By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – The gloves are off and the fight is on between Formula One title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
Sunday’s explosive Azerbaijan Grand Prix more than made up for last year’s dull race in Baku, bursting the budding ‘bromance’ and replacing it with something much more heavyweight.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said as much after a crazy afternoon that saw mutual respect and camaraderie tossed aside amid angry accusations.
“Nobody wanted to see the schmoozing anyway, so now the gloves are off,” the Austrian told Sky Sports television after Hamilton had dubbed the Ferrari driver a “disgrace” and suggested they sort things out “face to face”.
“The sport needs the rivalry. What we have seen today is the ingredient of a great championship,” said Wolff.
The most memorable seasons have been fueled by controversy, passion and a fierce rivalry sometimes spilling into outright enmity.
Baku, with the championship favorites colliding and a podium of drivers who could scarcely believe their luck, provided enough drama to keep the championship bubbling away for months to come.
In Spain last May, Hamilton had spoken about how enjoyable it was to be battling a rival who was not a team mate — his main opponent for the past three seasons — and the admiration he felt for Vettel’s speed and consistency.
The Briton had warned then, however, that it might not last and on Sunday he was proven right.
The battle lines were drawn the moment Vettel went into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes during the second of three safety car periods, the German shaking his fists and pulling alongside to bang wheels in a gesture that looked a lot like ‘road rage’.
The frustrated and angry man of 2016, who raged at rivals and had to apologize to race director Charlie Whiting in Mexico last November after an expletive-laden radio rant, was back.
The stewards were clear in apportioning blame, imposing a 10 second stop-and-go penalty on the German for steering into Hamilton.
The championship leader, now 14 points clear of Hamilton after finishing fourth to the Briton’s fifth, was also given three penalty points which could prove significant.
They bring Vettel’s tally in the last 12 months to nine and means another such sanction in Austria in two weeks’ time would trigger an automatic race ban for the following round at Silverstone.
There were some who felt such a penalty should have been applied already, even if the moment of madness ultimately cost Vettel a victory that would have fallen into his lap after Hamilton had to pit to fix a loose head rest.
“Deliberately driving into another driver and getting away pretty much scot-free as he still came fourth, I think that’s a disgrace. I think he disgraced himself today,” said triple champion Hamilton.
“Imagine all the young kids that are watching Formula One today and see that kind of behavior from a four-time world champion. I think that says it all.”
Vettel’s assertion that Hamilton had ‘brake-tested’ him, by slowing so suddenly that the Ferrari ran into the back of the Mercedes, was also undermined by the evidence.
The governing FIA confirmed that Hamilton’s car data showed he “maintained a consistent speed and behaved in the same manner on that occasion as in all the other re-starts during the race”.
Mercedes non-executive director and retired triple champion Niki Lauda said he had never seen anything like it.
“Vettel is a decent guy normally. This I don’t understand. He is crazy. Lewis will hit him one day. Not with the car but with his fist,” he said.
(Editing by John O’Brien)