Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the crowd from the track during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 10, 2019 in Suzuka, Japan. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MARK THOMPSON
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the crowd from the track during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 10, 2019 in Suzuka, Japan. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MARK THOMPSON

Suzuka — Lewis Hamilton says that Sebastian Vettel is now “clearly not” No 1 at Ferrari but has warned against the team “ramping up” support for rookie Charles Leclerc ahead of this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Ferrari’s botched team orders at the previous race in Russia two weeks ago handed Hamilton a surprise victory after Mercedes had trailed Ferrari on the timing sheets all weekend. Vettel ignored team instruction several times to hand back the lead to Leclerc at Sochi.

The German’s retirement with a mechanical problem and a virtual safety car then enabled Hamilton and Bottas to secure the top two steps of the podium.

Both Leclerc and Vettel were at pains on Thursday to point out that all was now “clear” between them and Ferrari. But the beneficiary of their spat, Hamilton, has been keenly watching the antics of the Maranello team.

“It’s an interesting dynamic they have there because obviously Seb was No 1 and now clearly not,” Hamilton told reporters at Suzuka.

Leclerc has been the fastest man on the grid since the summer break, securing four straight pole positions and two race wins.

“From the kind of the energy, from the outlook, they’re trying to ramp Charles up to be [No 1]. Is that good for a team? I don’t think so,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton said he had a similar issue in his 2007 rookie season at McLaren when he partnered Fernando Alonso, and that did not end well after the Spaniard was angered by losing his No 1 status.

“Obviously when I was with Fernando he was the hired No 1. But then midseason they changed that,” recalled Hamilton. “He was still the No 1 because he was the highest-paid driver.

“But then they gave us equal fuel and then you started seeing changes like Montreal and Indianapolis. Then that dynamic shifted, and it obviously didn’t go well for the team,” he said. “There are drivers that always wanted that No 1 status. I like to earn that. Start on an equal platform, then either of you can get that No 1 status on that weekend. Weekend-in, weekend-out.”

Mercedes can secure a record sixth successive constructors’ championship with another one-two in Japan.

“It’s pretty special,” said Hamilton. “I’m really proud to be a part of it.”

Hamilton knows a victory on Sunday will leave only his teammate Valtteri Bottas able to catch him in the remaining four races. But Saturday’s qualifying and practice have been put in doubt by the approach of Super Typhoon Hagibis, which has already caused havoc with the cancellation of two Rugby World Cup games.

Japanese Grand Prix organisers will decide at noon on Friday (5am SA time) whether to scrap Saturday’s schedule, saying the safety of fans and drivers was their priority.

A relaxed Hamilton, though, did not seem bothered by Hagibis, categorised as “violent” — the highest level on the Japan storm scale, even if it causes qualifying to be shifted to Sunday morning.

“I love driving in the rain,” Hamilton said, seemingly oblivious to Hagibis potentially lashing Suzuka with torrents of water and winds well in excess of 100km/h. 

AFP