Lewis Hamilton is relishing his forthcoming battle of “the best against the best” as he and rival Sebastian Vettel prepare for an historic shoot-out for the Formula 1 world championship.
Hamilton and Vettel are both tied on four titles each, and their contest this year will mark the first time that two quadruple world champions have locked horns for motor racing’s biggest prize.
Hamilton, 33, is odds-on to get the job done, and he rubber-stamped his tag as favourite by dominating both first and second practice at a sweltering Albert Park in Melbourne on Friday ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Hamilton and his Mercedes’ employers had hoped to get his new £40m-a-year contract extension over the line before this week’s curtain-raiser.
But for now, the announcement which will solidify Hamilton’s position as Britain’s highest-earning sportsperson will have to wait as he embarks on the second instalment of his championship challenge against Vettel – and the quest to engrave his name among the sport’s immortals. Michael Schumacher, with his record haul of seven, and Juan Manuel Fangio’s five lay only in Hamilton’s path.
“When you come towards the end of your career you want to know that you competed against the best,” Hamilton said.
“There are those who bow out early, and there are those who won world championships that have not been that competitive. But the ultimate goal is to be the best, and for that you have to go up against the best. It has been a great experience for me to race Sebastian. He has got four world titles which is the most of any driver in our time, so it is an exciting year for Formula 1 fans, in that we have two four-time world champions battling it out.”
Fast on the track, but away from it the championship protagonists are polar opposites. Hamilton, who scooted his way around the paddock on Friday, dines in celebrity circles and lays his life for all to see on social media.
In contrast, a deeply private Vettel, 30, has never sent one tweet. Here, he scoffed at a suggestion that he might follow his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in joining Instagram.
Vettel however, does share one thing in common with Hamilton.
“It becomes something special to win against the best,” Vettel said.
“In my case if I looked at those I raced against through my career, it has always been the same people.
“I did not race Lewis in karting, but was aware of the name. We met in Formula 3, where he was a lot better than I was, and then in Formula 1. You care about who you race against and what it means.
“Now I am searching for the ultimate satisfaction with Ferrari, which is the greatest team in history and the greatest team in the paddock, and that is my ultimate target.
“I want to win for Ferrari and I want to win against the best and Lewis is arguably one of them.”
The early signs are that Vettel will have his work cut out. The Ferrari driver was only fifth in practice, and half-a-second down on Hamilton
There was some encouragement for the chasing pack with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen only 0.127 seconds adrift of Hamilton’s best time. Home favourite Daniel Ricciardo however, was dealt a blow when he was handed a three-place grid penalty following a red flag infringement during practice.
Weather may yet be a factor this weekend.
The temporary track around the Albert Park lake was bathed in sunshine on Friday, but the remainder of the weekend could be interrupted, with showers forecast to hit during both qualifying and the race.
Hope perhaps for the rest, but the smart money remains on Hamilton.
Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has backed his star driver’s demand for greater diversity in Formula 1.
Hamilton called on the sport to encourage more participation from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds in a video posted to Instagram on Thursday.
The defending champion recorded the 15-second video from his Mercedes team’s hospitality suite of a number of people in the paddock, and accompanied the clip with the words: “There’s barely any diversity in F1. Still nothing’s changed in 11 years I’ve been here.”
Hamilton, who was fastest in both practice sessions in Melbourne on Friday, is F1’s first and only black driver.
And Mercedes executive director Wolff – whose wife and former Williams reserve driver Susie has established the ‘Dare to be Different’ campaign which encourages more women to take part in motor racing – agrees that more needs to be done.
“The more diversity we can get into Formula 1, the better it is,” Wolff said. “We had an event here where we launched ‘Dare to be Different’ in Australia and that was a good success.
“Whether it is different ethnic backgrounds, or getting girls into motor racing, this is what needs to happen.”
On Hamilton’s contract issue, Wolff revealed that both parties were still putting the finishing touches on the extension.
“The contract discussions are going in the right way and we are finalising the last topics,” Wolff added. “There is no reason to think it is not going to happen soon. Lewis is in a good frame of mind and he has come back strong from the winter break.”