Firstly, let's make something clear. I know that this article will probably not go down that well with a few people, and is likely to ruffle a few feathers, so feel free to give your opinion either in the comments or the discussion page for this article.
Australia: First Blood to Vettel
Credit: F1 Fanatic/XPB Images
In the opening race of the season, it was clear that Mercedes yet again had a magnificent car, not unlike the previous three seasons, so did Ferrari. With the top three of Hamilton, Vettel and Bottas only separated by four tenths of a second the championship battle looked promising from the get-go.
The story of the race was a slightly different story however, as even though Vettel couldn't get past at the start of the race, he was able to leap-frog Hamilton at the pit stops due to slow stop for the Brit. It then looked as if we were going to be in for a close battle for the top step on the podium, but it was Vettel who stormed off into the distance, eventually going on to win the race by just under ten seconds. This meant that it was Vettel that would take the first blood and take the championship lead, something which he wouldn't lose until the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
The friendly rivalry?
Up until the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, the rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel looked under control, as both of the drivers displayed immense respect for each other on and off the track. They raced fairly, they weren't putting each other down as we have seen in past championship battles between drivers, and they both appeared calm and collected. The rivalry was seen as good for the fans, and the sport as a whole due to all of the positive publicity. Even though they did have a slight coming-together in Spain, they banged wheels, disagreed and that was that.
However, this friendly relationship came to its inevitable end in a very abrupt fashion on the streets of Baku, and it all started when Vettel claimed that Hamilton 'brake tested' him.
From the video above, it is clear to see that yes, Hamilton slowed down and Vettel crashed into the back of him, which broke parts of the front wing on his car, as well as part of the rear diffuser on Hamilton's Mercedes. This is the part of the incident that is easy to explain. This is because it happened at a time where the safety car is about to come in, so it is down to Hamilton to control the pace of the pack, and is perfectly entitled to slow down, just like the safety car can and does on occasion. This means that whether or not Vettel's 'brake test' claims are true, Hamilton is perfectly within his rights to do what he did. End of.
However, what I find completely inexcusable is what happened after that. As the video shows, Vettel waves his arm at Hamilton in anger (something which is normal for most drivers), but then accelerates alongside Hamilton and hits him, whilst still waving his arm about. From this, we can see that Vettel did indeed turn the wheel right into Hamilton, and this is not acceptable. It is perfectly understandable to get angry, especially in the heat of the moment, but to then to take things a step further and pretty much ram a fellow competitor is a completely different matter. For me personally, this is where I lost all the respect I had for Vettel as a racing driver, as this was a childish fit of road rage that somebody of his calibre should never possess or display to millions fans that look up to and admire him.
Building on this, I think that the punishment that he received was also not sufficient. Yes, the stewards gave him the most severe penalty that they could give him without disqualification, but in the grand scheme of things, a ten second stop-go penalty in a race as hectic as Baku did not have much of an effect on the outcome of the race. This is because he actually finished ahead of Hamilton, in fourth place. And this wasn't on merit, as Hamilton had a problem with his headrest which meant that he also had to come into the pits, as well as the numerous other incidents in the closing stages of that race, all of which benefited Vettel. This means that to any young people watching, it portrays a world where driving into other people is fine, and can be done without severe punishment in a sport where you get a harsher penalty for changing a broken engine.
Another thing that I found to be unacceptable was Vettel's reaction after the race. This is because when asked, he seemed to deny any responsibility for what happened, and thought that his penalty was for running into the back of Hamilton, not for when he went alongside and turned into him. This is shown when he says multiple times that Hamilton should have also got a penalty for his 'brake testing', but as I have already explained, he is the leader of the pack and is perfectly within his rights to slow down. It is like the second incident never happened.
When in Hungary...
As soon as the qualifying simulations in the final practice session had ended, it was already becoming clear that Ferrari had some serious pace around the Hungaroring. It was a Ferrari 1-2, with Vettel a full nine-tenths of a second ahead of the nearest Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas and a full second-and-a-half clear of championship rival Hamilton. During qualifying, the story was no different, albeit with Mercedes, Hamilton especially, a tad closer on lap time but still on the second row of the grid behind a Ferrari 1-2 lockout.
