F1 preview: Quick cars and Hamilton vs Vettel set to dominate

Sport360 staff 09:00 22/03/2017
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Hamilton and Vettel are fiercely competitive rivals.

Not since 1993 when Alain Prost won the world title before calling it quits has the Formula 1 grid been devoid of a defending world champion.

When Prost bowed out with a Williams win, he was 38 and his decision was far from seismic as the one made by Nico Rosberg just days after his crowning glory aged 31 and at the peak of his powers.

Pundits have pored over the decision but the reality is that for the first time in quarter of a century there is no hope of a back-to-back world champion.

The three-time F1 grand prix Johnny Herbert made the point this week that “Formula 1 moves on quickly” and the pondering of what might have been with Rosberg will quickly dissipate.

Quick has been the buzzword of F1 before the onset of the season in Australia, the cars five seconds quicker than last year, with Lewis Hamilton, bidding for a fourth world title, making the point: “It is definitely the fastest I have ever been in F1.”

While his comment centres on the increased speed, at 32 and arguably the peak of his powers – his pace at the end of the season where he won the four last races a testament to that – it is perhaps a nod to his own capabilities at the wheel.

Mercedes may well be matched for speed by Ferrari in winter testing – with Red Bull just marginally back – and Ferrari could well win the season opener, as perhaps Sebastian Vettel should have done a year ago.

But Albert Park can be an anomaly of a track – sometimes a bad judge of the season that lies ahead – and one that suits the Prancing Horse, while Mercedes and Hamilton go into the season knowing that their car habitually goes well everywhere. Ferrari cannot boast that same confidence.

But what winter testing indicated – and using that as a benchmark is never an exact science – is that a duel between the two dominant driving forces of the past decade in Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel look finally set to do battle in even machinery properly and consistently for the first time.

Vettel, at times a petulant child at Ferrari last season when the initial promise of the winter was not delivered, has given a far more positive vibe on the eve of the season, insisting a first world title for Ferrari since 2007 was a distinct possibility.

The four-time world champion knows he will have to contend with Kimi Raikkonen for No.1 at the team. A comfortable Raikkonen is a quick one, and having struggled to get to grips with the Ferrari previously, he looked more at one with it in the latter part of the season and likewise during testing in Barcelona.

The other unknown in the title race is Valtteri Bottas. Williams have nothing but praise for him and there’s is no doubt that, like Raikkonen, he is a flying Finn but it is another matter doing that down the grid with the spotlight off you rather than in the car of the defending champion having replaced Rosberg.

There are the doubters, 1996 world champion Damon Hill among them: “He’s good, very good but I wouldn’t say that he’s shown so far that he’s the hottest thing in F1. Can he put as much pressure on Lewis as Nico did? Some people step up, some don’t. He’s not won a race yet.”

And the third facet in a potentially pulsating title race are Red Bull, who in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen may yet prove to have the best driver pairing on the grid, although both have suggested they’re not quite in a position to win races as yet.

The team’s in-season development is such that should not necessarily peg them back for long but the question is how much will rest on qualifying – where Mercedes have dominated – in a new era where it’s not clear how easy overtaking is.

The six realistically going for the world title are all aggressive in their own right, capable of making the most of an overtaking opportunity should one arise.

And the reality is that while 2017 may prove Hamilton v Vettel, hopefully gone are the dominant periods of the last two teams: namely Mercedes and before them Vettel’s former employers at Red Bull.

Melbourne will provide the first answers.

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