Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton looks at his mobile phone during the second practice session ahead of the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai on April 7, 2017Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton looks at his mobile phone during the second practice session ahead of the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai on April 7, 2017 (AFP Photo/WANG ZHAO)
Paris (AFP) - Lewis Hamilton, Formula One’s racing rock star who is a master of all conditions, has the edge over championship-leader Sebastian Vettel and remains favourite for this year’s title, according to former star Mark Webber.
Australian Webber, now 40, knows Vettel as a racer and a team-mate after their strained but glorious years together at Red Bull.
He believes the battle of the two multiple champions will be the centre-piece of the 2017 season as Ferrari and Mercedes slug it out in a development war with the ‘fatter and faster’ cars that made a record-smashing debut in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
“The CVs are getting similar aren’t they? That can re-fire the candle for Seb,” Webber told AFP.
“And don’t forget, Lewis can sometimes be a bit off it, not feeling quite right on a Friday.
“But ultimately, I think Lewis has more outright skill than Sebastian. He’s so good, so very, very good, in the rain and in all conditions.
“But if Seb gets a sniff of success, he can be frightening. I know about that! But for outright skill, it’s Lewis -– and Mercedes are the stable team, the team to beat.”
A veteran of 215 Grands Prix with Minardi, Jaguar, Williams and Red Bull, Webber was a team-mate of Vettel during the German’s four-year pomp as champion and close rival to the younger pre-Mercedes Hamilton.
This weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, where Hamilton seeks his first win of the season and his fifth at Shanghai despite the poor weather conditions, is expected to give a much more accurate guide to the year ahead than the race in Melbourne where, after dominating qualifying, Hamilton was held up in traffic and finished second.
Webber admitted it was Hamilton’s record-breaking charge to pole position that left the most serious impression.
“What we have seen is a supremely confident Lewis who, at 32, has been exceptional,” he said. “Remember, he hadn’t been there for 12 months and he went straight out there and he was just… exceptional!
“He was so confident. I think he looked like he was going to crash the car. He was that quick and that confident. He was on the edge straightaway.”
He was not, he said, surprised to see Vettel end Ferrari’s 18-month winless drought in Melbourne.
“I think Ferrari are going to win races, but a season? I think they’ve got Sebastian engaged again and that is crucial.
“The ‘marriage’ is back on, but if they are not winning consistently in the next eight months he will be looking over the fence.”
Webber, now working as an ambassador for Rolex amid other commitments, believes also that Vettel’s new life as a family man may have an effect on the battle with the Englishman.
“Sebastian, he is a very human guy,” he said. “He’s very private. We all love our families, of course -- and I think he’s always had the big picture in his mind.
“Having said that, deep down, he is still a very tough competitor and he loves winning.”