Silverstone: The escalating title rivalry between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton is expected to rouse something of a pantomime atmosphere in central England this weekend when the duo rejoin battle at the British Grand Prix.
Less than a week after a somewhat flat Austrian contest in the Styrian Alps, where Valtteri Bottas triumphed for Mercedes and the two main protagonists finished second and fourth, a more feisty and fizzy affair at the flat but high-speed circuit is to be expected.
The popularity and reputation of the championship-leading Vettel, of Ferrari, has been severely tarnished in recent weeks while Hamilton has suffered a sequence of misfortunes to slip 20 points adrift.
It is a classic scenario in which to expect a raucous home crowd to give Hamilton great support while his rival, like any good ‘panto villain’, should be ready for something else.
But that is only the personal level of the background to what this year has developed into a fascinating duel between two great teams — the well-heeled, well-paid and stylish Italians from Ferrari, and the more pragmatic and modern Mercedes, champions of the last three years.
This is sure to be understood well by the big crowds at Silverstone, where more than 120,000 are likely to attend on Sunday if the weather is favourable.
Hamilton, also, has good reason to wish to claw back some points by winning his home race for a fourth year in a row and a fifth overall, to draw level with Alain Prost’s record.
The three-time world champion’s boss at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, believes Hamilton has had his fair share of bad luck and hopes that the momentum will swing back his way in front of his home crowd.
“My opinion is Lewis has had all the bad luck that you can have,” said Wolff.
“We’ve let him down with the head-rest and we’ve let him down with the gearbox and now it’s about time to fight back and hopefully that’s going to happen at Silverstone.”
Hamilton himself has kept out of the limelight since making his disappointed exit from the Red Bull Ring last Sunday, but admitted: “I don’t have a crystal ball, but it doesn’t look great at the moment.
“And how am I going to turn that? We’ve still got a long way to go, it could easily switch within one race, but the bigger that gap gets, the more pressure builds.”
Asked about his low-key demeanour after the Austrian race, he said: “It’s important for people who are watching and also people who are reporting to understand that you have to have patience with us as drivers.
“You train, you sacrifice everything to make sure that you get the best result possible. So, when you don’t deliver and other things are stacked up against you, it’s hard to come out smiling and be ‘Oh, yeah, that’s fine’, because that means you don’t care enough.
“And the fact is I care more than anything. And there are days where it feels more painful than others. There are other hard days when it’s easier to handle and think ‘no worries, we’ll move forward’.”
Recent events including Vettel’s ‘road rage’ attack in last month’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where Hamilton missed out on victory because of a loose head-rest, and his five-place grid penalty in Austria for an unscheduled gearbox change, have conspired to see him drop from 12 to 20 points behind.
Finn Bottas’ second victory of the season lifted him within 35 points of Vettel and into contention — another factor that could come into play on Sunday.
“It’s still early days in the championship and more than 50 per cent of the season to go — so a massive amount of points remain to get,” he said.
“It’s still a long year ahead and I’m sure we’ll be in the championship fight.”
Wolff believes, however, that Hamilton remains the main man for Mercedes and will seek to bounce back with home support.
“Lewis is doing the job in a pretty perfect way right now and, if he keeps doing that, the results will follow,” he said.