By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Formula One fans will be hearing a lot about Juan Manuel Fangio this season as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battle to match the late Argentine’s 1950s feat of five world championships.
Only Michael Schumacher, with seven, has won more titles and equaling the German’s tally is still largely the stuff of dreamland.
“I saw something about being up there potentially with Fangio, so that is quite an exciting prospect,” Hamilton said when his new Mercedes W09 car made its track debut at Silverstone in February.
The Briton is the bookmakers’ favorite to defend the title in what will be the first season to feature two four-times champions together on track.
Vettel could be breathing down Hamilton’s neck, a decade after his Ferrari team last won a title, but may find Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo running alongside if not in front.
Even Mercedes recognize it might be best for the sport, in its second year with U.S.-based Liberty Media running the show, not to have a fifth successive season of domination by the Silver Arrows.
But it’s not their job to make life easier.
“If you look from outside, does a long term dominance of the team damage the spectacle? Yes it does,” team boss Toto Wolff told reporters.
“We’ve seen that with the successes from Ferrari in the years 2000 and Red Bull a couple of years ago…
“I think the most healthy situation for Formula One is a very competitive environment where multiple teams are able to win, the championship goes down to the wire…these are clearly the ingredients it needs.”
That could also happen, if predictions of a tight three-way tussle at the top come true, and Hamilton for one would welcome the challenge.
Exactly who stands where will likely remain unclear until well after Melbourne, which is not always the best guide to long-term form. Vettel won a year ago and led for 12 races before it all fell apart.
“Mercedes are going into this championship as very much the favorites,” says Red Bull boss Christian Horner, whose team won four titles in a row with Vettel between 2010 and 2013.
Hamilton disagreed: “I think Red Bull are the fastest at the moment, potentially,” he said on Wednesday. Ferrari have kept their own counsel.
If not Hamilton or Vettel, there is a 20-year-old with an army of orange-shirted supporters waiting impatiently for his time to come.
Verstappen, winner of two of the last six races of 2017, looks a champion in the making and a big question this year is whether he will have a car good enough to mount a substantial challenge.
If he does, then expect Ricciardo to be very much in contention as well.
Reliability will be crucial, with the engine allocation reduced from four to three and the season enlarged to 21 races.
An even bigger battle is brewing behind the top three with former champions Renault and McLaren, now using the French engines, aiming to push Force India out of the fourth place they have occupied for the past two years.
McLaren’s double world champion Fernando Alonso will also be creating headlines of his own with Le Mans and a full world endurance season as well as Formula One.
Toro Rosso, embracing the Honda engines that caused so much grief for McLaren over the past three years, have had an untroubled time in testing and could cause something of a reappraisal.
Ferrari-powered Haas also appear to have raised their game.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, the Monegasque who won last year’s F2 title, and Russian Sergey Sirotkin at Williams are the rookie debutants.
The French Grand Prix returns after a decade away, at Le Castellet, while Germany is back after a year’s absence. Malaysia has gone.
Off track, Liberty and the governing FIA face tricky talks about the future direction of the sport, and what kind of engine to use from 2021, with Ferrari threatening to walk away if they do not like what is on offer.
And then there is the ‘halo’, the head protection device that has changed the look of the cars and makes its race debut with drivers already largely accustomed to it.
By the time the championship is won, it may be less of a talking point than Fangio.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)