The battle for the heart of Formula 1 | Kwesé

The battle for the heart of Formula 1

The battle for the heart of Formula 1

10:15 SAST | 27 Mar 2017

There’s something refreshingly simple about a bunch of macho guys getting into ridiculously fast cars to scream around a track for an hour and a half at speeds of up to 380km/h.

Formula One is often billed as a ‘man-and-machine’ tale. High tech meets superb human skill. But this tells only half the story.

Three-time Formula 1 world champion Nikki Lauda, in talking about his friend and rival James Hunt, told the Telegraph: “There are good drivers and bad ones, and then there are the really talented ones who are difficult to beat and James was one of them. We respected each other very much because in the old days, to drive 300 kilometres an hour side by side towards a corner, if someone makes a mistake, one or both are killed. Hunt was someone you could rely on to be really precise.”

It’s this sort of spirit that the sport’s governing body, the FIA, is seeking to revive with some of its rule changes for the 2017 season.

The main changes are in the tyres and bodywork. Both are wider to increase downforce and grip, which will make the cars faster and tougher to manage for the drivers. While the tyres are some 25 percent wider than last year, the allowable height of the vehicle is being reduced from 0.95 metres to 0.75 metres, and the allowable width is being increased from 1.4 metres to 1.6 metres.

The results of these changes were already evident in early March’s pre-season winter testing in Barcelona. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who set the fastest time, was 3.66 seconds quicker than what Lewis Hamilton achieved on the same track to attain pole position last season.

To think that at Melbourne, where the 2017 season kicks off, Michael Schumacher owns the lap record from way back in 2004. Last year’s fastest lap time at Melbourne was almost five seconds behind.

The pendulum is swinging back from machine to man. The FIA knows that for every one tech-head fan, there are a hundred others who want to see a good old drag race between testosterone-charged competitors. Machines may well be taking over our lives, but we’re not ready for them to take over our sport.

The 2017 season could just see an intriguing duel between Hamilton, in a Mercedes, and Vettel, in a Ferrari. If so, it’ll bring back memories of the famous battle between Hunt and Lauda for 1976 F1 Driver’s Championship. Lauda (pictured) came back from a near-fatal crash at Nürburgring to almost snatch the title from Hunt in the final race. Famously, at a very wet Suzuka in Japan, Lauda withdrew because the burns he sustained at Nürburgring meant he couldn’t properly blink his eyes.

Hunt (McLaren) and Lauda (Ferrari) played into the contrasting stereotypes that made 1976 such an interesting season: the Germanic, precise Lauda versus the swashbuckling Englishman. Like Hunt, Hamilton revels in the celebrity merry-go-round, thoroughly enjoying his fame. For a while he dated pop icon Nicole Scherzinger, he appears in fashion shoots, and has millions of social media followers. Vettel prefers life outside the limelight, retiring in the off-season to lay low with his long-time girlfriend Hanna Prater.

Vettel, for Red Bull, won the Championship four times in a row between 2010 and 2013. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was the man who masterminded the amazing feat. Meanwhile, Hamilton has three to his credit, winning in 2008 (McLaren) and then again in 2014 and 2015 with Mercedes.

Ironically, last season Hamilton was routing for Vettel in the final race, needing him to help beat his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg. In the final race in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton would overtake Rosberg in the overall standings if he won and Rosberg finished fourth or worse.

Hamilton (pictured) used his pole position to slow the race down, to help slower drivers overtake Rosberg. The Mercedes team ordered him to speed up, but Hamilton replied: “I am losing the world championships, so right now I don’t really care whether I win or lose this race.”

In the end the tactic didn’t work and Rosberg won his first driver’s Championship. Many criticised Hamilton for being unsporting, but these sorts of dramas are good for the sport.

Mercedes have won the last three driver’s and constructor’s championships, but the pre-season testing shows that Ferrari have their measure with the new rules. A Mercedes-Ferrari battle is also good for the sport.

The more things change in Formula 1, the more they stay the same. 2017 is starting to have that feel of the good old days, when strong personalities risked life and limb for glamour and glory.

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