During the race, we got the expected result: the Ferrari's were dominant, with the two Mercedes failing to get past, with limited chances to get the overtake done. During the middle of the race, Hamilton was clearly the faster of the two Mercedes cars, so the team made the call to Bottas to let him past with the promise that if Hamilton couldn't find a way past Raikkonen that they would switch back. Even with the strong pace from Hamilton, he couldn't find a way past the flying Finn and when they got onto the final lap it looked as if they wouldn't be able to carry out the promised switchback as pressure from the Red Bull of Max Verstappen mounted. However, Hamilton, without any instruction from the team slowed down and let Bottas past in the final corner. This move, in my opinion showed Hamilton's class and respect for his teammate. The question has to be asked, would Vettel have done this for Raikkonen? This answer to this question is sadly, no (if you need evidence of Vettel's single mindedness then look no further than Malaysia 2013 with the infamous 'Multi-21' incident).
The first wet night race...
Credit: Kym Illman/Sutton Images
Yet again, on a twisty street circuit, Mercedes were down on pace compared to Ferrari and Red Bull. This meant that Mercedes were only fifth and sixth on the grid, their worst of the season, and it was Vettel on pole. On the Saturday many were predicting Vettel to regain the championship lead from Hamilton, and cruise to victory given the pace that he had shown in the final part of qualifying, even compared to the Red Bulls. But then came Sunday.
At the start of the race, Kimi Raikkonen got an amazing start to get up alongside Verstappen and Vettel. This is where the race was turned on its head, and the defining action came from no other than Sebastian Vettel. With visibility already at a minimum due to the spray, Vettel pulled off a Schumacher-esque swerve to the left hand side of the grid in order to cover the threat of Max Verstappen. What this meant was that Verstappen also had to swerve left to avoid a collision, which meant that he was sandwiched in between the two Ferrari's. This quickly ended up in a crash, as three does not go into one. The collision meant that both Verstappen and Raikkonen were out of the race by the first corner. The impact also punctured a hole in Vettel's radiator, which had a lubricating effect on the tires and spun him into the wall a few corners later. Through all of this came Lewis Hamilton, who was able to jump from fifth to first in the first few corners, and stayed there for the rest of the race. It appears as if Vettel only has himself to blame for this incident, as he had a lot to lose and still decided to make a risky maneuver at the start of the race. Somehow he still avoided a penalty.
A crash after the race?
During the recent race in Malaysia, Ferrari had a generally awful weekend. Firstly, they were forced to change an engine in the short time between final practice and qualifying which must have compromised the setup time of the car, but then on Vettel's outlap he was cruising around warming his tyres when the familiar pop of a turbo was heard, and that was game over for Vettel. He had no power and was forced to retire from the session, guaranteeing a back row start. This is all coming at the time where Lewis Hamilton is on a three race winning streak and on top form.
Rather than the angry, almost childish Vettel than we have seen in the past after a bad result, he came into the garage not that fazed by the failure, and instead went around his whole garage thanking his mechanics for their efforts. Is this a new Sebastian Vettel?
However, on the other side of the garage, Raikkonen was widely tipped to get pole, but thanks to a stonking lap from Hamilton, he missed out by only four-hundredths of a second. As the cars lined up on the grid, the Ferrari mechanics noticed a problem with his car, the same problem that Vettel had suffered a day earlier meant that he could not start the race.
After a marvelous drive to get all the way up to fourth, and almost a podium, it was on the parade lap after the race that things went awry for Vettel. The cameras cut to his car that had stopped on the circuit, with nobody that sure what had happened. We only saw the heavy damage.
Credit: Motorsport Week
As it turns out, it was a clumsy collision with the Williams of Lance Stroll. The stewards decided that there should be no further action, and I agree as they both were not looking in their mirrors. However, it could be Vettel that pays the biggest price if it prompts an unscheduled gearbox change at the next race, meaning the best starting position would be sixth. This is not what you want when your rival is on top form and 34 points clear in the championship.
Time will tell...
Overall, only time will tell whether the myriad of mistakes and problems from Vettel and Ferrari will cost him the drivers championship, but at this point you must have to give the edge in the title race to Hamilton. Regardless of the results of this season, does Hamilton's true sportsmanship and respect make him the more deserving champion? I think so.