Motor racing: ‘Difficult to race each other’ but passion strong

F1 – F1 – Ferrari Formula One news conference with drivers Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc – Abidjan, Ivory Coast – 12/12/2018 – The Ferrari Formula One cars during a news conference. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

PARIS (Reuters) – (This December 20 story corrects length in second para to 7.8 seconds.)

A year after a Mexican race drama between cars driven by Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas saw Mercedes’ world champion gifted victory, title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen believe the rivalry is better than ever.

So too are the drivers themselves, the podium pair both agreeing on Thursday that a week of testing in Barcelona had given them an edge.

They all play down any suggestion that the rivalry, whose intensity would usually give cause for a protest or media feud, could ever lead to a physical clash.

“Maybe but the standard is so high that when something comes up, there won’t be a problem, because it’s not about winning or losing,” said Ferrari’s Finland’s 2016 champion Raikkonen.

The temptation of jumping on Raikkonen’s back as an accusation over the team radio is hard to resist but, with the 32-year-old’s future uncertain as he seeks a move to Porsche next year, the team have grown more respectful.

Both men attended the opening of an exhibition in Suzuka, the final race before the finale in Abu Dhabi, to pay their respects to last year’s victorious team mate Bottas.

In October, Rosberg refused to pay tribute to Mercedes driver Hamilton during the German Grand Prix weekend, in what he later said was “not an attack on Lewis”.

Hamilton is the quickest man on the circuit with four world titles to his name but is not unbeatable.

After all, Vettel won four titles in succession for Red Bull from 2010-14 and Raikkonen twice claimed titles for McLaren before moving to Ferrari where he has won twice.

Bottas’s victory last year was the first time since 2012 that the Mercedes duo had been on the podium at the same race.

Their heat remains intense, particularly in qualifying where Rosberg and Vettel were frequently spat at.

Raikkonen, who flew to Abu Dhabi a day early, said a big part of the challenge was to keep them both behind and ready for their duel on race day.

“It’s fun when they push each other but it’s a dangerous place in the end when two cars are pushing each other all the time,” he said.

“I keep my head down, they (Ferrari) keep theirs low. I can only focus on what I can do.”

Hamilton, who could make history as the sport’s youngest five-times champion at the age of 34, will clinch the title on Sunday if he finishes second in Abu Dhabi while Vettel, 31, fails to score a point.

Racing on home soil at the Silverstone circuit, the Briton’s final race in a Mercedes this season, will ensure a raucous reception from the 70,000-strong grandstands.

“It is going to be great,” he said in an interview for Sky Sports television, adding that he would have time to savour it during his retirement party.

“I have been on the podium in Abu Dhabi a few times, so it won’t be a whole new experience.”

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Toby Davis)

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