Ferrari's Vettel has the car to challenge Hamilton for F1 world title
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As Formula One converges upon Melbourne for next weekend’s Albert Park curtain-raiser, signs are growing that Ferrari have their strongest opportunity yet to break Mercedes’ stranglehold of the sport.
After two rounds of winter testing in which the Scuderia showed a performance advantage of as much as half a second a lap, Ross Brawn, their former technical director and the key figure behind Michael Schumacher’s era of dominance, has identified them as clear favourites for the 2019 season.
Lewis Hamilton during pre-season testing last month. Picture/AP
While Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has won the Australian Grand Prix for the past two years, he has ultimately flattered to deceive, each time losing the driver’s title to Lewis Hamilton with two races to spare.
But, as Mercedes seek to emulate Ferrari’s record of six consecutive constructors’ championships, Brawn believes his former employers are perfectly placed for a resurgence.
“Sebastian is more than capable of winning the world championship,” he said. “With the calmness the team now have, they have every chance this year.”
In 2018, the situation at Maranello was anything but serene, with the death of chief executive Sergio Marchionne casting a pall over Ferrari, and the tensions between team principal Maurizio Arrivabene and technical chief Mattia Binotto seldom far from the surface.
But with the highly respected Binotto since replacing Arrivabene in the top job, and dynamic young Monegasque Charles Leclerc taking over from Kimi Raikkonen as Vettel’s team-mate, the power dynamic in the paddock has shifted.
“The team were in a little bit of disarray last year,” Brawn said. “It was not an easy environment. If you are going to beat Hamilton and Mercedes, you need to be on top of everything. I feel that this year will be stronger for them.”
It is an opinion shared by Hamilton himself, even though he has emerged as champion in all but one year since the dawn of F1‘s turbo-hybrid period in 2014.
Even as he pursues a sixth title to close within one of Schumacher’s historic benchmark, he cannot help but be struck by Ferrari’s pace over the winter.
“We were already behind on performance last year, so we had to overachieve,” he said. “Now we have to squeeze out even more.”
Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton waits for the presentation of Stella McCartney's ready-to-wear Fall-Winter 2019-2020 fashion collection in Paris last week. Picture/AP
Still, Mercedes are investing all their faith in Hamilton to upset the odds. He is the most lavishly-paid driver in F1 history, on a salary of £40 million a year, with more freedom than ever to indulge his plethora of outside interests.
While many of his peers spent their final days before travelling to Australia in the simulator or the gym, Hamilton, true to form, was launching his latest fashion collection in Berlin.
With 73 grand prix victories, he is primed to close the gap in 2019 to Schumacher’s 91.
In a further fascinating subplot for a British audience, he will be accompanied on the Melbourne grid by two young compatriots making their debuts, in Lando Norris of McLaren and Williams’ George Russell.
-The Sunday Telegraph