Lewis Hamilton has been hailed a role-model Formula One world champion by Bernie Ecclestone who in turn has criticised Sebastian Vettel for failing to play up to the part.
F1 supremo Ecclestone claims Hamilton to be “the best world champion we’ve had”, not just for the two titles he has won, but primarily for the way he has turned himself into a globally-known sporting figure.
In contrast, whilst Vettel has four championships to his name given his success with Red Bull from 2010-2013, it is likely few outside the followers of the sport would recognise the German.
Ecclestone was highlighting the fact as champion Hamilton has not been afraid to put himself in the public eye, attending awards ceremonies and the like, whereas Vettel in the off-season always goes to ground.
Ecclestone, speaking at a media briefing ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix, said of the Brit: “As a driver he is absolutely outstanding, as good as there’s ever been.
“Apart from the fact he’s talented, he’s a good guy, he gets out on the street and supports and promotes Formula One.
“He’s 100 per cent box office. I told Sebastian ‘you should be doing what he’s doing’ - the job of world champion.
“He was the champion and got paid money for that, but these guys think their only job is racing a racing car. It goes a bit further than that.
“Look at (Sir) Jackie Stewart, who is still making quite a bit of money, and he hasn’t been in a car for a few years.
“But it works because he’s looked after his image and he still does a good job. Perhaps these guys think when they stop that’ll be it.”
Ecclestone was addressing the broader picture of F1’s decline, that many of the drivers fail to promote the sport and are unwilling to engage with the fans.
The 84-year-old continues to be plagued by the thorny issue of how to popularise the sport again, particularly in the face of Hamilton and his team Mercedes dominating.
Heading into Sunday’s race, Mercedes have claimed 19 of the last 20 pole positions and won 17 of those races.
Despite calls by the likes of Red Bull team boss Christian Horner for an equalisation of the engine regulations, Ecclestone does not feel the rules should be altered simply to stop one good team.
And despite the clamour last year from three of the smaller marques in Lotus, Force India and Sauber for a more equitable distribution of revenues, binding long-term contracts mean their pleas will never be answered.
Ecclestone added: “I’ve no complaints or problems about Mercedes doing what they are doing - the complaint I’ve got is the others are not doing the same.
“All Mercedes have done is a good job - they’ve the best engine, best chassis, best team, two of the best drivers, so they are entitled to win.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, hailed his crew of mechanics following a difficult day at the office that he claims left him “heavily compromised”.
He was forced to pull his Mercedes to one side after just four installation laps in the first practice session at Sepang with a fault to within the power unit inlet system.
It meant Hamilton did not return to the track until 38 minutes into the 90 of FP2 but the 30-year-old wasted no time in getting up to speed as he went on to set the fastest lap, being the only driver to dip under 100 seconds with a time of one minute 39.790secs.
“It was an amazing job done by my guys to rebuild the car, get the engine and gearbox back on and to get back out,” said Hamilton.
“I am very grateful for that. Especially here where it is so hot and so difficult for the tyres, so it was really important get back out.”
Losing too much time, however, may yet prove costly as Hamilton added: “It affects you quite a bit.
“Fortunately I got a few laps in with a longer run at the end, but in terms of my set-up, I have not made any changes and it is quite a bit off from where we need it.
“Overall, my preparations have been heavily compromised. Whenever you lose a session, and most of the second session too, that definitely doesn’t help.
“In the end, just to get some laps was crucial. If I had missed all of today then Sunday would be hard.
“Right now I have some improvements to make to the balance and the settings, so I am sure we will tweak and improve it because we have not got the car dialled in.”
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was second quickest in both sessions, the Finn finishing 0.373secs adrift of Hamilton’s team-mate Nico Rosberg in FP1, and remarkably exactly the same time off the Briton in FP2.
Although Ferrari are showing signs of closing in on Mercedes, Raikkonen said: “The car is still not perfect, but I’m sure we can improve for tomorrow.
“We have some work to do on the set up to make everything easier, but we’ll do our best and we’ll see where we end up in qualifying.”
Rosberg had to settle for third best, just over four tenths of a second behind Hamilton, followed by Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat and Williams duo Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa.
As for ailing McLaren, the returning Fernando Alonso was down in 16th, 2.7secs off the pace, closely followed by team-mate Jenson Button.
Alonso, who sat out the first race Down Under as he recovered from concussion suffered in a crash in testing, claims McLaren have progressed from where they were a fortnight ago in Melbourne.
The double world champion said: “It felt great in the car.
“After the gym, the simulator, whatever you do it is not the same as the car, so I enjoyed so much driving here.
“It was really the second day of testing for me because I had one good day in Barcelona with 63 laps and then today with 45 laps.
“And the car was much better than expected. The experience we had in winter we had a lot of problems after four or five laps.
“But today we ran 45 laps with zero problems, everything went as we predicted.
“We will see in qualifying where we are, but I think we were 4.6 seconds behind pole position in Australia.
“Here, maybe we could be 3.5 seconds down, so that is a one second or 1.5 second gain in two weeks, so a big step forward.”
Manor also hit the track for the first time this season after months of uncertainty and missing Australia due to technical issues despite being present at the Albert Park circuit.
Rookie duo Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi completed 34 laps between them, with the Briton 5.9secs down and the Spaniard 7.4secs adrift, with the latter’s day cut short by a spin into the gravel.