Dhabi still bothers Hamilton, evident in the way he has publicly expressed how much he enjoys racing against Vettel – another way of saying he considers him a significantly better driver than Rosberg was.
“The respect for one another is the highest that I have felt from another driver, especially of his caliber,” Hamilton said of Vettel. “It’s amazing sportsmanship. When you win you enjoy it, and you also acknowledge the person next door. And even when you lose it’s the same thing. We’re both doing that, and that’s a great place to be.
“He’s performing at his best, he is rapid out there, so when I’m able to get ahead, it only compliments you, and vice versa.”
After winning last weekend’s Chinese GP, where Vettel finished second, Hamilton drove up alongside Vettel’s car and gave him a thumbs-up.
Such an overtly friendly gesture of sportsmanship and such gushing praise of a direct rival would never have happened with Rosberg, who stunned F1 by announcing his retirement days after securing his only title and thus depriving the fiercely driven Hamilton a chance to get his own back.
When he talks up Vettel in the way he does, Hamilton is also reminding Rosberg of what he will never achieve.
“I’m fighting against a four-time world champion. He is at his best and he is phenomenally quick. And Ferrari are at their best in years, in a decade, pretty much,” Hamilton said. “The ultimate fighter always wants to go up against the best battle that he can have, because then when you come out on top, it’s just so much more satisfying.”
How long the mutual admiration will last remains to be seen.
Sunday’s race promises to be an intriguing one. With major rule changes increasing the speed of the cars and revving up the noise level, fans are already enjoying much more value for money than in previous seasons. On top of that, they now have a new major rivalry brewing.
Hamilton has both pole positions so far this season, but lost the season-opening Australian GP to Vettel, who earned his first Ferrari win since the 2015 season.
Pole is not as crucial in Bahrain as in other races, but a good start is. Last year, Hamilton secured pole in Bahrain but Rosberg won after getting away quickly.
The dash to the first corner is 400 meters and flat out fast, and braking at the right time heading into it will be crucial.