Why Lewis Hamilton is better than ever
Edd Straw stated recently that this latest world drivers’ championship for Lewis Hamilton, long since predicted, would be “the greatest of his four titles”.
And, now that it’s official, it almost certainly is. Unlike in 2014 and 2015 Hamilton has not had unequivocally the best car. Which leaves 2008, where you could debate the relative merits of his McLaren and rival Ferrari. But whatever Lewis made heavy weather of that one.
This one is different. It’s hard to get into the mind-set of the Mercedes not being the standard bearer; perhaps in its ideal circumstances it still is. But this year the W08 was, as Merc team boss Toto Wolff famously put it, a “diva”.
Andrew Benson takes up the story. “The Mercedes might be the fastest car over one lap this season, at least with Hamilton in it. But the Ferrari is a more consistent and usable – and often faster – race car, with a wider operating window.”
And yet Lewis claimed the crown comfortably with two races to spare; it was as good as wrapped up much sooner.
The pace and points gap between him and team mate Valtteri Bottas since the year’s midpoint has gaped. It’s reasonable to conclude that at least in taking the drivers’ crown for Mercedes Lewis was a crucial factor.
He’s justified every million, as if you look at the world championship, particularly the second half of the season, if they [Mercedes] didn’t have Lewis as their number one they would not win this world championship - Karun Chandhok
“He’s justified every million,” said Karun Chandhok on this point. “As if you look at the world championship, particularly the second half of the season, if they [Mercedes] didn’t have Lewis as their number one they would not win this world championship.”
And while there were a few off weekends from Lewis in 2017 where he couldn’t meet the Mercedes halfway when it didn’t suit a track – Russia, Monaco, Austria, Hungary’s qualifying – there also have been almost no mistakes. His maximising of points has been a near constant.
“He hasn’t put a foot wrong since a lot of races,” Wolff added. “He has out-performed the car at times and the combination of Lewis and Mercedes is a really strong package.”
And, like the best performers, when the going got tough the tough got going. “Since the summer break Hamilton has been a man transformed – on ‘another level,’ as he himself put it in Japan,” said Benson after the Suzuka round. “His qualifying advantages over Bottas have been 0.5 seconds, 2.3secs [in the wet], 0.7secs, 0.5secs and 0.3secs.”
Yes since that same summer break unreliability and (yes) misjudgement afflicted his title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari and made the title point moot. But it’s worth reflecting that Lewis was ahead anyway. It’s worth reflecting too that as Ferrari and Seb flailed Lewis got both quicker and more resolute.
“His race performances have been equally dominant,” Straw said on this championship phase. “He has four wins and a second place from the past five [written before Austin] and, other than at Monza in Italy, none have come easily.
“He didn’t put a foot wrong in that [Malaysia] race and, unlike Vettel’s reaction to a slow start in Singapore, he was unflustered by Verstappen passing him.
It’s closer than he’s made it look. He’s actually made it look like a walkover and it wasn’t. Which I guess is what you expect from the great drivers – they make things look easier than they actually are - Edd Straw
“The bottom line is that the margins have been small this year. And Hamilton has not been the one to crack. Vettel has. Even at Spa, under pressure from a Ferrari that was quick in the race, Hamilton delivered the goods.
“It’s closer than he’s made it look,” Straw concluded. “He’s actually made it look like a walkover and it wasn’t. Which I guess is what you expect from the great drivers – they make things look easier than they actually are.”
Even his old foe Fernando Alonso agreed. “He’s a champion of this generation,” he noted during the Mexico weekend. “He won races when the car was dominant, when the car was good and when it was not good.”
We have at various points of Lewis’s career spoken of a new maturity, only for old foibles to re-emerge. But this feels different. Certainly it’s hard to remember when before we saw a Lewis this consistently impressive; this complete.
“I have been working with Lewis now for five years and I have never seen him operate on this level,” Wolff said indeed of his charge. “The raw pace is spectacular – understanding the tyres and the ability of the car that was difficult at times is not easy. The sustainable performance on that level I have not seen before.”
So what’s going on? Well for one thing Lewis has clearly relished that this title fight has been against another team – Vettel and Ferrari. This is in contrast to his battles with erstwhile Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg which he seemed to rather resent, while the inward focus – with everything it entailed – did not always get the best out of him. Lewis has looked more hand in glove with his team in 2017 than he ever has.
