F1 2017 just got real! Sebastian Vettel’s moment of madness, his jink into the wheels of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes from which they were both lucky to emerge undamaged, has turned what was already a captivating head-to-head fight for the title, into something even more exciting. It’s just got personal.
Initially, I have to say I had sympathy with the Ferrari driver. According to the Highway Code it might be the responsibility of the driver behind to avoid contact with the car ahead, but the rules of the road go out of the window when it comes to the track. There are very clear guidelines on how the drivers are supposed to behave when driving behind the safety car, and even though there is some tolerance of braking and accelerating so that heat can be retained in the brakes and tyres, in general a consistent speed is supposed to be maintained.
On live TV it certainly appeared that Hamilton was slower than would normally be expected and to me it seemed obvious why Vettel would have been so irked when he was caught out by the (lack of) pace of Mercedes and rear-ended him, causing damage to the Ferrari’s front wing in the process.
His next move to draw alongside the Brit to give him a piece of his mind was a logical extension to his frustration, but what happened after that is impossible to justify. Quite whether Vettel actually intended to bang into Hamilton with such force I feel is debatable. I suspect that he just wanted to ‘buzz’ him but got it wrong, but either way it was an extraordinary thing for a four-time world champion to do.
While up to this point it had made a pleasant change to hear Hamilton and Vettel pass around the plaudits, reveling in the competitiveness of the title fight they were in, over the course of a 21-race season, that bonhomie was going to wear a little thin. Not anymore!
I’m sure there will be attempts behind the scenes in both camps to clear the air before the next race of the season, but the genie is out of the bottle now. Whatever mutual respect existed between them before cannot survive in the same form now, no matter what lines they might trot out when they are sat next to each other in the drivers’ press conference ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix. Hamilton will have it in the back of his mind that Vettel is easily riled, a tinder box waiting to explode. Vettel on the other hand will be feeling that Hamilton is untrustworthy, willing to take the regulations to the limit (and maybe beyond?) to protect his interests.
Given that in race trim the Mercedes and Ferrari appear to be pretty evenly matched, it’s inconceivable that there won’t be multiple scenarios over the remaining races of the season where the two of them are disputing the same piece of asphalt. How they react the next time they go wheel-to-wheel is going to make for essential viewing.
It’s a pity that Red Bull appears to be unable to bridge the gap to the front two, because if either (or both) Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen were part of this title fight too, it would have the potential to be one of the all-time greats.
Ricciardo has an amazing knack of being in the right place at the right time to pick up the pieces when those around him let their guard drop. But this is no accident. Ricciardo pulled off some amazing passes in Baku to get himself into a position to profit from Vettel’s penalty and Hamilton’s bizarre need to pit to have his defective head protection fixed.
It could well be the Aussie’s only chance of a win this season, which is a terrible underrepresentation of his talents. Still, it was the perfect antidote to the Hamilton/Vettel beef and ought to ensure that the Red Bull marketing machine goes into overdrive ahead its home race next time out.
Another career-defining sub-plot was the podium finish for Launce Stroll. In the super-immediate, gnat’s attention span, ‘click, like, share’, world we live in, immediate results are expected of everybody all the time, with little shrift given to talent development and the benefits of experience.
There’s no doubt that taking the step directly from Formula 3 to F1 was a big one for Stroll, whose name can barely be mentioned without stating how much money he brings to the Williams team.
But that’s nothing new. Motorsport has been a rich man’s game since its very inception. Equally, expectations are so high now, that there is almost zero tolerance in some quarters for any form of learning on the job. This is where things have changed dramatically.
A few years ago one of my esteemed colleagues at AUTOSPORT, wrote a fascinating piece examining the career of Francois Cevert, Sir Jackie Stewart’s team-mate at Tyrrell and the man feted to head up the team after the Scot’s retirement.
By the time of Stewart’s decision to stop in 1973, Cevert’s status as a potential number one driver was assured, but that would not have been the conclusion drawn a third of the way into his debut season. Over his first four races, Cevert’s average starting position was 14th, while Stewart was mixing it in the top six. In the races, Cevert scored just a single point in his first dozen outings. It’s not the CV of a future champion.
However, Tyrrell gave Cevert time to develop and by 1973, Cevert was a regular podium finisher and clearly on the brink of a major breakthrough, although fate would tragically intervene and prevent his potential from being fulfilled.
I’ve no idea if Stroll will go on to be an F1 race winner let alone a champion. But I do know that no matter how good your team is, no matter how much testing you do, no matter how big the budget, you don’t win the Formula 3 Euroseries championship if you can’t drive. And as we have seen, even the very best in the world are capable of some very poor driving errors if they’re not careful.
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 16 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.