When Alain Prost reflects on his bitter rivalry with Ayrton Senna, one thing is clear: the intense pressure that comes from wanting to beat your fiercest rival in Formula 1 is something that’s hard to fully comprehend unless you’ve experienced it. Thirty years ago the pair were teammates at McLaren, dominating the sport but locked in a relationship so toxic that Senna often refused to speak to Prost, shake his hand or even refer to him by name.
“Sometimes I admit I was frightened by him,” the Frenchman once told Motorsport. “He was prepared to do anything.”
Senna vs Prost is generally regarded as the greatest rivalry there’s ever been in Formula 1, so it’s the best reference there is for Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel as they head towards Abu Dhabi and the climax of the 2018 season. Back in March, they sat on the grid in Melbourne with four world championships each. Barring a set of very bizarre circumstances, they knew that one of them would end the year with five. With both drivers in their prime and seated in the sport’s two best cars, many are speculating that this could become the greatest rivalry Formula 1 has ever witnessed.
What’s certain is that it’s a departure from Formula 1’s most famous head-to-heads, which are usually between drivers in the same team. This is a product of the sport’s structure where, more often than not, one outfit dominates the rest on the grid, leaving their two drivers as the only realistic candidates for the title. This leaves the team in question scrambling to contain the fallout from these duels, which become more intense with every race. Despite modern F1’s forcefield of PRs trying to control what’s released to the media, there is simply no hiding a deteriorating relationship between two teammates – Hamilton’s relationship with Nico Rosberg at Mercedes being a recent case in point.
If he wants to prove he’s a man we should do it face-to-face
Since the turn of the century, different teams and drivers have taken turns to dominate the championship: first there was Ferrari and Schumacher, then Red Bull and Vettel, with Mercedes and Hamilton following after. The driver pairings in these teams were generally too one-sided to produce a great rivalry: Michael Schumacher was the undisputed number one at Ferrari, while Vettel pretty much always had the measure of Mark Webber.
Hamilton vs Vettel is the first time since Ferrari’s Schumacher and McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen spent three seasons trading blows between 1998 and 2000 that there has been genuine competition between two drivers representing two different teams. This year, Mercedes and Ferrari have produced two cars that are as evenly matched as you’re likely to see, allowing 500 million Formula 1 fans around the world the rare chance to observe two drivers going head-to-head, knowing that the result isn’t skewed by internal team politics. It’s genuinely rare and exciting.
Mark Webber certainly agrees. “It’s pretty epic,” says the former Red Bull driver, who was one of four men who went into the 2010 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with a chance of winning the world championship. “You couldn’t have two more different characters: you have a calculating German and Lewis is just an out-and-out racer. They’re not going to leave much on the table. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s like Federer and Nadal.”
Federer vs Nadal is a good parallel, because Hamilton and Vettel’s rivalry is not built on the kind of bitterness that poisoned Senna and Prost’s relationship. Both are keen to not let things spill over into public animosity, aware that a great rivalry doesn’t necessarily require a personal feud. They each know the graft and sacrifice that’s gone into being a quadruple world champion, and respect the other’s talents. Hamilton publicly defended Vettel on Instagram after the Japanese Grand Prix, where the Ferrari driver clashed with Max Verstappen on the track.
“We’re not 20-year-olds – we’re grown men,” says Lewis. “I think if you watch tennis, you watch the great players, the great golfers, the great athletes – the mind is everything. Naturally you’re having the battle with the guy behind… I watch Sebastian, I know what he’s achieved in the past years, I know how consistent he’s been, I know where his strengths and weaknesses are. I think there are times he probably hates me more than I have any feeling like that…”
If you watch the great athletes in the world – the mind is everything
But Vettel is equally magnanimous in his assessment of his opponent. “Lewis is a four-time world champion and one of the best drivers,” he admits. “He is an opponent on the track, but not in life. Honestly, it does not matter to me who you are driving against.”
This may be true, but, just as Senna and Prost defined each other, Vettel admits that his opponent’s performance colours the judgement of his own. “If you win against Lewis or Fernando Alonso at the end, you’re proud of it because you know that the level at which Lewis and Fernando are racing is extremely high.”
Indeed, both drivers started off the season knowing that to win this year’s title against the other would probably make it their greatest achievement. For Lewis, he’d have taken on the biggest team in F1 and beaten them. He’ll have effectively conquered an entire country. For Vettel, the triumph will be over the most consistent team of recent times, and the constructors’ champion for the past four years.
Perhaps both of them know it, and maybe this is why, despite their protestations of mutual respect, the pressure can occasionally show. The race at Azerbaijan this year was a case in point: thinking he’d been brake-tested by Hamilton, Vettel drove into the Mercedes and prompted a furious response from his rival. “He disgraced himself,” Hamilton said afterwards. “If he wants to prove he’s a man, we should do it out of the car face-to-face.” Three months later, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Hamilton reiterated his belief in his own abilities to withstand all the pressure, “Nobody is perfect, but I work to position myself mentally and physically so I am the last to crack.”
I look back on our rivalry and think ‘why did we put ourselves through that?’
He spoke again about the strain of such fierce competition after the Italian Grand Prix in September: “The heat is there, the intensity is there,” he says. “It’s unavoidable for everyone, for me and him. It’s very difficult for people watching who are not in it to feel what we feel – the pressure is at the highest that I can ever remember. That’s the pressure you put on yourself because you want to succeed, it’s the pressure of all your desires and fears and all of the people that are depending on you.”
A keen observer of the Vettel and Hamilton rivalry is Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner – a man who knows the former very well, having worked with him during his four world titles at Red Bull. Can the pair’s rivalry go on to eclipse even Senna and Prost’s?
“It has all the ingredients,” he told the Daily Mail. “There has been very little to choose between them and they are very different characters. Sebastian typifies that Germanic kind of precision; he works hard and is fiercely private. He has a very endearing personality on the one side and yet on the other he’s a ruthless competitor – that burning ambition is part of his character and it’s why he was able to win four world titles for us. On the other side you have the flamboyant, naturally gifted, almost pop-star-like character that is Lewis… Some of the greatest racing that I saw when I was growing up was the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. The sport needs heroes and villains so the fans can choose.”
The last word goes to Alain Prost. “When people ask me who was the best driver I ever raced against, I say, ‘Senna, by a long way.’ Whatever our problems, one thing that never changed was our respect for each other as drivers, and once we were not rivals anymore, everything was different. I look back now and think, ‘Why did we put ourselves through all that?’”
Maybe, in years to come, Vettel and Hamilton will have that perspective. But for now there’s little doubt that Vettel and Hamilton’s ultimate legacies in the sport are inexorably linked to each other.