Formula One’s Lone Star shootout is real deal

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg clash in US Grand Prix in Texas is hardly Ali versus Frazier, but it’s a lot better than Formula One usually manages

Where better than Texas to have a shootout, and where better than the Lone Star state for a Formula One shootout. After all, everything's bigger in Texas, which makes it perfect for sport's loudest stage to roll into town for this weekend's US Grand Prix.

What’s different though is that Formula One actually has something worth watching, besides the usual grid of shiny, throbbing phallic symbols. In fact for once it will be possible to look at a “brmm- brmm” race as sport and not Jeremy Clarkson’s turbo-boosted wet dream, which doesn’t mean it isn’t a cock fight, just one anybody can understand.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg is hardly Ali and Frazier but it's a lot better than Formula One usually manages, and it does appear to have the frisson of a real festering rivalry, the kind no amount of money stashed back in Monaco will allow the loser to swerve the sting of defeat when the 2014 drivers championship ends next month.

For once, something that revolves around inanimate equipment has conspired to present us with an actual flesh- and-blood, eyeball-to-eyeball clash in sport’s best “mano-a-mano” tradition.

Texas might not decide things, but with only two other races afterwards, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that whoever comes out on top between Hamilton and Rosberg this weekend will have secured a vital edge, because for once a season actually looks like coming down to who the best driver actually is.

Rare phenomenon

That this is a comparatively rare phenomenon has always been Formula One’s blind spot, the one no amount of bikini-booty- bouncing-on-the-bonnet can distract from: the best car usually wins the driver’s championship, not the best driver. Sometimes the two coincide, but allowances normally have to be made for nuggets of gadgetry so wonderful they even allow Jenson Button to become a champion.

This time though allowances are not required, apart from Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull needing more than just wings to reach fourth gear, and Fernando Alonso possessing a Ferrari with a very Italian sense of reliability. But it is still comparatively simple Mercedes deal: Hamilton and Rosberg drive for the same team and have the same car.

What will decide things between them is not some fiddly-techy button that goes "ping", but skill and judgment behind a wheel, a wheel capable of some superdigital magic but still something millions of Top Gear fantasists around the globe can understand when pressing their throttle- toes into the sitting-room carpet waiting for the green light.

The last time a scenario like this truly presented itself was back in 1988-1989, when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost venomously underlined how it is okay for any driver to finish behind another, just so long as it's not the team-mate.

Even those of us whose motoring requirements involve no more than start and go, and pay negligible attention to the penis-substitute nuances of what’s under our behinds, could recognise genuine competitive venom between two men who, in a car, were as close to genius as makes no difference.

They made a film about Senna. Would they have made it if he hadn’t had Prost to butt head-gaskets with? It’s doubtful, because despite Formula One’s obscene wealth, and the tawdry glamour that accompanies it, there still remains no sporting substitute for two individuals straightforwardly going head-to-head.

It is unlikely films will be made about Hamilton or Rosberg, once pals who now clearly don’t like each other anymore. The Englishman appears a stranger to modesty. Senna could hardly have been accused of an absence of self-regard either, but possessed an aesthetic side that made having a Pussycat Doll in tow superfluous in terms of magnetism.

Rosberg is more enigmatic, the German son of a Finnish world champion who mostly grew up in Monaco cutting a cosmopolitan figure in the style of Prost, who famously won the ’89 championship after a collision with Senna in Japan.

Rosberg had to apologise after accidently-on-purpose colliding into Hamilton at the Belgian Grand Prix in August, the latest in series of finger-pointing incidents that hark back to Prost and Senna’s ultimate internecine war, and that behind the official tut-tutting must have Formula One bosses hugging themselves at such a box office boost.

Of course it's lazy to assign cartoon roles to Hamilton and Rosberg as to Senna and Prost, although hardly wildly inaccurate either. Hamilton does appear quicker but more impulsive, Rosberg more calculating but lacking flamboyance. But it is still something Joe Public can understand. And even to hundreds of millions of devotees worldwide who remain transfixed by cars going fast, it adds an intriguing layer to the season's last three races.

Jules Bianchi’s fight for life after his crash in Japan earlier this month continues to be a jarring reminder of the darker side of motor racing’s allure, and there have been times this year when the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry has tilted towards the reckless.

Box office

But there’s no getting away from it: motor racing is inherently dangerous and it is human nature to appreciate that danger best within an easily digestible human context. For a sport whose protagonists spend much of their time hidden behind helmets and bland corporate-speak, this shootout is box office, even if both men can appear as charismatic as a pair of exhaust pipes.

But they are supreme practitioners of their craft, and whoever eventually wins might actually grow into the role of being the face the public thinks of when it comes to cars. And either of them is preferable to Clarkson in that role.