Threats to Lewis Hamilton’s reign could come in many forms next year – a resurgent Valtteri Bottas in the sister Mercedes, Charles Leclerc armed with a Ferrari, Max Verstappen in an on-song Red Bull-Honda. But despite all those options, Hamilton still believes that his principal challenger in 2019 will, once again, be Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel is the only non-Mercedes driver who’s looked anything like a serious championship contender in the post-2014 hybrid era. He’s finished second to Hamilton for the past two seasons, while in his first year with Ferrari in 2015, the German was the only man apart from Hamilton and then-Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg to take a race win (he took three en route to finishing third in the standings).
Vettel was leading Hamilton in the 2018 drivers’ championship after his race win at Silverstone in July, before his crashing out of the lead at the following Grand Prix in Germany signalled the start of a dramatic unravelling of his title bid. In the subsequent 11 races up to the Abu Dhabi season finale, Vettel won just once, claiming 149 points. Hamilton, meanwhile, engaged another gear to take eight victories and 245 points in the same period – becoming the first man to score over 400 points in a season in the process.
Despite Vettel’s capitulation, however, it was still the German driver that Hamilton admitted he would be most wary of in 2019.
“I would imagine it’s going to be Sebastian,” he said, when asked who he anticipated would be his main rival next year, before adding after a pause: “And Valtteri alongside me.”