Vettel and Hamilton ready to renew title rivalry in Baku; “It’s a very important year for us,” says championship leader
After three successive seasons of exclusive domination for the Silver Arrows, Mercedes have been joined at the summit of the sport by a resurgent Ferrari outfit with just eight points separating the two behemoths in the Constructors’ Championship.
Ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan GP, Lewis Hamilton reiterated his belief Ferrari are the favourites to prevail, while championship leader Vettel argued the Scuderia, F1’s most famous and well-resourced team, deserve more recognition for their achievement in trading blow for blow with the Silver Arrows heavyweights.
“So far this season is really, really good for us,” said Vettel. “Let’s not forget that for the last three years Mercedes blew everyone else away.
“They improved their chassis quite a lot from 2014 to 2016 so as a team they have obviously grown a lot but so far this year we have been more or less the same on pace and l think that is more credit to us than them.
“They’ve had that sort of development pace for the last couple of years, so it is more credit to us that we can go at their pace so far.”
Hamilton has consistently argued Ferrari are the 2017 favourites ever since Vettel and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen led the way in winter testing. But although Hamilton stayed on script in Baku, the Mercedes driver, still on a high from his victory in Canada two weeks ago, indicated he is confident the world champions can overtake Ferrari in the so-called ‘development war’ after the summer break.
“I think they are still the favourites based on them having a more consistent season so far,” said Hamilton.
“We’ve had a more up and down season – although it’s not been bad by any means. I think they are favourites in terms of the fact that their car does seem to work everywhere. But l think there is more unlocked potential in our car and l’m hoping we get stronger and stronger through the year and as we iron out those creases we will become more and more consistent. I am hoping by September that we will be favourites – that’s what we are working towards.”
A concurring Vettel agreed: “It is going to be crucial to keep up the development race.”
The German, who hinted he will open contract talks with Ferrari during the upcoming summer break, is chasing his fifth drivers’ title while Ferrari themselves are seeking their first championship of any kind in almost a decade.
“This is a very important year for us,” admitted Vettel. “We are working well and things are coming together. We are starting to see some of the results of what we tried to put into place a while ago. Hopefully this is just the beginning and there is a lot more to come. I feel very comfortable.”
But so too does Hamilton, relishing his battle with Ferrari and Vettel after three exhausting years of intra-team fighting against Nico Rosberg.
“There is pressure for sure but l love it so it doesn’t feel like pressure,” said Hamilton.
Azerbaijan, hosting only its second ever F1 race, will present an entirely different proposition to the challenge Montreal presented two weeks ago. Ferrari were soundly beaten by Mercedes a year ago at Baku – but not by Hamilton after the Englishman crashed out in qualifying and then struggled to fathom an errant computer setting on race day.
“The track last year was very smooth and it was difficult to get the tyres to work,” said Vettel. “We have long straights between the corners which makes it difficult to warm up the tyres and the corners are low speed so again you have very little energy in the tyres. It will be crucial to get the tyres to work. From a drivers’ view, there are not many references and it’s not an easy one to get your eye in.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, is focused on righting the wrongs of his Azerbaijan debut.
“Last year was 90 per cent me and 10 per cent the car,” he said. “We changed something on the car from Friday to Saturday which wasn’t good but it wouldn’t have stopped me winning the race. I could have easily won the race but l just didn’t deliver. I’m here to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”