Hamil­ton off to a bad start and things could get worse for F1 world cham­pion at the Red Bull Ring

▶ Mercedes driver fin­ished fourth in the sea­son-open­ing Aus­trian GP last week­end and the sec­ond race is again at his least favourite track

The National - News - - SPORT - BY­RON YOUNG

Lewis Hamil­ton made a poor start to 2020 but that should come as no sur­prise to any­one. And while F1 is back with a bang, his­tory sug­gests things will prob­a­bly get worse for the man be­fore they get bet­ter.

The Red Bull Ring has al­ways been his Achilles heel. He has won the race, of course, back in 2016. Other­wise, I sus­pect, it is the place where his record is worst. By his own high stan­dards, his re­sults have been pretty ap­palling.

And it can hardly be the car which has won the race five times in the last seven years.

In fact, Valt­teri Bottas has out-qual­i­fied Hamil­ton in Aus­tria ev­ery year since he be­came his team­mate in 2017 and won twice from pole. Pre­vi­ous team­mate Nico Ros­berg did the same. Hamil­ton has not even made the podium for the last four vis­its.

Of course, the big pic­ture is very dif­fer­ent. Hamil­ton is un­ques­tion­ably a modern great and has won nearly as many cham­pi­onships as the cur­rent cham­pi­onship leader (Bottas) has won races (eight).

Ros­berg was so taxed by com­pet­ing against Hamil­ton he had to re­sort to men­tal train­ing, study of sport psy­chol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy as well as ban­ning bruis­ing news­pa­per re­ports to beat Hamil­ton to the ti­tle in 2016. Job done, he re­tired in­stantly, ad­mit­ting he was ex­hausted from com­pet­ing against Hamil­ton.

But the fact Hamil­ton is usu­ally so su­pe­rior to Bottas makes this lapse even more puz­zling.

A few years back when I asked him about his over­all record at Spiel­berg, Hamil­ton’s re­sponse was spiky, even for him. It was clearly a sore point.

So he must have sighed and cursed his luck when the cal­en­dar was pub­lished, know­ing that he would not only be open­ing his ti­tle de­fence at the track but racing there twice in con­sec­u­tive week­ends.

There is clearly the is­sue of mo­men­tum, too. If his mild-man­nered side­kick – the

Robin to his Bat­man – can win again on Sun­day then his­tory may threaten to re­peat it­self. The only time Hamil­ton has been beaten to the ti­tle by his team­mate, Ros­berg (an­other Finn) rode the mo­men­tum of win­ning the open­ing four races all the way to glory in Abu Dhabi.

It’s dif­fi­cult to say why Hamil­ton finds the Red Bull Ring such a chal­lenge, es­pe­cially when Hun­gary, where he has tri­umphed seven times, is so sim­i­lar. Michael Schu­macher had is­sues with Spiel­berg too, a sim­i­lar­ity I put to Hamil­ton years back and was greeted with more than a snarl.

Last Sun­day, Hamil­ton was the ar­chi­tect of many of his own prob­lems but a typ­i­cally bat­tling per­for­mance saw him to fourth.

Talk­ing of his­tory re­peat­ing it­self, some spec­u­lated the ami­able Bottas had “done a Ros­berg”, copy­ing the Ger­man’s fa­mous fake crash, which he de­nies, to steal pole at Monaco in 2014. In Aus­tria, Hamil­ton was sup­posed to be ben­e­fit­ting from an agreed tac­tic of Bottas giv­ing him a tow, which is worth 0.3 sec­onds a lap, in­stead the Finn’s spin spoiled ev­ery­thing (for Hamil­ton at least).

At the same cor­ner, Turn 4, in the race Hamil­ton un­der­steered into Alexan­der Al­bon for the sec­ond time in three races and earned him­self a time penalty which cost him a spot on the podium.

It was a mas­ter­ful move by Al­bon. Most driv­ers would rather have their faces planted in fresh doggy-do than see a ri­val go around the out­side of them like that.

It’s not the ul­ti­mate racing in­sult, but it’s not far off ei­ther. Af­ter­wards the fu­ri­ous Thai racer branded Hamil­ton a “sore loser”.

Bad as the day was, Hamil­ton must re­main ti­tle favourite and take suc­cour from the fact that Aus­tria is fol­lowed by two of his best tracks. Hun­gary is the Bri­ton’s hap­pi­est hunt­ing ground and he has won six times at his home track.

While it was a bad day for the sport’s big­gest name an­other has emerged from the shad­ows. Af­ter time away from the sport Fer­nando Alonso was con­firmed Wed­nes­day at Re­nault DP World F1 Team for 2021 with ti­tle am­bi­tions for 2022.

Ar­guably the great­est tal­ent of modern times and one of the great­est ever, two cham­pi­onships are scant re­ward for his prodi­gious tal­ent.

While it’s an an­nounce­ment to quicken the pulse of ev­ery real fan, there are a mul­ti­tude of ques­tions. Much will rest on Re­nault’s tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment be­cause they are nowhere near ti­tle chal­lengers right now.

And then there is the man him­self. Will the re­al­ity match the dream? It’ll be 15 years since his last world ti­tle: is he the same hun­gry, pas­sion­ate racer? We’ll have to wait at least a year for the an­swer for that one.

Hamil­ton, though, will get an­swers a lot sooner.

Valt­teri Bottas has out-qual­i­fied team­mate Hamil­ton in Aus­tria ev­ery year since he be­came his team­mate in 2017

PA

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamil­ton was de­moted to fourth in Aus­tria last week­end af­ter an in­ci­dent with Red Bull’s Alex Al­bon

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