Why F1 title battle goes beyond just the drivers falling out
It's not just Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel who are at war in the F1 title fight; top brass and technical staff at Mercedes and Ferrari have rolled up their sleeves too...
There is something quite fitting that in ‘The Land of Fire’, as Azerbaijan is known, that tensions in the fight for the Formula 1 championship should erupt so spectacularly between the two title contenders.
But whichever side of the debate you stand on the rights and wrongs of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton’s behaviour – there is one thing that everyone can agree on: the gloves are now off in the fight for glory.
It was pretty much inevitable that, in a championship battle as close as that which we have witnessed so far in 2017, the early-season ‘bromance’ between the drivers and teams involved would end at some point.
The talk earlier in the year had been one of mutual respect both ways; of a Vettel/Hamilton love-in as they locked horns properly for the first time in their career, and of Ferrari and Mercedes relishing an epic fight between two car giants for glory.
Indeed, Hamilton himself reckoned that whatever trouble there may be on track, he and Vettel were big enough men not to let things escalate.
“I honestly think it will stay the way it is," Hamilton said after the Chinese GP. "Who knows, maybe we'll have times where we are racing hard together, and of course there could be that scenario where one of us thinks something is unfair, or has been too aggressive, whatever it may be.
“But we're grown men, we've come a long way, and we've experienced a lot. The respect for one another is the highest that I have felt from another driver, especially of his calibre.”
What Hamilton could not have foreseen at that point, though, was behaviour like being driven into deliberately behind a safety car. His words about ‘disgraceful’ and ‘disrespectful’ behaviour from Vettel show how much he was taken aback by what happened.
But the rapidly evolving situation between Hamilton and Vettel was not just about events on track in Baku though – for there have been undercurrents of the battle between Ferrari and Mercedes top brass ramping up too.
Oil burn controversy
As teams arrived in Azerbaijan, word leaked out of a fresh technical directive issued by the FIA regarding the season-long talking point of burning oil as fuel.
Amid suspicions that the FIA had found – or been alerted to – something that a team was doing, F1’s technical department reminded teams that it would deem any attempt to use ‘additional components or substances in oil for the purpose of enhancing combustion’ a breach of the rules.
Such moves from the FIA never come without good reason, and the F1 rumour mill ramped up that it had been prompted by Mercedes querying areas where it suspected Ferrari may have been doing some clever tricks involving its auxiliary oil tank.
Was this the revenge for Ferrari having got suspension systems that Mercedes and Red Bull were planning on running this year banned on the eve of the campaign?
Mercedes was keeping tight lipped on the matter, and Ferrari strongly denied that it had been doing anything illegal or needed to change anything in light of the latest FIA stance.
But conspiracy theorists had a field day that, on the same weekend the FIA TD was issued, Ferrari was further off Mercedes that it had been all season...
In reality, Baku’s gap though owed more to tyres and confidence than engine power though (especially considering Vettel had to revert to a well-used power unit), so it may not be until Austria that we will find out if anything has changed in that Q3 phase when engine power is ramped up to the max.
With the oil burn issue churning away in the background, and the Hamilton/Vettel clash erupting so publicly, it is clear that the intensity of the championship battle will be at a higher level as the teams roll into the Red Bull Ring.
Indeed, Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff admitted on Sunday evening that even prior to the race in Baku, there were early signs of a change of relations with Ferrari.
“Normally I get a breakfast at Ferrari on Sunday morning. Today I only had tea,” he smiled when asked about the potential fallout from the oil burn controversy and the Vettel/Hamilton clash.
Speaking more seriously, Wolff hopes that however much the situation has changed with Ferrari – and however more intense things get on track – that the relationship between both camps won’t fall apart completely.
“Of course, we have great respect for Ferrari,” he said. “It's a fantastic company and great brand and there are so many passionate people at Ferrari and in Italy they cheer for Ferrari. But for me, the analogy is with rugby.
“During the race they are our enemies and they wouldn't take any prisoners. We must be capable, when the race is done, of having a beer like rugby players and acknowledging somebody's performance and acknowledge that we are all warriors and fierce competitors out there.
“Nevertheless we are racing on a giant platform that somehow unites us.”
But as the stakes raise ever higher, it is hard to imagine that the tensions will not escalate further – especially with the performance between the two teams being so close that every element of its package is important.
It will be fascinating too to see if Ferrari continues its bizarre self-imposed media blackout of team figures – which has handed an open goal for Mercedes to set the public agenda, keep control of stories and not waste time fire-fighting speculation that can get out on control when you cut yourself off from the headline-hungry outside world.
Red Bull benefit
The prospect of a truly intense battle between Mercedes and Ferrari is of course great news for fans, who are set to be treated to an ever more captivating title battle. But it could also be a godsend for Red Bull, as it bids to bounce back from some early season frustrations.
It was Daniel Ricciardo who benefited the most from the Hamilton/Vettel situation in Baku, and he is now the highest scoring driver from the last four races.
Plus, if technical clarifications start hobbling those ahead of his team, then Red Bull is in a prime position to benefit.
“It's inevitable,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner about the new edge to the Ferrari/Mercedes battle. “They're fighting for a world championship, so for sure this is only going to have elevated that intensity of the battle between the two of them.
“And of course there's been technical directives about auxiliary [tanks], fuels and oils and so on, which one can only assume is crossfire.
“And if that helps to bring us into a more competitive position, then... you know, I think we can play a significant role in this championship, particularly when we move into the second half of the year.”
F1’s 2017 title battle is no longer in danger of being a bit vanilla, nor a boring two-horse race between mates.
After the Baku on track and off-track skirmishes, there is a new edginess to this championship that goes beyond just the drivers.
Bring it on!
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