Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel in battle to become the defining driver of their era

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If this year's title race is competitive, Hamilton-Vettel could be Prost-Senna Part II.

Every Formula One season comes up with its own plot lines and talking points, but this season’s competition carries extra weight for it could put one of two drivers in the pantheon of the sport’s history.

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are now both among the top five drivers in terms of all-time wins with four, after the former reached that mark following his success last season. They’re in exalted company in Alain Prost but it’s the names above them, the names they could join, that gives this season added significance.

Only two drivers have won more than four. Michael Schumacher, of course, holds the all-time record with seven, and with Hamilton 33 years old and Vettel 30, there’s an outside chance one – or maybe even both – can match the German great’s mark. Then there’s Juan Manuel Fangio, who has five, and is thus squarely in the duo’s sights.

Fangio comes in the top two or three of just about every list of F1’s greatest ever drivers, alongside Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. That’s the greatness at stake for Hamilton and Vettel.

The Briton seemingly has the edge, with pre-season testing showing Mercedes look like the team to beat yet again. This year’s car, the Mercedes W09, no longer behaves like a “diva”, according to team boss Toto Wolff – his way of describing the car’s performance issues at some race venues last year.

There is a sense that Vettel and Ferrari blew their best chance to end Mercedes’ dominance, when the German imploded after the European races to hand Hamilton the title despite holding the championship lead all the way until September.

But he is confident in the 2018 Ferrari, the SF-71H, despite the car being around 0.3 seconds behind the Mercedes after pre-season testing. He says the car is “starting from a good base”, and indeed, last year’s car seemed to make up for a deficit in out-and-out speed by performing better over a full race – and even, on occasion, over a single lap. If Ferrari have retained that quality, a more mature Vettel will like his chances.

Others will have their say in the title race – not least the two drivers’ team-mates, with Valtteri Bottas knowing he needs an improved performance to compete with Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen still trying to prove the doubters wrong after being labelled a solid No2 for the last few seasons.

The Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen last season looked like they were on the verge of being serious title contenders, and they will feel that time has arrived now.

Then, of course, there is Fernando Alonso. He believes he has always been the finest driver of his generation, and plenty of observers have felt the same way, but he’s spent the last ten seasons in sub-par cars, never adding to his 2005 and 2006 titles. The Renault era for McLaren has not begun promisingly but there is still optimism in the team after parting with Honda that they finally have a competitive car.

That’s all Alonso needs. He’s shown during his Ferrari days that his driving is enough to make up a sizable gap to a superior car. And in historical terms, seeing Alonso join the club of three-time champions – or more – would be even more welcomed than either Hamilton or Vettel making it to five.

Not that either driver wouldn’t deserve it. Since Hamilton’s first title win in 2008, either he or Vettel has won the championship in all but two seasons. Only four times during that span has the Drivers’ Championship even been close (and no, last year’s 46-point win for Hamilton doesn’t count). Hamilton and Vettel have dominated like only the greats have – arguably, like only Schumacher and Fangio have.

If this battle is on even terms with both in competitive cars then a real title race could be on the cards. And while chasing Schumacher and Fangio, they could become the next Prost-Senna, a rivalry for the ages.

Otherwise, this battle is to determine which one will be recognised as the best of his time. They have come to define this era of F1 with their competition. Now, the question is who will go down in history as the victor.

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Can Ferrari overcome Mercedes and win the constructors' championship in 2018?

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Ferrari have targeted their first Formula One title in a decade after dominating testing in Barcelona last week.

But can the Italian marque finally overcome Mercedes and lift the title? Niall McCague, Tom Biggs and Stuart Appleby discuss whether it’s a two-horse race between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, what the Pracing Horse need to do to win the constructors’ title and what impact Kimi Raikkonen could have.

Agree or disagree with our writers? Let us know as they go head-to-head in our new-look three question debate.

Get in touch via Twitter and Facebook.

Is it a two-horse race between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton?

NM: Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will go into the new season as the overwhelming favourite to win the title, but with the new cars set to shake up the grid, fans will be hoping to see the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen challenging for glory. Although some drivers have shown improvements, it’s difficult to see anyone else but Hamilton or Vettel seal the drivers title – both of whom are chasing an impressive fifth crown.

TB: Come the end of testing, the question wasn’t whether Ferrari had closed the gap on Mercedes, but whether Red Bull were closest to the world champions. Vettel may have set an unofficial lap record in Barcelona, but had very little to say, perhaps the biggest indication he’s not completely happy. Hamilton, meanwhile, told reporters “last year’s car was great, but this car feels better.” The outlook is ominous for his rivals – this could be a one-horse race.

SA: Yes, it’s all a bit too predictable. Hamilton is without doubt the out-and-out favourite to claim his fifth world title, with successful testing in Catalonia going to show Mercedes should be even quicker this term. The Briton is unfazed by Vettel’s preseason pace and it’s that single mindedness which underpins the 33-year-old’s desire to triumph again. Vettel and Ferrari are primed for second but won’t have the staying power to top the charts.

What do Ferrari need to do to win the constructors’ championship?

NM: Although Ferrari ran Mercedes close last season before unreliability scuppered Vettel’s championship bid, the last of their 31 title victories was back in 2008. If the Prancing Horse are to win the constructors’ title this season they need Vettel and Raikkonen to be on the podium in nearly every race. Whether they have the pace and consistency to challenge Mercedes remains to be seen, but Ferrari need both drivers to push harder in a bid to score more points.

