By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The tension of a rivalry that produced ‘road rage’ and acrimony between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in 2017 was absent on Thursday as the four-times Formula One champions made nice before the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
This year marks the first ever in the series that two quadruple champions go wheel-to-wheel and their battle to join Argentine legend Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles will be a talking point throughout the season.
Mutual respect was traded in for resentment last year when the pair bumped wheels at an explosive Azerbaijan Grand Prix, prompting an angry outburst from Mercedes’ Hamilton.
Fans will hope passions are high when the pair face off at Albert Park on Sunday and can remain so through a proper season-long tussle.
At the year’s first pre-race news conference, however, they staged little more than a mutual appreciation society when comparing their challenges, trading smiles and light-hearted banter while sitting side-by-side.
“When you come to the end of your career you want to know that you’re competing against the best,” said reigning champion Hamilton, who overhauled Ferrari’s Vettel last year to claim his third title with Mercedes.
“There are those that bow out early, those that have one championship maybe, that has not been as competitive and the ultimate goal to be the best is that you’re going to have to go up against the best.
“It’s great because it’s been a great experience for me to be able to race Sebastian.
“He’s got the four world titles, had the most of any other driver at the time and I think this is an exciting year for Formula One fans being that we have two four-time world champions battling it out.”
German Vettel, who took four consecutive titles for Red Bull from 2010-13, was similarly generous to the driver he shook his fist at in a rage at Baku last year when he claimed the Briton had brake-tested him before their clash of wheels on track.
“He’s done a very good job for many years now,” the 30-year-old said. “In my case, if I look at people I raced throughout my career then you care about what it means to you and it gives you more satisfaction.
“And now I am searching for the ultimate satisfaction to win with Ferrari, which is the greatest team in history, greatest team in the paddock.
“That’s my ultimate target now, win for Ferrari and win against the best, which arguably Lewis is one of them.”
Barring their racing pedigree, the pair share little in common, with Hamilton’s high-profile social life at odds with Vettel’s fierce protection of his privacy.
However, they agreed that matching Fangio, whose record of five titles is second only to Michael Schumacher’s seven, was the last thing on their minds.
“I’ve not (thought about it), honestly,” shrugged Hamilton.
For Vettel, there was no point in thinking ‘what if’.
“I think nowadays the times are different, they are very different times to what Fangio achieved,” he added.
“Every era has its own challenges.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)