In The Driver's Seat

Not fast friends but the rivalry is respectful

Ferrari's victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was one shot in the arm for the bold new Formula One. Lewis Hamilton's win in a tense Chinese encounter last Sunday was another.

Not only do they share the lead with 43 points apiece, but the sporting nature of a battle each clearly enjoyed sets the scene for a gripping season.

The first wet-road grid start in years - as opposed to those ghastly rolling starts behind a safety car - went extremely well, but the crowd got some drama with the incidents involving rookies Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi, then had the thrill of watching Vettel sneak his way past team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

Then they got to watch him trading fast times with Hamilton as the gap between them expanded and contracted depending on traffic or which of them was pushing harder at any given point.

No, they weren't nose-to-tail or even wheel-to-wheel (as Vettel had so excitingly been with Ricciardo on the 22nd lap), but the outcome was by no means certain.

Of course, the $64,000 question was, who had the faster car?

Not only do (Vettel and Hamilton) share the lead with 43 points apiece, but the sporting nature of a battle each clearly enjoyed sets the scene for a gripping season.

"Well, you won, so…" Vettel told Hamilton.

"Yeah," Lewis replied, "the only summary we can come up with is that. It is very, very close and there were times when Sebastian put laps in and it was hard to even match the time.

"The last 10 or 12 laps he was doing a 35.6sec and I was doing a 35.8sec and it was very hard to get to where he was. Then there were other times in the race when I was quicker."

"I'm maybe not clever enough but I try to not confuse myself," Vettel said. "So I just go with the fact that who wins the race deserves to win. Lewis did the best job. Obviously we were a bit unfortunate maybe with the safety car early on - but even if it wasn't there you never know how it could have impacted on the race.

"But it was really good fun. Like Lewis said, I had a bit more to do in the race than he had. I saw he was controlling the pace, probably, in the beginning. Once I got past Kimi and Daniel I obviously tried to hunt him down, while knowing that it would be difficult with that gap.

"And in the last couple of laps I asked the team to give me an average of what we needed to catch up, just to know what I have to do.

"When they came up with the conclusion that it's a bit more than half a second a lap… yeah… I kept pushing because you never know, maybe Lewis is doing a mistake, or has an issue with the car so I wanted to keep the pressure on.

"I enjoyed the fact we were racing, even though not side-by-side or right behind each other, but five, six, eight seconds apart. To hear that he was pushing as well I think is good news.

"So in terms of pace it was probably a match. Sometimes he was a bit faster, sometimes I was a bit faster. Overall it was good fun."

Could he have challenged for victory without losing so much time behind his own team-mate?

"Ah, would, could, should," Vettel said. "I think Lewis was quick. Full stop. I think they did a good race, he did a good race, so to get into these kind of conversations... usually there is no point.

"Today we finished second, very happy with that, we take it, good points. More than that, and much more valuable than that, it was an entertaining and fun race for me. I had some overtaking."

That conversation shows not just respect, but the mutual appreciation that this is going to be a long, hard season, with many races in which the outcome isn't obvious before the first corner.

F1 fans across the globe should be celebrating - and salivating.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline 'Not fast friends but the rivalry is respectful'. Print Edition | Subscribe