Even though the 2017 Formula One season has yet to even reach its halfway point, most people – fans and pundits alike – will have by now accepted that only two drivers are realistically capable of winning the World title.
Between them, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton share seven world titles and, with Nico Rosberg sensationally retiring in the immediate aftermath of his 2016 title win, Hamilton began 2017 as odds-on favourite to regain his lost crown.
Back in October 2015, Hamilton secured his third world title with several races to spare. However, the more cynical F1 fanatic may have questioned whether or not the same outcome would have been yielded, had Vettel also been afforded the unrivalled machinery of a Mercedes. Even though Hamilton is still favourite in every market with online betting on Formula One at Guts.com the fact remains that Ferrari’s own main weapon leads the standings ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. This would vindicate the stance of the anti-Hamilton cynic, but all signs still point to a fourth world title for the Brit.
This year’s Spanish Grand Prix was another hotly contested battle between F1’s ‘big two’.
Does Tomorrow belong to Mercedes?
Whether or not Vettel is still truly being hampered by Ferrari’s ever-diminishing lag behind Mercedes is still debatable. What is not debatable, however, is the fact that the four-time champion’s competitive temperament and will to win is still unrivalled. Vettel, like many other champions of yore – including his boyhood idol Michael Schumacher, is not averse to employing some Machiavellian techniques to get the job done. Famously, as a Red Bull driver at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, he defied team orders to win the race and contribute significantly to what was the winning points total in his fourth title-winning season.
As much as that mindset was his ally earlier this decade, so too could it prove to be his undoing in the present day climate of F1. The aftermath of last year’s Mexican Grand Prix is arguably one of the most explosive manifestations of his temperament in living memory, and Ferrari will need team unity more than ever while Mercedes is still in sight. Based on the respective summer records of each constructor in recent years, Vettel’s failure to consistently reach the podium in any of the next five races will see tempers severely frayed.
Four years ago, Vettel created friction in the Red Bull ranks after winning the Malaysian Grand Prix in controversial circumstances, but he plays to win. This will make him a great winner or a horrendous loser. There is no middle ground in F1.
The Summer Battleground
Though Ferrari have clearly made up much technical ground on Mercedes over the summer, the Silver Arrows still have a born winner in team principal Toto Wolff. His approach will likely be a more scientific one, with a greater emphasis on data processing rather than all-encompassing one-off changes, as the mid-point of the season approaches. He is also clearly apt to use reverse-psychology at opportune moments, to motivate the men who represent his efforts on the track, stating during an interview that Mercedes were in fact comparing unfavourably to Ferrari.
Tellingly, every race of 2016, between Monaco (on 29 May) and Singapore (18 September) was won by either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg for Mercedes. As such, the summer races of 2017 will be absolutely crucial for Ferrari and Vettel. With Ferrari now improved from last season, Vettel can likely afford to ignore most of his (relatively disappointing) results from summer 2016 and focus on the races in which there were clear issues with performance. If predictions for the title race are to be made from a statistical – and historical – standpoint, then it could easily be Hamilton’s home circuit that proves the decisive battleground.
A retirement from the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix may have been dismissed as the sort of bad luck that can befall even the most cultured driver, but a ninth place finish immediately after (in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone) was inexcusable for a four-time champion. By avenging that insult with a finish of first or second, Vettel will have great confidence for the subsequent races in what should be a close and enthralling title race.