Wolff concurs on a certain level. “I think it comes down to the dynamic we have in the team,” he said when asked to explain Lewis’s improvement. “He gets on with Valtteri and that means there is no controversy at all trackside. We have a really good spirit between the engineering and the drivers, a good collaboration, and it’s lifted the whole team up.”
I have been working with Lewis now for five years and I have never seen him operate on this level. The sustainable performance on that level I have not seen before - Toto Wolff
While for all that we associate Lewis with raw pace he often shows a racer’s intelligence which Alain Prost would be proud. He showed it again this year.
Take Austin where he followed Vettel in the early stages before passing to win dominantly. “I could see him pushing, and I’m thinking I’m pretty good on my tyres right now and he’s going too quick in that corner and he’s going to kill his tyres,” Lewis said afterwards. “And that’s what he did. The temperatures would have been going up.
“He’s made a few mistakes, he was locking up, I was like ‘I’ve got this’”.
Think too of when the boot was on the other foot and he was defending his place versus Seb at Spa, when a safety car period ended and Lewis looked a sitting duck in the long run to Les Combes.
“I had power in the wrong setting,” he noted, “so I didn't pull away as I hoped. Then he was on my tail.
“Going down the straight [to Eau Rogue] I let off the power a little bit as if he was further away he would have had the chance to gain momentum and slipstream past.
“As soon as he pulled out he’s facing the full force of the air just as I was and he had no hope! I was really pleased with that move!”
Then there’s qualifying – always important but especially so this year wherein the revised cars haven’t been able to follow each other easily and one-stop strategies have dominated. And it’s where Lewis’s skills really set him apart.
And they may offer another clue about what’s changed this campaign. That it betrays an exceptionally strong attention to detail and work ethic from Lewis these days.
At Mercedes they’re saying that Lewis has arrived with a much more cerebral attitude. He’s really thinking about how he gets the car prepared for the qualifying laps - Karun Chandhok
“I spoke to some people at Mercedes just to try and understand what’s going on there,” said Chandhok, “because since the summer break there’s been a clear shift, in that Lewis has gone so far ahead of Valtteri, particularly in the qualifying performances, but even in the races. I was struggling to understand why.
“Fundamentally I think this year’s Mercedes has been a tricky car to drive, but at Mercedes, they’re saying that Lewis has arrived with a much more cerebral attitude. He’s really thinking about how he gets the car prepared for the qualifying laps.
“He’s not just thinking about the lap itself but the prep lap, making sure that every individual corner of the car is in the right temperature window with the tyres and the brakes. That approach isn’t just for the first corner of the qualifying lap but Lewis is making sure he’s got tyres available to attack the final sector of the lap, and I think this whole mental approach to making sure that the tyres and the car are in the right zone is really paying dividends for him – he’s unquestionably the king of qualifying at the moment.”
Merc’s chief strategist James Vowles agrees that Lewis’s qualifying laps have beggared belief.
“I think Fernando [Alonso] is exceptional as well but there are times when he isn’t extracting everything that car has to bring – at all,” Vowles says. “It is difficult to find your motivation perhaps when you are behind but with Lewis I don’t ever see that lack of motivation. And again Sebastian there are times where he had a faster car and Lewis has managed to beat him. By milliseconds – but has managed to beat him."
And the best example as far as Vowles is concerned is Lewis’s pole in Malaysia.
“On all the statistics I had, we were not on pole that weekend,” he said. “We had been off-set by 1.4 secs on Friday, by 0.6-0.7secs on Saturday morning. And there is nothing in any of those metrics that tell you: ‘Yeah it will all be fine if you push a bit more and turn the power unit up, pole will be yours’.
On all the statistics I had, we were not on pole that weekend. I was ecstatic in Malaysia - James Vowles
“That’s what I call exceeding expectations. I was ecstatic in Malaysia. I can’t explain it any other way, because it is an achievement you know you’ve realised because you have a driver who is able to extract everything from the car at any one given time.”
For Vowles, though, that was not even Hamilton’s best lap of the year.
Benson again takes up the story. “After the interview, Vowles checked his notes and it turned out there were actually two laps that exceeded Malaysia. They were Silverstone, where he was on pole by 0.5secs from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and 0.8secs quicker than Bottas, and Italy, where in the wet he was 1.1secs quicker than anyone else and 2.3secs up on his team mate.”
Appropriately among it all Lewis claimed F1’s all-time pole record.
“I think he’s on the way to becoming one of the greats,” Wolff added in Austin. “He has three world championships [now four] and the pole record, only the wins and championship records to go. He’s in the middle of his career, he has five years left in him. Anything is possible”.