Vettel cast as the villain with a more mature Hamilton delivering calm reply

Matt Majendie 21:59 25/06/2017
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Say hello to the bad guy: Sebastian Vettel. Picture: Getty Images.

Much has been made about the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel but seven races in – bar one passing manoeuvre in Barcelona – the wheel-to-wheel racing had not properly manifested itself.

In the build-up to yesterday, three-time grand prix winner Johnny Herbert had predicted that Azerbaijan would be the weekend where the season sparked into life between the two title protagonists.

And so it did in dramatic fashion. Where previously there had been at topsy-turvy championship, Hamilton shining one weekend, Vettel the next, finally the pair came head to head albeit in bizarre circumstances.

There can be no question that Vettel was entirely at fault for driving into the back of Hamilton with the safety car deployed on the track. And in a moment of petulance, he came alongside Hamilton and barged into him, gesticulating widely in the process.

In that solitary flash point, the script of the 2017 season was well and truly ripped up.

Where there had been a mutual respect and admiration between the two drivers at the preceding seven grands prix, it has evaporated in an instant.

For Vettel, it was not a move becoming of a four-time world champion, and such an expression of frustration perhaps highlights why the German is not more widely loved by the world’s wider Formula One audience.

And he was rightly punished but not enough, a decision by the race stewards to give him a 10-second drive-through penalty mocked by the fact that Vettel finished fourth in Baku to Hamilton’s fifth, both unfair and also not a reflection of how the weekend or the race itself had played out.

Social media was awash with different opinions, many suggesting Vettel deserved to be disqualified and, while that might have been Draconian, was it really so wide of the mark for such a dangerous move?

To Hamilton’s credit, he tried not to be drawn into the debate with the cameras rolling in front of him afterwards.

However, he momentarily let his guard down when he said, “It’s just not driver conduct. It’s dangerous driving and only get a 10-second penalty for that kind of thing? I don’t need to say anything else.”

In contrast, Vettel was down the team radio twice asking – despite knowing full well – what dangerous driving he had performed.

It was telling that Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene came over the airwaves to effectively tell his driver to shut up.

Even after it all, Vettel – for whom admitting a mistake has never been his strongest suit – was still mystified about all the fuss.

He shifted the blame to his title rival, claiming Hamilton had previous from a similar incident in China in the past.

Arrivabene and others will not be happy with Vettel’s petulance. As it turned out, it cost him the race, which may prove an even greater error as the season progresses.

So what does it mean for the world championship?

The gloves are off and Vettel’s statement means Hamilton will be fired up for the subsequent race and willing to get his elbows out to race dirty if needs be.

But psychologically it is also advantage Hamilton as it all played out. The Hamilton of old would have fired out an immediate outburst at his rival, instead he was measured and tight-lipped while Vettel seemed to be breathing fire out of his nose as he left the Baku paddock.

The point was made by former world champion Damon Hill that had Vettel done something similar on public roads, he would have been arrested.

Everyone knows that F1 is far from the real world but the point resonated, and Vettel will continue to get flak from now until the subsequent race and beyond.

In just a few seconds of behaviour becoming of a school playground, the championship has been delightfully flipped on its head, the lightning strike moment the 2017 season had been calling for.

For now, Vettel is the villain of the peace, Hamilton holier than thou but it is barely the first chapter. The Austrian Grand Prix in two weekends time cannot come soon enough.

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