This year’s duel between Lewis and Sebastian has been a long time coming. But what makes the two most successful drivers of the current era tick?
Their Formula 1 careers run broadly in parallel. Sebastian Vettel first appeared as a BMW Sauber test driver during the 2006 season and made his race debut at Indianapolis the following summer, standing in for the injured Robert Kubica and scoring a point. That was only Lewis Hamilton’s seventh Grand Prix – and he won it for McLaren, his second F1 conquest in successive Sundays. Eight weeks later Vettel was promoted to a full-time race seat at Toro Rosso. At a rain-soaked Fuji (his sixth start) he ran third until sliding into the back of Mark Webber’s Red Bull, but one week later in China he made partial amends by finishing fourth.
Hamilton had the greater opportunity to shine, with a potentially race-winning car at his disposal from day one, but some of Vettel’s early performances were no less remarkable. Both have been part of the F1 landscape ever since.
Hamilton came within a point of being a rookie champion that season, but was unseated by Ferrari team tactics at Interlagos. He won the title one year later, during a campaign in which 21-year-old Vettel scored a remarkable lights-to-flag win at a sodden Monza – ensuring that Red Bull’s nursery team became a winner before its senior counterpart.
In 2009 the German scored Red Bull’s maiden victory, too, emerging as a championship contender before going on take four straight titles. Between 2010 and 2013 he scored 34 Grand Prix victories to Hamilton’s 10, but the balance of power was reversed when the hybrid engine rules came in for 2014 and Hamilton had one of the best two seats in the house, at Mercedes.
Although Vettel’s transfer to Ferrari made him a winner again in 2015, the competitive tension between the two has reached its highest level this season – a by-product of Ferrari becoming more consistently capable of challenging for victories.
So what makes both men tick? On the following pages we speak to those best placed to comment.
He’s one of the most enigmatic and thrilling performers the sport has ever seen – for those prepared to be thrilled, at least, for his persona remains divisive among fans.
His abilities are all-encompassing. But his game is sometimes not. That’s a unique combination. His speed over one lap or in the wet, the overtaking ability, the hard-edged commitment wheel to wheel, his talent for judging perfectly the balancing point between aggression and transgression of the rules, his feel for the tyres – all these things he has in rich abundance. But he’s also quite capable of having a quiet weekend, where he just isn’t a factor. Paddy Lowe saw it first hand at both McLaren and Mercedes and believes it’s related to pressure – but in the opposite way to how it is with most drivers.
“The few times he underperforms are all when he’s not under pressure. It’s quite unique. Under pressure, he can be frightening and pretty much impossible to beat.
“The ability to handle extreme pressure is in any world-class F1 driver. There are many examples in history – when it was Mika versus Michael at Suzuka in ’98 I thought Mika was the rightful winner for his ability to perform under that intense pressure you get at the climax of a championship. Another great example was Nico last year in Abu Dhabi [a reference to Hamilton trying his best to back Rosberg into the pack behind or tempt him into trying a pass that might have caused him not to finish]. Lewis very professionally and very, very skilfully, within the limits of the rules, put Nico to the most incredible test. It was the most difficult challenge you could give a driver and Nico passed it. But it nearly broke him. He retired immediately afterwards! Lewis has that. He just absorbs it all and delivers.
“But when not under any real pressure, you’ve seen over the years the odd lapse in concentration, lapse of commitment. But he’ll then come back knowing he’s got to get the job done and be completely unbeatable. In the remaining races I don’t envy Sebastian facing a Lewis knowing what he’s got to do. He’s quite difficult to beat in that situation.”
How fast is he? “I think he’s one of the all-time fastest drivers in the history of F1,” says his former team-mate Jenson Button, “maybe even faster than Senna. Fernando was in some ways a tougher team-mate because Lewis could have weekends where he just wasn’t there. Not many, but occasionally. You never got that with Fernando, but in terms of speed, yes probably the fastest I’ve seen.”
Another former team-mate, Nico Rosberg, concurs: “He’s one of the best of all time in qualifying, so it’s always going to be difficult to beat him. His natural speed is just immense. He can go off the boil for no apparent reason now and again, but overall just immense. To race against he’s incredibly tough because wheel to wheel he can be unreasonable – but just up to the point of plausible deniability. He’s very skilled at treading that line of not quite breaking the rules.”
Button’s late father John once related a tale of what Jenson had told him shortly after joining McLaren and seeing Hamilton’s telemetry. “He said, ‘Dad, if he ever fathoms out how to work with his engineers, the rest of us might as well all go home. But don’t worry, because that’s not going to happen’.” Although the years have built up his technical understanding, he’s still quite capable of taking a wrong turn on set-up, something he admitted at Suzuka this year, saying. “I think the fact that Friday second practice was rained out actually probably helped me. I might have messed up the set-up if it had stayed dry.”
That awareness of his weaknesses might even be construed as a strength. Back in 2014, his then-Mercedes colleague Jock Clear said of him: “Sometimes he’d have a problem and we’d talk it through and fix it. Then at the end of it he’d say, ‘But you need to be aware of this, because I’ll do it again’.”
