BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) The gloves are off between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and Formula One is already the winner.
After so much talk of mutual respect, their previously harmonious relationship melted in the heat of Sunday’s hectic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Hamilton said Vettel “disgraced himself” by deliberately driving his Ferrari alongside and swerving it into the side of him. Vettel, who was given a time penalty, said he only did it in response to a dangerous braking move by Hamilton right in front of him.
Whatever the arguments, F1 finally has what it craves: a saga between fiercely competitive champions that promises to last all season.
“Now we have a situation where there is more controversy. It was clear this could happen the closer it gets,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “(It) certainly doesn’t help their relationship going forward. So now the gloves are off.”
Hamilton and Vettel have won a combined seven F1 titles and more than 100 races. Vettel has four of those titles, while Hamilton has three. But the British driver has won more races, 56 to 45.
This season they are evenly matched, with three wins each, and Vettel leads Hamilton in the overall championship by 14 points after eight races.
While Hamilton often tangled with former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg over the past three years, losing the title to him last year, this new showdown is more intriguing. Not only does it oppose multiple world champions – which was not the case with Rosberg – it also pits Mercedes against a fiercely proud Ferrari team chasing its first drivers’ title since 2007 and its first constructors’ since 2008.
Ferrari is desperate to end its barren run and is banking on Vettel to deliver. The German driver is under enormous pressure.
“The sport needs the rivalry and what we’ve seen has the ingredient of a great championship,” Wolff said. “At a certain stage, the best ones that compete for world championships can’t be friends. Maybe we’ve seen the limitation of that respect.”
Wolff has noticed a change in behavior from Ferrari, too.
“Normally I get a breakfast (at Ferrari) on Sunday morning. (This time) only a tea,” he said. “For me the analogy is like rugby, during the race they are our enemies. But we must be capable, once the race is done, to have a beer like rugby players and acknowledge someone’s performance.”
Although Vettel appeared to be more to blame on Sunday, Wolff had some sympathy for him.
“They’re warriors and you’re at war at that moment, fighting for the race win and the championship,” Wolff said. “Emotions are running high.”
Hamilton finished fifth in Sunday’s race, while Vettel was fourth. Although that meant Hamilton lost a bit of ground, he saw something to exploit over the remaining 12 races, something he considers Vettel’s vulnerability under high pressure.
“As a team we can only look at that as a positive for us,” Hamilton said. “He’s obviously under pressure and that’s not a bad thing if that’s how he reacts.”
The next race is the Austrian GP in two weeks, Round 9 of their heavyweight contest.
It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.
Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.
Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.
However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.
As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.
And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”
Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.
A Journey Into the Unknown?
Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.
And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.
“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.
That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.
Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth
Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.
Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.
Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.
With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.
Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil
It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.
And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.
As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.
“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”
Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.
“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”
Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.
“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”
Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.