TB: Last year, Vettel made a stunning start to the season, finishing in the top two in all of the first six races. But while Mercedes were working away to improve their car, Ferrari stalled, allowing their rivals to steal a march from Silverstone onwards. Improved reliability will also be required if Ferrari are to end Mercedes’ supreme dominance. Four retirements and a did not start proved much too costly up against the everreliable Silver Arrows.

SA: The Italian team have got people talking about their new SF-71H car, its speed and endurance on the track, which can only be a good thing. Vettel’s fastest lap and longevity in Spain definitely boosted confidence – giving Ferrari some early season belief. Whether they have the power to trouble Mercedes consistently is up for debate but Vettel needs to use his experience to hang in the title picture as long as possible.

Is Kimi Raikkonen prepared to simply aid Ferrari and Vettel’s championship bids?

NM: There’s no doubting his popularity, but the 2007 world champion has done little to warrant a seat for Ferrari due to his inconsistency over the past few seasons. The Finn may have set an unofficial lap record at testing in Barcelona last week, but has failed to win since the Australian GP in 2013. Seven podiums in 2017 may show some improvements, but for as long as Raikkonen is with Ferrari, they will struggle to have a driver to help Vettel win.

TB: While Vettel put up a gallant fight, his teammate seemed to accept he was well off the pace in 2017 and did little to try and change that. For Ferrari to stop Mercedes, they’ll need Raikkonen to accept his place in the team, while also altering his outlook and attitude, with more podiums and support for Vettel a necessity. The problem is, he seems to have lost the nous to halt Mercedes, unlike the German. He could well hinder their hopes.

SA: The veteran Finn may have finished testing with a bang but will want to go about 2018 on his own terms, given there’s speculation it will be his last campaign. Both he and Ferrari are looking to the future, but given the Ice Man enjoys a good relationship with Vettel, he will be prepared to play second fiddle again and help the team. Raikkonen is a man of few words but the fact he’s content with the car’s performance so far is a good sign.

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Now or never for Sebastian Vettel as Ferrari star bids for coveted fifth world title

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As testing drew to a close at Circuit de Catalunya on Friday, Sebastian Vettel must have been brimming with confidence as he jumped on a flight back to his home in Switzerland.

The four-time world champion was fastest over the eight days of testing in Barcelona – and looked a cut above his rivals which represents a significant boost for Ferrari ahead of the start of the new season in Melbourne on March 24.

Irrespective of how this season goes, the German will still go down as one of the greats of F1 even if he has not dominated the sport since his world title wins between 2010-2013 with Red Bull.

However, with the rising competitiveness of the sport – and the emergence of young stars like Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon – this is the season Vettel needs to step up another gear if he wants to win a fifth world championship.

If the 30-year-old doesn’t do it this season he never will.

Three barren years at Ferrari have bore him just seven victories – and although 2017 was perhaps his best year yet with the Italian marque – the unreliability of the car cost him at critical moments.

The Heppenheim native led the championship at the halfway stage in July but suffered setbacks in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan – paving the way for Lewis Hamilton to seal a fourth world title with two races remaining in Texas.

The car is the most important piece of any driver’s puzzle and after a strong pre-season, Vettel is surely gathering some of the old magic again in the new SF-71H car that boasts more power, better braking and effective grip from the tyres.

Ferrari may have been quickest around the circuit in northern Spain but it is world champions Mercedes who appear to be in best shape.

But while the Silver Arrow have maintained the edge, it is set up to be an intriguing battle between both their lead drivers – as Hamilton and Vettel attempt to break away from each other and climb to the second-highest rung on the ladder with Juan Manuel Fangio on five world titles.

With the new car firing – the German has reason to believe this could finally be the season where he can challenge Hamilton for that coveted world title.

In some respects, the leap in performance Ferrari made last season has given Vettel, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and the rest of the Prancing Horse plenty of optimism for 2018.

Vettel’s single lap times looked promising over the eight days of testing – including a stunning unofficial track record of 1:17.664 – that was subsequently lowered by Raikkonen on the final day.

With both drivers setting the fastest lap times of the winter, this should give Vettel a major advantage if he can qualify ahead of his rivals, on fast tracks where race strategy is likely to be one stop, such as Monza and Mexico.

Sport is about confidence, belief and skill, and Vettel needs to believe he can finally threaten Hamilton at the front of the grid consistently over the course of the season.

It is inevitable car issues will curtail each of the drivers in at least one race across the eight-month season – however, when the car is in fine fettel Vettel needs to showcase his class behind the wheel.

When contrasting him against his rivals, Vettel has the mental characteristics to handle pressure and is equally adept at overcoming the oversteer. Although he may not have the pace or determination to get a near-perfect qualifying lap like Hamilton, he has the ability to push the envelope in each race.

Of course, it’s nice to see different drivers finish on the podium, but to have Vettel consistently challenging the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton or Verstappen across the full season will make for a more captivating battle for fans.

Whether he steps on to the podium at Yas Marina Circuit in November with the world title or not, 2018 will be the litmus test to prove where he stands in the list of great drivers.

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