By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton is backing Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to shrug off a run of poor form and mistakes after another nightmare weekend in Britain.
While Mercedes driver Hamilton took his record sixth British Grand Prix on Sunday, Vettel rear-ended Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, was handed a 10-second penalty for causing a collision and finished 16th.
The German, a four-times world champion, has been beaten in the last three races by 21-year-old team mate Charles Leclerc and is 100 points behind Hamilton in the overall standings after 10 rounds.
The speculation about the German’s future at Ferrari, the team he joined from Red Bull in 2015, and even his possible retirement from Formula One refuses to die down despite Vettel’s assurances he is committed and staying.
“I loved competing against Ferrari last year. I wish that the battle today was with the Ferraris, it’s different when you’re racing within a team,” said Hamilton after a one-two finish with team mate Valtteri Bottas at Silverstone.
“I much prefer it when you’re racing against Red Bull and Ferrari but currently that’s how it is. I absolutely believe he will rebound.
“He’s had a difficult race today but he’s a four times world champion. He will recover, he will redeem himself if he feels he needs to, and he will come back stronger in the next race. That’s what great athletes do.”
The next race is Vettel’s home German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
Vettel and Hamilton, now heading for his sixth title, developed something of a “bromance” in 2017 and 2018 when they were the top two and fighting for the world crown.
The two champions made much of their mutual respect, defending each other in public and emphasizing how much they enjoyed the rivalry.
Vettel has been a shadow of his old self this year, with Leclerc drafted in to replace 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen as the face of the future for the sport’s oldest and most successful team.
The 21-year-old Monegasque now looks like the face of the present, taking on a leading role with more poles, more podiums and more fastest laps than the 32-year-old German and only three points behind.
Leclerc has racked up four podiums in a row, while Vettel has not featured in the top three for the past three races.
Where Vettel hit Verstappen, the Monegasque lit up the race with lap after lap of precision wheel-to-wheel battles with the Dutchman, also 21.
Vettel’s last win was in Belgium in August 2018, an anniversary fast approaching, but on current form Leclerc has looked the more likely to take Ferrari’s first victory of the season.
The German could have won in Canada after starting on pole and finishing first but made a mistake that triggered a penalty, with Hamilton winning instead. Since then, Vettel has not qualified in the top five.
“I’m sure he’s as frustrated as we are,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner of the accident with Verstappen.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)