x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Five F1 champions, each dreaming of being No 1

Gary Meenaghan looks at what is the most decorated field F1 has had in its history.

Vettel, seen here after winning the title last year in Abu Dhabi, does not think his crown will give him an advantage.
Vettel, seen here after winning the title last year in Abu Dhabi, does not think his crown will give him an advantage.

It is the focal point of promotions and previews the world over. For the first time in Formula One's 61-year history, this season pits five world champions against each other.

And yet the same quintet of drivers competed last year. The only difference being, of course, that Sebastian Vettel, the 23-year-old who became the sport's youngest Drivers' Championship winner when he won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November, will race this season with the No 1 affixed to the body of his Red Bull Racing car.

Much like previous champions Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, Heppenheim-born Vettel is unlikely to have radically transformed since his maiden title. He said so himself ahead of this weekend's season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne: "Life has not changed."

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So the question begs, what impact will the large, No 1 — a signal of rank that will become even more prominent if Jean Todt, the president of the Federation Internationale d'Automobile (FIA), gets his way — have on its possessor? What dictates that this year, with its five champions, will be any better than the last simply for having all five on the starting grid?

"I don't have an advantage having the No 1 on the car," Vettel said. "Obviously it's a nice feeling. [Winning] was a great success and big relief for me last year, so hopefully it makes me stronger, but nevertheless it will be a long, hard and tough season."

Inner-strength, said Ross Brawn, is exactly what a world title provides.

Brawn was team principal when Button secured the drivers' title in 2009 and now works alongside Schumacher at Mercedes GP, who he helped win his seven world titles at Benetton and Ferrari.

"It gives drivers a lot more confidence," he said. "It's like winning a first race. From my experience, that is quite a threshold to go through; it's a major hurdle for a driver to pass and obviously winning a world championship is another major hurdle.

"I don't think it changes a person dramatically, it just gives a driver more confidence in their achievements - that they can achieve their ambitions."

Vettel's ambition is, if quotes attributed to him in an Italian newspaper are correct, to one day win the Italian Grand Prix while racing for Ferrari.

One would imagine, however, that success at Monza while wearing Scuderia red would do little to quell his thirst for glory unless it was accompanied by further world championships.

Likewise, Hamilton, the aggressive Englishman who won the title in 2008 on the final lap of the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, said earlier this week that he will not be content until he is recognised as "one of the most successful F1 drivers of this generation".

He added: "I am not here to race 10 years and only win one or two world championships."

Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes team, in which he is partnered by compatriot Button, has struggled during winter testing and Vettel would appear at this stage to be in a far stronger position to claim a second world championship.

Yet while Hamilton and Button have played down early expectations, their England-based manufacturers are a team accustomed to nothing if not fighting for top honours.

Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, has confirmed they have taken a risk by making "some fairly dramatic changes" to the MP4-26 in the past seven days in a bid to ensure their star duo have competitive cars when they sit on the grid at Albert Park.

Mike Gascoyne, the chief technical officer with Team Lotus, worked alongside Button in the British driver's formative years with Benetton. In 2003, a year after the team was rebranded as Renault-F1, Button was replaced by Alonso, who would go on to win two world championships.

Gascoyne still views the Spaniard as the best driver in the sport, but he is quick to highlight the improvement of Button, Alonso's predecessor, a factor that has been helped by not only having a good car, but also having more self-belief.

"I was asked a lot of times in 2001, if Jenson could win a world title," Gascoyne said. "I would say 'Yeah, in the right car clearly he can; clearly he's good.' And that's true of any driver. But did he have the edge over Fernando? No."

"Jenson was only in his second season in F1, he was very young and I think if he looks back now he wasn't fully equipped to deal with it. But people tend to forget that when he was in the right car at the right time, he did very, very well and now he is a world champion."

Unlike Brawn, who played down the importance of a title, Gascoyne is of the belief a championship can, depending on the driver, "make a huge difference".

"I think it gets a monkey off your back - especially in Jenson's case," he said. "Until Honda turned around and changed to Brawn GP you could see how easy it was for a driver - a great driver - to be able to go through a career and massively underachieve. But to someone like Fernando or Vettel, does it change them as a driver? I don't think it does because they have so much confidence and inner-belief that they don't need that.

"For any driver, [the world championship] is the pinnacle of your success. You look at Jenson and once he won one race, suddenly it was easy and you couldn't stop him winning. And you see that throughout the history of Formula One."

If a title provides the self-belief to go on and fight for more, what might seven world titles provide?

That is the question that is asked of Schumacher. The German was fastest in the final testing session in Barcelona after a new update package was added to his Mercedes.

If that lap time is any indication of the team's position in relation to their rivals the 42-year-old could on Sunday be in the unlikely position of having to use his experience and titles to fight once again at the front of the pack.

Last year, when he returned from a three-year break, Mercedes struggled and he was outpaced by his teammate Nico Rosberg. Rosberg is yet to win a grand prix, while Schumacher has stood on the top step of the podium 91 times - a figure he believes he can add to this year.

"I am confident we can compete for podium finishes and I am hopeful we can fight for victories at some of the races," he said. "We will only see the truth once the season gets under way."

One man who is distinctly wary of the roused Schumacher, is Alonso.

While Mercedes and Red Bull look strong and McLaren hope their new refit will radically improve their performance, Ferrari have clocked up more kilometres in testing than any other team. The Italian manufacturers completed more than 4,000km in 15 days, 500 more than nearest competitor Red Bull, and appeared very fast.

But Alonso is showing caution, saying McLaren should not be dismissed and that a certain German could be ready to return to the top table.

"If Formula One was 24 cars exactly the same, then Michael would be the driver I would fear most," Alonso told CNN earlier this week. "Michael is a seven-time world champion and is a legend in Formula One. We have to respect him because he has the ability and talent to do well this season."

Gascoyne, however, believes that if all the cars were equal, there is only one man who would dominate. And that is the "incredibly focused" and "incredibly fast" Alonso.

"What's good about him is he always was an animal in the car and always was incredibly quick and he hasn't changed one bit," Gascoyne said.

"I think last year he was driving an inferior car and if they [Ferrari] hadn't made the strategy call in the last race, he would have won the world title in a car that shouldn't have even won a race. I thought he was by far the best driver out there last year and he still is the best driver in Formula One."

However, as followers of the sport know only too well, throughout the 61-year history of F1, the best driver on the grid is rarely guaranteed a race win when the chequered flag appears.

Yet whoever stands highest on Sunday at Albert Park is well positioned - 10 of the past 15 winners in Melbourne have gone on to be champion seven or eight months later.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae