The Clash Of The Titans
F1 Racing UK|October 2017

It’s a fight for the ages: triple champion Lewis Hamilton vs four-time champ Sebastian Vettel. Each has a competitive car; each is at the peak of his ability. But who will prevail? We ask a sports psychologist, a tech expert, team bosses and two hard-boiled team-mates to adjudicate

This championship battle has been ten years in the making. Remarkably, since they first burst onto the F1 scene, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have never properly fought head-to-head for a world title – until now.

Between them they have claimed seven convincingly earned drivers’ championships, yet Hamilton and Vettel have seldom shared a racetrack while on peak form in closely matched machinery. When Hamilton won his first championship, in 2008, Vettel was busy confirming his future-star status with some storming drives for Toro Rosso, culminating in that unforgettable victory at Monza – a first for both team and driver. Vettel was promoted to the senior Red Bull team a year later, just as the Milton Keynes massive were about to hit their stride with a series of Adrian Newey-authored cars that enabled Vettel to be largely dominant over four seasons from 2010 to 2013.

Until the end of 2012, Hamilton remained at the wheel of a McLaren, which, for the most part, lacked the final edge of competitiveness needed for him to string together a title bid. He came close in 2010, only to fall out of mathematical contention at the final grand prix in Abu Dhabi. Then, in 2011, he seemed unfocused and off the boil, and it was his McLaren team-mate, Jenson Button, who finished second to Vettel. Hamilton came back fighting and switched to Mercedes for 2013, just as they were about to emerge as the pre-eminent team of the hybrid era. He added two drivers’ titles (2014 and ’15) while Vettel was a frustrated bystander – first in a less competitive Red Bull, then, from 2015, a Ferrari.

Under this season’s new regulations, however, Ferrari have closed the gap to Mercedes, their SF70H capable of being a pace-setter – in Vettel’s hands at least. And both Seb and Lewis have been at the top of their respective games and generally neck-and-neck, prompting flashpoints such as ‘biff-gate’ at Baku, more of which anon.

It has made for a fascinating contest, but just as Hamilton’s fights for the title with former team-mate Nico Rosberg began amicably enough, only to descend into rancour, so 2017 kicked off with our combatants seemingly on good terms. Vettel won at the season opener in Australia, then Hamilton struck back in China. At the Spanish GP they went wheel to wheel for the lead, making contact, but afterwards maintained their mutual respect. Hamilton was victorious that day, but Vettel won in Monaco, and then Lewis fought back with a win in Canada.

Then came Baku.

Here, previously hidden tensions revealed themselves, as Vettel, feeling that he had been brake-tested, side-swiped Hamilton. Vettel’s composure has cracked before, usually in the form of tirades over the team radio, but rarely has he exercised that frustration physically. The events of the race also tested Hamilton’s composure, for while Vettel was penalised and ultimately finished fourth, Hamilton had to stop for a loose headrest to be re-fixed, consigning him to fifth. How much will temperament play a part as we race towards the season’s end?

At the next round in Austria, Hamilton discovered he would take a five-place grid drop for a new gearbox. Mercedes admitted that in their quest to keep up the development race with Ferrari, they had been more aggressive with their engineering solutions – and, as a result, had suffered with reliability. Could this year’s title race yet be decided by mechanical failings?

Other factors will doubtless come into play. How, for example, will both teams manage their drivers as the championship nears its conclusion? What role will their team-mates play? On the evidence of Monaco and Hungary, Ferrari are clearly putting their weight behind Vettel; Mercedes, though, have committed to equal treatment. When Bottas let Hamilton past in Hungary for a tilt at the Ferraris, Lewis honourably returned that position at the final corner, even though it cost him three points.

What effect could that have on the outcome? How will each driver react to team strategy? How do you manage Vettel or Hamilton in a showdown? Will one beat the other? What weaknesses can they exploit? We asked team bosses Christian Horner and Paddy Lowe, who oversaw all of both protagonists’ titles; Vettel and Hamilton’s team-mates, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg; and sports psychology author Clyde Brolin, who looks at their mental makeup. We also asked F1 tech guru Pat Symonds to analyse the machinery at the pair’s disposal.

We’ve waited a long time for this 20-round fight between Hamilton and Vettel. After ten rounds, only one point separated them. Now there are seven to go. Who will prevail?

MIND GAMES

Clyde Brolin, author of In the Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, gives his view on the psychological battle between the two rivals

With seven titles between them, Lewis Hamilton and Seb Vettel are the undisputed big-hitters of modern F1. Yes, most of the glory arrived during dominant periods for their teams. But, at their imperious best, each has become well acquainted with sport’s ultimate sensation of peak performance ‘in the zone’ – flying around the world’s tracks with effortless grace.

Once anyone samples this sporting nirvana, they invariably crave the return of the fast track. The only problem is that this ‘zone’ isn’t available on tap. Now, as Lewis and Seb finally go head to-head in similar machinery, every weekend it’s clear whose head really is ahead. When they take it in turns to go missing, out come the monosyllabic answers. No wonder the friendly facade is beginning to fray.

First came Vettel’s Baku road rage, then Hamilton’s apparent own goal: missing F1 Live London to ‘mentally prepare’ for Silver stone. It worked, but only because the ensuing critical scrutiny piled on the sort of pressure that motivates him and allows him to thrive. We can expect the mind games to intensify,

so is either racer a bona fide head master? Not according to mind coach Don Mac Pherson, who has worked with champions in every sporting arena – from pro tennis to F1.

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