Beat your teammate is the first rule of F1. The sport’s greatest rivalries and bitterest feuds have come from intra-team battles and the 2019 F1 season looks set to ignite a few more.
We fire up this series examining the teammate battles for the new season with a look at the reigning champions and undisputed kings of the turbo-hybrid era, Mercedes and their longtime rivals Ferrari. Fireworks are guaranteed as the two pairings – one old, one new – go head-to-head.
Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton elevated himself amongst the all-time F1 greats with his 5th World title. 2019 now represents the penultimate step towards matching Michael Schumacher’s record of 7 titles that was long considered out of reach.
In his wake, Hamilton left a drained Sebastian Vettel and a broken Valtteri Bottas. The Finn, in particular, looked like a man desperate for the chance to lock himself away in a snow-covered cabin for the winter and lick his wounds. Hamilton will, however, need to be wary.
Former teammate and nemesis Nico Rosberg bounced back in 2016 to take the World Championship after back-to-back thumpings from Hamilton. Despite thrashing the German in 2014 and 2015, Hamilton struggled to handle the mind games Rosberg dished out and there is no reason Bottas cannot do the same. Hamilton’s objective therefore is to keep Bottas under control and guarantee himself an obedient wingman for title challenge number six.
Ferrari has already made it clear that Vettel will receive preferential status from the outset in 2019. Thus making it essential that Hamilton further asserts his authority over the team from the first race weekend of the season, if only to mitigate any decision by Mercedes to adopt a no team orders approach in the early races.
Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes
Now into his third year at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas’ objective is plain and simple: beat Lewis Hamilton. Unfortunately for the Finn, he is encountering Hamilton at the peak of his already impressive powers.
If Bottas can beat him, his Mercedes career is assured and a maiden world title might well follow. If he doesn’t, his shot at an F1 World Championship will be gone and he will head back down the grid – making way for Esteban Ocon – to see out a career that promised so much more.
Sebastian Vettel – Ferrari
Four-time F1 World Champion Vettel faces a whole new challenge at Ferrari as it swaps obedient Kimi Raikkonen for ‘future champ’ Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque is supposed to be the driver who carries Ferrari’s hopes post-Vettel but he might well replace them if his meteoric rise up the grid continues.
Vettel needs to put a marker down for both Leclerc and Ferrari early on that he is still the team’s #1 driver. Though Ferrari has publicly said as much, the internal politics of the Scuderia dictate that such pronouncements tend to be motivational rather than wholly factual.
The German needs to get back on the gas after he and Ferrari capitulated under the relentless Hamilton/Mercedes pressure in the second half of last season. 2019 will be a pivotal, career-defining season for Vettel as he either reasserts his claim to be amongst the very best or spends the year looking at the rear wing of Leclerc and/or Hamilton.
Charles Leclerc – Ferrari
Leclerc’s path to F1 and Ferrari has been textbook but now the real pressure begins. He does, however, have a great opportunity to fast track his career and avoid an anticipated 2-3 seasons as Vettel’s understudy.
Pressure is mounting on Vettel to deliver this year especially as the Italian media considered 2018 a case of Vettel and Ferrari losing the title rather than Hamilton and Mercedes winning it. Sweeping internal changes will give Vettel less of a sense of this being ‘his’ team which is an edge few drivers in Leclerc’s position get to enjoy. But now that he wears a scarlet firesuit, Leclerc will himself have to cope with levels of pressure he has never before experienced.
As a minimum, he needs to be at least as good as Kimi Raikkonen. Roughly translated that means consistent points scoring in every race. Based on his time at Sauber that seems straightforward. Unlike Kimi however, he will need to match that with genuine signs of race-winning pace that rattles the Hamilton/Verstappen/Vettel triumvirate.
Fail to do that and he will lose the benefit of the considerable momentum and reputation he has built. It might even mean Ferrari start looking into their junior driver academy again for the next superstar – a driver by the name of Schumacher.