Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have combined to win all but one of the last 11 F1 drivers’ titles, and have been the protagonists in the two inter-team title battles of the F1 hybrid era so far.
So even though they’ve only once both entered an F1 season finale while retaining title hopes – in 2010, with two other drivers also in the mix – their rivalry and its flashpoints have captivated much of the F1 audience, and many within the sport.
Certainly, it seems to have left a lasting impression on Hamilton. When he and Vettel were paired up in a pre-Imola Thursday press conference and asked about their favourite F1 rivalries, Hamilton said: “I’ve got a really bad memory, but I’m going to go and say mine and Seb’s battles are my favourite up until now. So far.”
“The really bad memory” line was a big caveat, as was “so far”, as was the presence of Vettel in the room – but Hamilton has consistently spoken very fondly of their battles, so his words on Thursday fit neatly into that pattern.
“It’s just knowing how hard it is to be where we are today, knowing that I was racing against an incredible driver and, not only that, a great man in Seb, who is a four-time world champion,” Hamilton added. “And as we [Mercedes] were racing against another team at the same time, he was at Ferrari, who were very strong at the time.
“So it took a lot out of both of us, I think, in that period of time, to remain focused to deliver weekend in, weekend out.
“I think it probably brought us closer as well, because the respect that we have between us is, I think, huge.”
But will the Vettel rivalry really be the defining one in Hamilton’s storied F1 career when he calls it a day? And is it the one that deserves to be remembered most fondly?
Below, our writers make their selections for the best rivalry Hamilton has been part of in F1:
The first is still the best
For me the best of Hamilton’s F1 rivalries by far remains his first one, as a rookie at McLaren in 2007 – with his team-mate Fernando Alonso. As they were in a world title calibre of car, it could not have been a more fearsomely combustible mix given their personalities and that of McLaren boss Ron Dennis. Something spectacular was always on the cards.
It would have worked just fine if Hamilton had been a couple of tenths slower. Alonso would’ve waltzed to his third consecutive title, Dennis would have been delighted that Hamilton had compared so closely as a rookie to the great Alonso and there’d have been no trouble worth speaking of.
That’s probably pretty much how Dennis had imagined it would be. His signing of Alonso gave him the security of a gold standard driver he could rely on and it was this which allowed him the gamble of putting his protégé in the car. It was that or risk losing him to a rival team – and already the signs were that he was something special.
So Dennis was probably quite relaxed about having agreed to Alonso’s insistence that the title bid would be built around him. Alonso expressed some disquiet when he learned that the British protégé would be his team-mate in a British team, the competitive paranoia antenna was up.
But they perhaps began to sink back down in the early winter tests when Hamilton was not initially on Alonso’s pace. These early tests were conducted with the McLaren still on 2006 Michelins, not the single-supply Bridgestones that would be used for 2007.
The Michelins were new to Hamilton but the very same tyres Alonso had just won his second title on with Renault. Hamilton even wrote off a chassis at Valencia in a determined attempt to get within half-a-second of the champion.
Talking to some Spanish colleagues at the time, they were saying that Alonso was telling them he couldn’t understand why there’d been such a big push to have Hamilton in the car – as he didn’t seem super-quick.
That all changed when they got onto the Bridgestones, tyres familiar to Hamilton from GP2 but new to Alonso.
But hang on, this was Fernando Alonso. Surely, he would have a rookie handled, no matter how good.
That was my belief pre-season. But I was intrigued when drivers who knew Hamilton well – Mike Conway, Marc Hynes – were privately saying Hamilton would be faster than Alonso before mid-season. Then it all just exploded the way it did, the way it was always going to, but with a side order of spygate thrown into the mix. It was a partnership that could not have lasted, but boy was it a thrill while it ran.
We haven’t seen it yet
I think Hamilton has overcome some excellent opposition and challenges to enjoy as much success as he’s had but they’ve all lacked a little something to be a defining rivalry for me.