Just as going on a wild set-up goose chase is still something he’s capable of doing, so is a refusal to accept the car’s limitations, often over-driving in an attempt at getting around a chassis imbalance and going yet-slower. It manifests as a sort of stubbornness to accept limitations that are lower than they should be, no-compromise striving even when everything is pointing towards a softer approach.
We saw this most notably this year in Sochi, where the front of the car just wasn’t working. It was apparent to a lesser degree in Monaco and Hungary, where Valtteri Bottas’s way of just accepting what the car was on the day, and driving within it, allowed him to shade Hamilton through doing less, not more. It’s an underlying weak point in Hamilton’s performances, but one that the ‘diva’ Mercedes W08 has revealed quite frequently. Conversely, there have been days when he’s succeeded in dragging more from the car than it should by merit have been able to deliver – such as in Sepang, where Bottas could get nowhere near Hamilton’s pole-winning pace.
The under- and overachieving of this year share a root cause: his refusal to accept that something is impossible. He has off-the-scale talent and 100 per cent confidence in it. Michael Schumacher, in an interview after his final retirement, said he pushed to be better because of a basic insecurity in whether he could drive faster than everyone else. Lewis does not have that insecurity. He may have others, but that total conviction that he can drive a car faster than anyone – and that there is something amiss when he’s not fastest – is the centre of gravity of who he is as a driver.
So, a truly great driver with a couple of unusual flaws, only one of which – the occasional inability to resolve the conflicts arising from car imbalance and driving approach – has been apparent this year at the time of writing (post-Suzuka). The occasional quiet weekends seen in previous seasons (most notably in 2015, after clinching the title) have not been apparent at all; anywhere he’s been off the pace this year it’s been through over-striving.
The intensity of his competitive will inevitably shapes perceptions and the sometimes terse radio messages to his team as he manages his race have cast him as a demanding and unsympathetic persona. Which couldn’t be further from the truth, according to those who work with him. He brings challenges to the team, certainly, but they are not borne of arrogance. James Allison: “It has been a considerable pleasure joining Mercedes this year for many, many reasons, but one of those was that it was my first opportunity to start working alongside Lewis… The experience of working with him is very different to what I imagined and I’ve found a racing driver of the sort of excellence that we can see from his statistics and the way he goes about his job. What has been particularly good is that I’ve found a guy that conducts himself as a man in a way that makes you happy to work alongside him.”
As for how Hamilton and Vettel measure up, Allison – as one of the few to have worked with them both (and Fernando Alonso) – will not be drawn. “There’s an impossibility of answering it because there’s only one way to know for sure and it’s to line them all up in exactly the same equipment on the same days and have a championship where you find out exactly. All I can tell you is that all three of them have got the victories and the achievements that they have, not by good fortune but by being brilliantly skilful racing drivers.”
Hamilton is famous – to a degree beyond that of any other F1 driver. He’s the only one whose fame transcends the sport and he lives his public life very much in its thrall, enjoying the celebrity lifestyle and bachelor status. That extends to his public persona, which is very much that of a showman – which looks great from a distance. An F1 star turning up at the track on his MV-Agusta and doing burn-outs for the fans at Monza? What’s not to like? A lot of thought goes into projecting that image but up close, it can occasionally fall down and leave him sounding naïve. Which seems to be the root of the divisiveness he induces. He’s a complex character, but an intrinsically good person – and a truly fantastic racer.
An extraordinary competitor for the 10th straight year, Vettel quite unfairly still has the stigma of ‘Adrian Newey car advantage’ attached to his greatest achievements. But several times earlier in the year, even Hamilton acknowledged the phenomenal level of Vettel’s driving. That was during the tentative entente cordiale, before Baku when a remarkable loss of personal control from Vettel led him to throw his car at Hamilton’s during a safety car period. The compliments rather dried up after that, but that little incident – and his part in a startline crash from pole at Singapore – effectively did for his championship chances. It meant he had nothing to cushion him from the unreliability Ferrari suffered in Malaysia and Japan.
But for much of the season Vettel and the Ferrari were the gold standard, delivering more consistent performances than Hamilton/Mercedes in the first half of the year. It’s impossible to decouple a driver’s performance from that of his car and team, but there seemed a definite sense of Ferrari throwing everything it had in the way of technical innovation at what was a supremely sound and raceable car, but that the programme was perhaps too intense for the team to retain full control of every aspect. The operation was less of a well-oiled machine than that at Mercedes, the pressure upon it to achieve title success vastly greater – and it’s difficult not to see a connection between this and Vettel’s competitive snapping point in those two crucial incidents.
