Five days after claiming his first win of the 2017 season, Lewis Hamilton goes into this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix determined to build momentum in his bid for a fourth world drivers title this year – and to keep his battle with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel as friendly as possible.
After three highly competitive and sometimes acrimonious years competing with now retired 2016 champion and former Mercedes team-mate German Nico Rosberg, the Englishman is relishing a different kind of challenge.
Instead of fighting his Mercedes partner newly-recruited Finn Valtteri Bottas, formerly with Williams, he is in a scrap for glory with four-time champion German Vettel, of Ferrari, and finding it is a completely different kind of duel.
And, he said, he is loving the change of atmosphere and focus.
“We are working so hard and so are Ferrari,” he said. “I am expecting a very tough weekend in Bahrain where they are likely to be even stronger than in China because their car works, in general, better in hot conditions than cold.
“We made the most of our chance last weekend and we have to work hard to try and stay in front this time.”
Vettel has been just as generous as Hamilton in heaping praise on his direct title rival and the pair have, so far, served up one win each amid much mutual back-slapping and respect.
“You have to take any advantage you can get,” said Hamilton, ahead of this Sunday’s floodlit night race at the Sakhir International Circuit where he will be seeking a third win at the track in four years, following Rosberg’s triumph last year.
“That is why we are doing so much now, working so hard. It is so important early on, as I learned last year. Hopefully, it will pay dividends at the end. I really have to try and make sure I finish ahead again in the next race.”
Hamilton, whose early season form saw him fall 43 points adrift of Rosberg in 2016, is seeking also to score another pole position to extend his run to seven in succession. “I have six in a row and Ayrton Senna had eight in a row – and I want to catch Senna. That’s even more of a challenge!”
After last weekend’s cold and wet conditions, the high temperatures expected at the Bahrain track are sure to play a major part in the outcome as this year’s new formula of heavier, fatter and faster cars create new levels of wear on the broader tyres.
“I enjoy that fact that we are racing together in these cars,” added Hamilton, of his battle with Vettel, who won the season opening race in Melbourne in March.
“I think right now we are a good match and the sportsmanship is amazing. When I win he enjoys it and when I lose it is the same as I can acknowledge it too. We are both giving respect and that is a great place to be.”
The two main championship contenders are expected to dominate again and should be chased by their team-mates Bottas and fellow-Finn Kimi Raikkonen, with Red Bull, who improved their form in China, pushing hard as the third-fastest team.
Following his astonishing drive from 16th on the grid to finish third in a rain-affected race, Dutchman Max Verstappen will be hoping to stay ahead of team-mate Australian Daniel Ricciardo, whose fourth-place finish in Shanghai was frustrating and also a triumph, following his dismal weekend at Albert Park.
Behind them, much attention will focus on the form and future of two-time champion and three-time Bahrain winner Spaniard Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda who, it was announced on Wednesday, will miss the Monaco Grand Prix to take part in the Indianapolis 500.
His decision, taken with the support of his team, has led to intense speculation about his future with McLaren whose form this year has once again been disappointing.