Baku: Championship leader Sebastian Vettel returns to the scene of last year’s road rage conflict with Lewis Hamilton this weekend when the title challengers contest the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
One year on from a fierce and defining on-track battle that saw the German Ferrari driver collide with the Briton’s Mercedes, after claiming he was ‘brake tested’, Vettel has a nine-point lead over Hamilton in this year’s title race.
Hamilton and Mercedes are without a win after three races this year and, on recent form, appear to be struggling to defend their drivers’ and teams’ crowns against a resurgent Ferrari and threatening Red Bull.
Both Vettel and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo have registered victories this season and Hamilton, notably in China two weeks ago, has not shown his usual élan so far.
His former Mercedes teammate and 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, however, is adamant that the four-time champion will bounce back stronger than ever.
“When he comes back, he comes back so damn strong that he’s almost unbeatable — so let’s see when that happens,” said Rosberg on YouTube.
His belief in Hamilton was echoed this week by Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff who also noticed that the defending world champion was below his best in Shanghai.
“He was, like the car, maybe not in the best place,” said Wolff. “He is the best driver, in my opinion, but also the best ones have days where it is just not 100 per cent.
“And if underneath you have a car that is not performing as expected — and tyres not doing what you think they should — and the strategy goes against you, then everything just goes in the wrong direction.”
Wolff and his team expect another close and challenging scrap this weekend in Baku on the fastest street circuit in use and for the season ahead.
“Last year, we were in a tough fight with Ferrari,” said Wolff. “But that was nothing compared to the intensity of the contest this year. And, you know, not everyone likes this kind of challenge, but we do — we love it.”
Chasing down Vettel and Ferrari is not a new experience for Hamilton and Mercedes.
Last season, the German led the title race for 12 races before he was caught and overhauled when Hamilton reeled off a sequence of five wins in six races that laid the foundation for his fourth title.
In that run, Ferrari made errors and Red Bull were not a serious threat.
This year, however, it is a different story.
Following Vettel’s two season-opening wins in Australia and Bahrain, Ricciardo, courted by Ferrari for 2019 and beyond, triumphed in China. He hopes another Baku win could help him cement his future.
Last year, Ricciardo won after dropping to 18th following a series of crashes, incidents and three Safety Car interventions.
“I want to be in the best car and I proved in China that if I’ve got the machinery, I can do the job. If we win a few more races, with Red Bull, that makes it (staying) very attractive, but if not ... there’s other options.”
For Wolff, it all wraps up to mean that the fans are in for a classic season and “an amazing battle in which every detail counts and with an outcome that no one can predict”.
Wolff, however, may not wish to be reminded that if Vettel wins in Baku, to register his third win in four races, he will be a nailed-on favourite for the title.
Since 1990, 13 drivers have achieved the feat and all took the championship.
1. Sebastian Vettel (GER) 54 pts, 2. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) 45, 3. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) 40, 4. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) 37, 5. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) 30, 6. Fernando Alonso (ESP) 22, 7. Nico Hulkenberg (GER) 22, 8. Max Verstappen (NED) 18, 9. Pierre Gasly (FRA) 12, 10. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) 11, 11. Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL) 6, 12. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) 3, 13. Marcus Ericsson (SWE) 2, 14. Esteban Ocon (FRA) 1
1. Mercedes 85 pts, 2. Ferrari 84, 3. Red Bull 55, 4. McLaren 28, 5. Renault 25, 6. Toro Rosso 12, 7. Haas 11, 8. Sauber 2, 9. Force India 1