When Nico Rosberg opted to retire after his triumph in the 2016 Formula One Drivers’ Championship, many believed that the path was clear for Lewis Hamilton to dominate the sport.
The Brit had been narrowly beaten out by his Mercedes team-mate by five points, despite winning the final four races of the campaign.
Hamilton had been on course to become only the fourth man in history to win the Drivers’ Championship three times on the bounce – behind Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio.
However, the performances of the German over the course of the season denied him his place in history. Rosberg then stunned the sport by announcing his immediate retirement and denying spectators another thrilling battle between him and the Brit in the 2017 campaign.
As a result, Hamilton’s path back to the top seemed all but secure, with the arrival of Valtteri Bottas as his new team-mate not expected to produce the same drama as his rivalry with Rosberg.
Since winning his last crown in the 2013 season, Vettel endured a frustrating campaign with Red Bull before making the switch to Ferrari, where he still lacked the pace to compete at the top of the Championship.
In 2016, he finished well behind Rosberg and Hamilton at the top, and there was not a great deal of anticipation that the Italian outfit could close the gap to Mercedes during the off-season.
However, Ferrari came out firing from the off at the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the campaign, with Vettel beating out Hamilton for top spot on the podium. The German has followed up his opening-day victory with triumphs at Bahrain and Monaco to put the pressure on the Brit.
Although Hamilton has responded to the challenge, the 30-year-old still holds a narrow lead at the top of the Drivers’ Championship due to his solid start and is still backed in the latest Formula 1 odds at 2/1 to win the crown for a fifth time.
Hamilton has had his issues this season but has established a semblance of form over the last month to reassume control. The shift in momentum may have displayed itself as Vettel collided with his rival in Baku and managed to escape unpunished, although the 32-year-old was adamant that the German made deliberate contact.
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The incident caused Hamilton to drop back and he could place only fifth, but he responded after a fourth-place finish in Austria by triumphing at his home Grand Prix at Silverstone. Vettel, on the other hand, may have been on the receiving end of karma as he sustained a puncture that knocked him down to seventh place, allowing the Brit to close the gap in the standings.
Whether that was the case or not, the two drivers have provided intense drama at the top of the sport that seemed to be unlikely after the shock retirement of Rosberg. Perhaps, more importantly, it has broken the cycle of one team’s dominance of both Championships, which has plagued Formula One with Red Bull and Mercedes enjoying their monopoly in recent seasons.
Spectators can only hope that Hamilton and Vettel continue to bring out the best in each other – or the worst, in some cases – to make the race for the crown just as fascinating as it was between the Brit and his team-mate in 2016. The sport needs it to continue – not just for the current term, but for the foreseeable future.