These reasons are pre-season, so don’t come into play when it turns out that the 2018 title fight will actually be between Ricciardo’s Red Bull and Alonso’s McLaren-Renault. But if 2018 has a similar feel to last season, the following are relevant reasons to get excited about Hamilton vs Vettel in 2018.
Both drivers head into the 2018 season knowing that the record book has them down as equals, with four titles apiece. Where last season saw tensions arise over the battle for the 2017 title, this season presents wider ramifications that, when framed historically, could be considered the point in which one driver’s career surpassed the others. The past decade has seen Hamilton and Vettel dominate, with Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg the only other title winners in this time. It presents a clear picture – here two of the great Formula 1 drivers of our time, and this is the season that will attempt to separate them.
It’s difficult to admit this given how synonymous Hamilton and Vettel are to Formula 1, but both drivers have more seasons behind them than they’ve got ahead of them. This could add a bit more pressure to chasing results, with both drivers aware that opportunities to rectify errors or win races are thinning with every passing grand prix. After 68 F1 seasons, Michael Schumacher (seven titles) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five titles) are the only remaining benchmarks that our two four-time champions can aspire to.
But as they look to secure their own legacies in the sport, they must also look over their shoulders at the younger talents hungry to cement their own records. Drivers like Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and Carlos Sainz will be around the Formula 1 paddock for a long time based on recent performances, so Hamilton and Vettel will surely strive to become the mountainous benchmarks for the generation that follows them, and hope that they aren’t caught.
The 2017 rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel lived up to expectations in some areas, but not in others. The off-track drama and commentary between the drivers delivered, whilst the occasional hostilities and toxicity were only a measurement of how much desire two athletes who are desperate to win have when they face off against one another.
It may have been considered petty in some instances, but mind games, passion-induced irrationality and word wars are byproducts of two drivers and two teams looking to obtain an advantage by any means. It’s an element of Formula 1 rivalry that has always existed.
The ectoplasm that remains from the ghosts of 2017 will hopefully contain traces of on-track fights, as this is an area we’d always like to see more of. We can only hope that for the sake of this season and its gigantic context that Mercedes and Ferrari are close enough on-track to deliver more wheel-to-wheel battles between its top drivers.
With closer racing between Mercedes and Ferrari in mind, the latter has made it very clear that a more efficient quality control will be key to unlocking consistency in 2018. Ferrari has drafted in Maria Mendoza from Fiat-Chrysler to oversee improved functionality within the department.
Whilst the front-row Ferrari crash at Marina Bay has become the poster for Vettel’s demise in the 2017 campaign, engine failures during the Malaysian and Japanese Grand Prix cost the German significant points, as did the team-wide tyre failures at the British Grand Prix. Better quality control would help ensure that minor components don’t fail as the team focuses on research and development as well as the more complex elements of the power unit. The reform in this area highlights a team that has acknowledged its errors from last season with a desire to improve.
On the other hand, the Mercedes W08 wasn’t perfect either, but its issues related to balance and what Hamilton described as “fundamental flaws” in how the car reacted through some corners. If the team can get a grip on its 2018 car early on, then it is crucial that Ferrari’s quality control is on the ball to prevent Silver Arrow dominance.
In the red corner, we have a soft-spoken private individual who transforms into an agitated competitor when the helmet goes on. In the silver corner, we have an ambitious driver open to the celebrity world and fan engagement who wants to actively emphasise his talents both inside and outside of the sport. Both drivers have one thing in common beyond ability: they are divisive.
Since his time at Red Bull, Vettel has carried with him the reputation of being a frustrated perfectionist, who is now infamous for complaining over team radio too. This irritation could be described as sulky, it could also be considered passion leaving the body.
Hamilton, meanwhile, happily embraces his star status in F1 and in doing so, exposes himself to wider societal conversations, be it gender equality or tax evasion. Whilst living in a world where social media demands that our professional athletes are absolute reflections of a perfect set of values serves as a delusional front for progress, the Brit will be driven to show greatness on-track so we can start talking about and celebrating him as a driver again.
Both drivers will be regarded as Formula 1 greats in years to come, and if both teams deliver competitive cars, 2018 may provide the first signs of defining one great over the other, and that surely provides more motivation for both and in turn, intensifies the rivalry.