Formula 1’s governing body – the FIA – is confident that the most controversial moment of a gripping title race is officially resolved, after Sebastian Vettel completed the formality of publicly apologizing to archrival Lewis Hamilton for driving dangerously.
This weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix will show if the rift between the fiercely competitive multiple world champions has really been healed, or whether the pressure of race day could bring it back out into the open on Sunday.
Vettel, who has four world titles to Hamilton’s three, escaped further punishment from the FIA this week after they ordered a review of his deliberate collision with Hamilton at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix two weeks ago. An irate Vettel swerved into Hamilton, albeit at slow speed, because he thought the British driver had slammed his brakes on recklessly late, right in front of him, seconds earlier.
It was another incident that underlined how, despite 45 Grand Prix wins, the vastly experienced Vettel is prone to moments of uncontrolled volatility. Yet Hamilton, for all his brilliant driving, retains a steely edge to his driving that some – such as Vettel and Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg over the last three years – consider overly provocative.
Despite the view that he was in the wrong in Baku, Vettel effectively escaped with a slap on the wrist.
Having met with Vettel and Ferrari’s team principal Maurizio Arrivabene at its headquarters in Paris, and with the addition of an apology from the German driver on his personal website, FIA president Jean Todt deemed that the time penalty given to Vettel during the race was sufficient punishment.
Hamilton, scheduled to attend a news conference later Thursday in Spielberg, may feel that Vettel got away lightly considering that the difference in points remains the same.
Vettel leads him by 14 points after eight races, so the apology arguably makes little difference in terms of the standings.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team, curiously restrained in its criticism of Vettel two weeks ago, is trying to tackle different issues.
“Every great Formula One season is marked by a great rivalry,” Mercedes’ head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “As calm as it started, it was only a matter of time until the rivalry would eventually become more fierce and controversial.
“We have moved past that moment now and it is a closed chapter,” Wolff continued. “Our focus since Baku has been on our own shortcomings, reviewing both the design and procedures around our headrest which cost Lewis the win two weeks ago.”
The heated clash took the spotlight away from the fact that Hamilton arguably missed out on victory – finishing one spot behind fourth-place Vettel – because he had to change his car’s faulty headrest at the same time Vettel was in the pit lane serving out his time penalty.
Mercedes has dominated recent seasons, but 2017 has been difficult for the team.
Mercedes has notably had to deal with tire issues related to the disparity between the front and real axels causing an imbalance highlighted in practice and qualifying.
“The sweet spot (of the car) is still difficult to find,” Wolff said. “Clearly, we are not the only team who took time to understand the combination of the new regulations and tires.”
All of this contributes to the exciting aura of uncertainty hanging over this year’s championship.
With Mercedes showing signs of weakness, Ferrari is gaining in confidence as it chases its first drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen – Vettel’s current teammate – won in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.
All of this is great news for a revamped F1 which, in its first year of new ownership, is committed to winning back fans for good.
“There is great respect between Mercedes and Ferrari, not only because of the challenging battle on track but because we are pushing for the same goal: to see Formula One flourish,” Wolff said. “The new owners could hardly have asked for a better start to this new era than this epic battle between Mercedes and Ferrari.”
Big Question: Has the clash in Baku – between Lewis and Seb – been bad or good for F1?