With Alonso it was short-lived. With Felipe Massa it was, with all due respect, at a lower point in Hamilton’s career. With Nico Rosberg it was inside the same team. With Vettel it was a flawed opponent (both Seb and Ferrari).
So I’m picking the rivalry that’s only been bubbling away so far because I’m convinced by the end of it, it’ll be the defining one.
We’ve already seen fascinating glimpses of Hamilton vs Max Verstappen and it looks like, finally, in 2021 we’ll get the whole thing. It potentially has everything: two drivers of immense quality, two different teams, all over a world championship.
Even if it’s only for a year or two, if this is as exciting as it has the potential to be it will surely be the defining rivalry of Hamilton’s career. And if he comes out on top it’ll probably be the triumph that’s least undermined as well.
Two modern greats = greatest rivalry
By definition, Hamilton’s rivalry with Vettel has to be regarded as the greatest of his career, simply because the pair dominated the 2008 onwards by taking 11 out of 13 world championships between them.
Hamilton prevailed, given Vettel had the machinery to have made stronger challenges for the title in both ’17 and ’18, but when you look at the history books those two drivers have carved up the majority of the silverware.
It’s astonishing the two never had a championship fight that went the distance given their primacy, but while Hamilton has emphatically proved himself to be the greater all-round driver, Vettel at his best could be just as fast.
That Hamilton asserted himself so decisively over Vettel, particularly in recent years, will be a big part of his legacy.
But as Hamilton himself added when talking about his battles with Vettel, it’s a case of “so far” as his F1 career is not over yet and there are many chapters to be added to the Verstappen section.
An overlooked three-season duel
Yes, there was just the one year that Hamilton and Jenson Button were both in prolonged title contention, and both were very much rank outsiders, and obviously neither ended up winning.
But a rivalry doesn’t have to be a title rivalry to be career-defining and linger heavily in the mind long after it’s run its course, and for me Button/Hamilton ticks both boxes.
Two top drivers, two clearly very different characters, they both had such remarkable peaks and valleys in their performance in their three years as McLaren team-mates as the team briefly re-established itself as a top F1 entity, only to soon officially begin its decade-long decline.
Amid that, they were always close in the standings and usually close on track – sometimes too close, ala Canada 2011. And it was clearly a pretty tense situation within the team off-track too, which pretty much peaked with the infamous telemetry tweet after the 2012 Belgian GP.
The best part about this rivalry, though, is that there was no clear winner, which is not something you can say about Hamilton’s other multi-year rivalries. Rosberg? He came out on top, but Hamilton clearly achieved more in their time as team-mates. Vettel? It was not even close.
But Button? Hamilton did reliably outperform him over one lap, but Button put up more points on the board. And it seems likely that in the process he helped create the super-driver who would go on to dominate hybrid-era F1.
IT HAS TO BE ROSBERG
The Rosberg rivalry was the only properly sustained one Hamilton has had. The others either didn’t feature the animosity and tension, or didn’t involve enough flashpoints over more than a season to justify the tag.
Hamilton v Rosberg was magnified by Mercedes’ advantage during 2014-16. If they’d been fighting for championships during the final years of the V8 engine era, they wouldn’t have been together on track as often because they’d have had Red Bulls, Ferraris and Lotuses in amongst them.
They fought exclusively for three world titles, they collided multiple times, and they fell out behind the scenes. They pushed each other to breaking point, and in the end it was Rosberg who cracked first.
Rosberg got his world title, but didn’t want to put himself through it all again. Hamilton’s been a different man since he left. Who knows how long he could have kept going in that environment if Rosberg had stayed?
WHAT ABOUT MASSA?
Given that Hamilton’s championship battle with Massa produced one of the greatest moments in F1 history when the title was decided at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, is it wrong to overlook their rivalry?
Their relationship was largely good-natured and respectful, although there was still an on-track collision at Fuji late in the year to increase the drama.
They even managed a second chapter with much less on the line when they developed a habit for running into each other in 2011, when both were operating below their previous peaks.