They have eight world championship titles between them but last Sunday in the second lap of the Mexican Grand Prix, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel were running last and second last respectively.
The start of the race, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in second place behind Vettel and Hamilton third, was expected to spring up an intense battle for the lead, and it didn’t disappoint.
Vettel had a better start than Verstappen. The Red Bull however had the benefit of the tow from the Ferrari and the 20-year-old used it to great effect.
By the time the two vehicles got to Turn One, a right hander, Verstappen had the edge though he was on the outside. Vettel, keen not to relinquish the lead, made a brave attempt to defend but ended up the loser as Verstappen had the advantage into Turn Two.
Vettel hit Verstappen then shortly after got further damage when his front wing came into contact with the right rear wheel of Hamilton who had charged past on the outside of Turn Three.
Hamilton got a puncture as a result while Vettel needed a new nose. This meant that both world champions had to pit at the end of the first lap.
For Verstappen’s valiant effort, he had clean air ahead of him to deal with for the rest of the race. By the third lap, Verstappen had started setting what would be a series of fastest laps.
On the 10th lap, stewards indicated that they were investigating the first lap incident involving Verstappen, Vettel and Hamilton. The subsequent lap saw them say that no investigation was necessary hence none of the drivers was penalised.
Vettel may have deserved some form of punishment but the stewards held back, with good reason.
Vettel had everything to lose in this race — a pole to flag race and the opportunity to push, by at least one race, the coronation of Hamilton as the 2017 champion.
On the 17th lap, a weird scenario started playing out. The flying Verstappen had Hamilton in his sights, only that Verstappen was running first, Hamilton last. Would the runaway championship leader be lapped in a race which would secure him the title?
Hamilton was struggling to gain positions given the reduced downforce he had after the first lap incident that limited his pace. On the 22nd lap, he saw the blue flags and got lapped by Verstappen. Not long after, even his teammate, Valterri Bottas passed him. In his attempt to get to second or first place, the only two positions that could shift the title race to Brazil in a fortnight, Vettel had the McLaren Honda of two-time champion, Fernando Alonso, right in front of him on the 27th lap.
Alonso, however, had the use of DRS available to take care of the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson in front of him, cancelling out Vettel’s use of the same option.
For four laps, Vettel was unable to get past Alonso. That only happened when the Sauber pitted.
Vettel was making up positions faster than Hamilton which made the Brit nervous so he sought to find out if Vettel could finish in second position. A “negative” response from his engineer had never sounded so positive.
With only 11 laps to go, Vettel was able to secure fourth position and was told that the gap between him and his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, in third was 23 seconds. “Oh, mama mia! That’s a little bit too much,” he responded.
TUSSLED WITH ALONSO
Hamilton got into the points and further tussled with Alonso to get into ninth position.
On that same lap, Vettel set a record for the fastest lap ever at the circuit. That and being voted the ‘Driver Of The Day’ were the only consolations he had as Hamilton came home ninth to take his fourth world title to get level with Alain Prost and the German.
Only Juan Manuel Fangio at five world titles and Michael Schumacher at seven have more titles.
From the way Hamilton who is now the best ever British Formula One talent is driving, Schumacher’s record may not be beyond him.
Competition from the likes of Vettel, Verstappen and Alonso is however expected to make that goal infinitely harder to achieve.