The title fight between the leading drivers, the three-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, a winner of four titles, has been tight, with Vettel leading by 20 points.
Following his victory at the last race, in Austria on Sunday, Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, cannot be discounted as he is 35 points behind Vettel.
The battle between Vettel and Hamilton had been civil until last month’s race in Baku, Azerbaijan.
That incident, when Vettel deliberately drove into Hamilton, has provided what Toto Wolff, the motorsport head of Mercedes, described as “an edge” to their on-track conflict.
“We’ve had two great drivers being very respectful of one another, racing in a gentlemanly way,” Wolff said. “That has now turned into a fierce rivalry.
“Over all, the show has been good, but what happened in Baku has given it a new spin that is interesting for Formula One: interesting for the audience and probably gold dust in terms of content for the new owners, Liberty Media.”
What has also added to the drama this season is the unpredictability of the Mercedes car. Wolff has described it as “a bit of a diva,” explaining that: “The best ones are not the easy ones. They have complex personalities.
“The car, she is the quickest, but she is also a complex personality. But it’s not just the car. It’s how it behaves with the tires and works with the new regulations. It makes it just more difficult to set up.
“Sometimes we have surprises, which make us learn more and develop more quickly. So far, it has made us better as a team.”
James Allison, the technical director of Mercedes who joined the team in March from Ferrari, said he understood the car’s diva label.
“It has many good points, such as excellent aerodynamic efficiency, a superb power unit and a really excellent driver lineup,” Allison said in an interview.
“Those three things are like the brute force that makes a car have a certain level of pace.
“But it has some undesirable characteristics as well that mean the car is not always well balanced, in that the driver finds the front or rear axle running out of grip in a way that gives him understeer or oversteer when he is in various corners.
“That lack of handling balance steals lap time away from you and makes the car unable to fulfill its full potential unless you find a way to balance it on any given weekend.”
The reason Wolff has described the car as high-strung, Allison said, is that it can be balanced “but it also makes us sweat.”
“As the season has gone along, we have learned more of its foibles, more of its strengths,” Allison said. “Obviously, we try to avoid the former and exaggerate the latter.
“We try to find a way to ensure our drivers, come Saturday and Sunday, find a car that is able to have that good power, that good aerodynamic efficiency, but also able to deliver through a sweet handling balance, and that has been a job of work.”
The Azerbaijan and Monaco races, in particular, highlighted the imperfections of the car, with Hamilton struggling more so than Bottas.
Since Monaco, Mercedes and Hamilton appear to have found answers to their problems.
“We are making progress in two different ways,” Allison said. “First of all, we know with each passing race more about what we need to do to balance the car, to find our way inside that tricky window where it performs sweetly.
“Also, with each upgrade we bring to the car, we gradually widen the window in which it performs happily so that it becomes ever easier to find ourselves in a happy place on a Saturday and Sunday.
“So it’s a combination of the two things, both knowing its foibles and finding a way to overcome them, and also reducing those foibles over time.”
Mercedes will require its car to be less temperamental as the season progresses to fend off Ferrari, a fight that Wolff says he relishes.
“Personally, and for the team, it’s come at the best time,” Wolff said. “Maybe I’ll eat my words at the end of the season if we don’t win again.
“For us, fighting against Ferrari, who has emerged as our main competitor, is a fight among two great car companies, among great drivers, among some highly motivated, highly skilled people. So far it is a challenge I am embracing and enjoying a lot because it has reminded me why I came into motor racing.”
And despite his many years of service with Ferrari, there is no sentimentality from Allison about his former team.
“You work for the team you work for,” he said, “and all your loyalty is for your teammates in the place where you work, and that loyalty transfers completely instantaneously, and all you want to do is crush all the other teams.
“‘Crushed’ is probably a bit of a crude word, but beaten fairly and squarely and properly by what we are able to do as a team.”
Hamilton and his teammate Nico Rosberg, who retired at the end of last season after winning the title, often clashed on the track, notably in Belgium in 2014 and in Spain and Austria last year. That the team can focus on a rival rather than on a battle between its drivers is a novelty. At least Wolff can devote his attention to winning, rather than waste energy on appeasing his drivers.
There is a more harmonious relationship between Hamilton and Bottas. Wolff has described it as “a new quality of relationship I haven’t seen among teammates before.”
That relationship has had an effect on Hamilton. Wolff says he seems more relaxed this year.
“You ask yourself sometimes, ‘Why are the best the best?’ What I have seen with him over the years is that he has constantly developed, and not only as a racing driver making very few mistakes, but also as a human being and a personality,” Wolff said about Hamilton.
“He and I had long discussions over the winter,” Wolff said, “and they were very good discussions, we put everything out there.
“He came back after the winter as a different person, as a happy person, as a balanced person for whom the past didn’t play a role anymore. He learned the lessons that were important for him and he moved on. Since then I’ve seen him in the same state, which has been very nice. There haven’t been any swings.”
“It’s all been positive,” Wolff said, “but still very competitive within the team, within himself. Over all, a very positive dynamic.”
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