Pay Attention: Formula 1 Finally Has The Driver Rivalry It Has Badly Needed

Pay Attention: Formula 1 Finally Has The Driver Rivalry It Has Badly Needed

The great irony of Formula 1 is what it needs to manufacture most: rivalry between drivers. All sports thrive on individual rivalries, but few need it more than F1: whereas most other sports can sell their spectacle, F1's world of tyre changes, safety cars and engine technicalities is generally too arcane to appeal to the casual sports fan.

Hence, it needs to be put into the more stark terms of 'these two guys straight up don't like each other'. The sport has not wanted for these in the past: Hunt/Lauda, Senna/Prost, and Schumacher/Hakkinen.

A surprising amount of the history of these rivalries is kamikaze in the name of enmity: Senna took himself and Prost out of the Japanese GP in 1990 to secure the title, while Schumacher slammed into Damon Hill in the final race four years ago to win the Championship.

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had their own version of this in Baku last weekend. Hamilton set the pace on a safety lap, and as he slowed up for the imminent restart, Vettel bumped his Ferrari into the back of Hamilton's car. Vettel was penalised with a 10-second stop-go whilst Hamilton was forced into a pit stop to fit a new head restraint which ended up costing him more time than the German.

After the race, Hamilton let rip at Vettel, saying that his reaction shows him to be "mentally weak".

It’s been obvious for some time. Look at last year. Some of the things he said on the radio [in which Vettel launched a blistering attack on the race director at the Mexican Grand Prix, telling him to "fuck off. Honestly, fuck off"] We know how he can be. I would never have thought that would have happened on Sunday. We as a team know that can be a positive for us.


Hamilton also encouraged Vettel to sort out yesterday's dispute outside of the car, branding his behaviour "a disgrace". Vettel rejoined by claiming Hamilton had been brake-checking the Ferrari in slowing down.

Whereas Hamilton's previous with Nico Rosberg never really caught fire, the current duel with Vettel promises to. There is also the added plot-line of both men being on relatively good terms to now.Speaking to the Express a couple of years ago, Hamilton said that there was no need for his relationship with Vettel to improve:

It was never bad. That is just another assumption. Just because you like the Beatles more than the Rolling Stones doesn't mean you respect them less than the other. It' a bit silly really do you not think? It's like saying I like Arsenal but it doesn't mean I dislike Man United.

Now, however, both are divided on the one issue: winning. Both have flitted around in each other's hinterlands over the past decade, and the Championship was passed from one to the other in the years between Jenson Button's 2009 title and Nico Rosberg's triumph last year.

Hamilton won his first Championship in 2008, with Vettel then taking four-in-a-row in a dominant Red Bull car from 2010. Hamilton then regained control in 2014 and 2015. Remarkably, despite the championship resembling a virtual duopoly this decade, Vettel and Hamilton have never both finished in the top two in the same season.

This season promises a change, however. Both have had three wins each thus far, with Hamilton trailing Vettel by 14 points. Tensions frayed last month in Spain, as Hamilton was forced off the track as he was grazed by Vettel as they battled for the lead at turn one. Hamilton admitted afterward that he wasn't sure if the friendship would survive the thrust of direct competition.


There is little doubt about that now, as Toto Wolff of Mercedes gleefully tells us all that "the gloves are off".

Nobody wanted to see the schmoozing anyway, so now the gloves are off. The sport needs the rivalry. What we have seen today is the ingredient of a great championship.

They are warriors. They are at war at that moment. They are fighting for the race wins and the championship.

At a certain stage, the best ones that compete for the world championship in that phase of their careers can't be friends. Maybe we've seen the limit of that respect today.

While both men have had their internecine squabbles with teammates in recent years: Hamilton with Rosberg, Vettel with Mark Webber, but these have all felt petty, rather than potentially defining. The fissuring of the Vettel/Hamilton relationship is the rivalry the sport has needed: the two best drivers of their generation going toe-to-toe.

To now, Hamilton and Vettel's battle has taken on the odd shape of the Liverpool/Man United dominance of Engish football: between the 1970s and Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013, both clubs won most of the English league titles on offer, without ever truly competing against each other across many of those seasons.

Now, however, we finally have both racers going head-to-head for a single title.

With 12 races left in the season, it's time for us all to buckle up.

 See Also: Faster Than Senna - The Greatest Irish Sportsperson That Never Was 

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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