Sebastian Vettel knows all about rifts with a teammate, and he may secretly hope the latest acrimony between world champion Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate continues to grow at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
Only three races into the Formula One season, Mercedes is playing down a new spat between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg — last year’s runner-up — following last weekend’s Chinese GP. An irate Rosberg accused Hamilton of deliberately driving slowly to back him up into Vettel’s Ferrari. Two-time champion Hamilton won the race easily to increase his overall lead, with Rosberg ahead of Vettel.
"It was definitely tense after the race but we had a good sit down, a good discussion," said Rosberg, backtracking diplomatically in the days after the race and echoing the words of Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff in saying the matter was closed.
Not so easy to believe, knowing the recent past.
Rosberg’s outburst quickly jogged memories and re-opened barely-healed wounds from last season, when tensions between the childhood friends and teenage karting rivals neared breaking point at times.
It did not matter so much then, however, because Mercedes sealed the drivers’ and constructors’ titles with dismissive ease to take over from Red Bull — Vettel’s former team — as the dominant force in Formula One.
There were no rivals in 2014, so Mercedes could afford not to care who won between Brit Hamilton and his German rival.
There were some public rebukes from team management, but overall they let them race against each other and even argue — as long as the disputes were kept under control and did not spill over onto the track as they did in Monaco and, more notably, Belgium.
But this year promises to be so much different because Vettel and Ferrari are both back with a very loud bang.
It could prove to be the smartest team switches in F1 history, with Vettel reviving the flagging fortunes of a despondent Ferrari team that was itself plagued by internal disputes between management and two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who quit to join McLaren.
In return, Ferrari reinvigorated a lacklustre Vettel, with the German driver even questioning his future in F1 after failing to win a race for Red Bull last year — compared to a record-equaling 13 race wins on his way to a fourth straight F1 title in 2013.
While Rosberg was widely expected to be Hamilton’s main challenger this year, Vettel is four points ahead of Rosberg in the standings. The margin is trivial at this stage, but Vettel has clearly got his swagger back.
He showed aggression and tactical nous to outsmart Mercedes and win the Malaysian GP two weeks ago. He also placed third at the season-opening Australian GP.
Vettel is one shy of his podium total for 2014 — when he struggled badly in his final year with Red Bull and was outperformed by his junior teammate, Daniel Ricciardo.
"It’s been three out of three so far, so it feels pretty good," Vettel said. "A lot of things have changed … I’m really enjoying the work and hopefully we can get a little bit closer to challenge (Mercedes)."
With an outside shot at challenging for a fifth F1 title looking feasible, Vettel may be well served by subtly stoking the flames of the rift between Hamilton and Rosberg whenever he can, with a choice comment now and again.
From past experience, he knows just how distracting this can be, because he had frosty relations with Mark Webber — his former teammate — when they raced together for Red Bull and were rivals for the title. Neither obeyed team orders then, either.
Although both have been around for many years, Hamilton — who has 35 GP wins compared to Vettel’s 40 — have rarely gone toe-to-toe for a whole season.
Vettel was just starting out in F1 when Hamilton won his first title, in 2008, and finished way back in fifth place last year.
A close rivalry between Vettel and Hamilton this year would be healthy for the sport, and would give Rosberg someone else to focus on.