It’s perhaps not so surprising – for he assumes a responsibility for his team, feels himself to be much more intrinsic to it than does Hamilton, who has more the demeanour and outlook of a gun for hire. Vettel’s competitive intensity extends far further out of the car than does Hamilton’s – sometimes to a level that made the team uncomfortable as it under-performed in 2016. Maurizio Arrivabene fired by-proxy public warning shots across his bows late last year, almost certainly under instruction from Sergio Marchionne. ‘Stop getting so involved in the running of the team’ was the message, ‘Just concentrate on being a driver’. Which was to totally misunderstand why he is such a great driver. With a competitive car in ’17, the nature of the pressure changed as real success became tangible and that ratcheting pressure upon the team surely permeated the state of mind of a driver with such an outlook.
Vettel’s approach has more depth than Hamilton’s and even if his raw talent is not quite so extraordinary, as a combination he might even be better – in the right circumstances. But Vettel has been trying to operate as a Schumacher at Ferrari, but without the same supporting foundations. There is no equivalent of Michael’s Ross Brawn or Jean Todt. According to a very well placed source in the team, Vettel tried very hard to leave the Scuderia last year, following the departure of James Allison. That there was no contractual way out became a blessing once it became apparent just what a great job the technical department – with enhanced input from Rory Byrne – had done with the 2017 car.
This is all necessary background in understanding Vettel’s season. There was definitely an element of them being partners of convenience, each serving the ambitions of the other but with the little underlying affection. As they succeeded together, so relations between Arrivabene and Vettel began to thaw – but such incestuous turbulence surely played a part in activating the emotional hair trigger that resides within Vettel. It was first seen at Istanbul 2010 and his collision there with team-mate Mark Webber, who’d induced Seb’s rage by deliberately backing him into reach of the chasing McLarens. It was on display again in Mexico last year after Max Verstappen backed him into Daniel Ricciardo. And the trigger snapped again at Baku this year. It’s a sort of momentary competitive blindness and it’s his biggest – maybe his only – weakness. It made for an unfortunate combination with the emotional undercurrents and personal dynamics at play inside the team as the holy grail came within its reach.
“He puts more work into the job than any other driver,” says his former boss Helmut Marko. “Even now when I’m on the same flight, I will see him making notes, analysing data the whole time. He is unique in this. He leaves absolutely nothing on the table. I will go to sleep, wake up – and still he is working.”
Yet the intensity is combined with a personality that has a lovely lightness of being, a very natural and human touch. He’s genuine and friendly, impossible not to like out of the car. He will shake everyone’s hand even after a bad race. He was inspirational in the whole engine failure thing in Malaysia. He’s much more fully engaged with those around him than Hamilton, who is friendly enough but more contained, with a tougher protective shell around him. Vettel’s persona is more down-to-earth, he’s a family man and doesn’t inhabit the weird low-oxygen world of celebrity where Lewis exists. He’s low key, under the radar even. In contrast to Hamilton’s fan-pleasing MV-Agusta burn-outs, Vettel will turn up disguised in a hoodie on an ancient 175 Yamaha – or by bicycle, riding down the Montréal cycle paths with his trainer, just another ‘hat-and-shades’ cyclist among many.
While his demanding ways may have made the senior Ferrari management uneasy, his genuine manner with everyone else on the team makes him hugely popular. James Allison mentioned it in 2015, saying: “He’s a lovely guy and a great communicator. When he has a tough thing to say, he does it in a constructive way that helps everyone move forward.”
“What marks Seb out is his attention to detail, his work ethic in terms of focusing on his own performance,” says Christian Horner, the man who partnered him to those four championships. “He could always extract the absolute maximum from himself and the team. He’d be here long into the evening, his debriefs were endless.”
Interestingly, Horner cites his ability to deal with pressure as a major strength. “In China 2009, we had a leaking driveshaft boot on his car, all the grease was coming out and the chief mechanic said you’ve got one lap. He did one lap, went quickest in Q1, squirt a bit more grease in it, quickest in Q2, more grease, one lap in Q3 – pole. He gave us our first victory the next day. In the championship he was effectively out of it in 2010, out of it in 2012 and still he refused to give up. In those big pressure races of Abu Dhabi 2010, Brazil 2012, his mental resilience was amazing.” That, however, was in a team that he felt was always in his corner. Thereby relieving a whole layer of pressure. At Ferrari, he has operational priority in the way the team’s races are run, but that public under-mining of his efforts last year will have created a scar, broken a bond – perhaps before it had even been established. He will say all the right things about the team in public and he very much sees bringing the title back to the Scuderia as an ambition worthy of further sacrifice and tolerance, but performing with people who were publically critical will always ramp up that internal pressure.
Nico Rosberg has an interesting take on Vettel: “He believes he is never wrong. This can be a fantastic strength in so tough an environment as F1. There’s a hot-headedness there too and this combination has benefited him in the past. But it can also blind you, and I think that has happened a couple of times this year. Apart from those lapses though, he brings great consistency at a very high level.”
Whenever Hamilton breaks another record and is asked about when he might retire, his response invariably includes Vettel. “He’s not so far behind me in the numbers. If I stopped and he carried on, he could get back ahead of me.” So very different, then, but so similar in terms of end result.