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Ex­pert opinion and anal­y­sis

So Lewis Hamilton has joined the ranks of four­time world cham­pi­ons. He clinched the ti­tle with his worst re­sult of the year – a ninth-place fin­ish at the Mex­i­can Grand Prix that was enough to push him over the line when ri­val Se­bas­tian Vet­tel could man­age only P4 af­ter dam­ag­ing his Fer­rari’s front wing and punc­tur­ing Hamilton’s rear tyre in a col­li­sion on the first lap.

For Hamilton it was a messy cli­max to an oth­er­wise sub­lime sec­ond half of the sea­son, in which he scored five wins and a sec­ond place in six races as Vet­tel and Fer­rari stum­bled. He sur­ren­dered a po­si­tion of ap­par­ent strength with the sort of im­plo­sion that pre­vi­ously would have seen heads roll at Maranello. And still might.

Hamilton is now F1’s third most suc­cess­ful driver: he’s tied on four ti­tles with Vet­tel and Alain Prost but with more wins than ei­ther, and is be­hind only Michael Schu­macher and Juan Manuel Fan­gio in terms of ti­tles. The ques­tion now is how far can he go? Schu­macher’s all­time records of seven ti­tles and 91 wins, which so re­cently ap­peared in­sur­mount­able, sud­denly look within reach.

“We all know how ex­cep­tional Michael was,” said Lewis, “and his records have lasted for so long and there’s one par­tic­u­lar record that is go­ing to be very hard for any­one to catch. Each year I don’t set a goal to make records. I have a goal of some­how… im­prov­ing cer­tain ar­eas where I feel I could be bet­ter.”

A num­ber of as­pects would have to come to­gether for Hamilton to match or beat Schu­macher’s sta­tis­tics: he

needs to keep win­ning in a ma­chine ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing vic­to­ries, and he needs to re­main in F1 long enough to keep rack­ing up the num­bers. In the past he’s said he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in sta­tis­tics, but this sea­son he has sev­eral times ref­er­enced Vet­tel be­ing not far be­hind and said he wants to stay ahead.

“It’s kind of cool to be in this bat­tle with him,” Hamilton said of Vet­tel in Mex­ico. “He got 50 poles yes­ter­day and I’m kind of like, ‘I don’t want to give him any more poles be­cause he gets closer to me.’ That’s in­spi­ra­tion to keep push­ing it, you know? Then the same with wins, same with cham­pi­onships and so then I see him sign for another three years with Fer­rari and I’m like, ‘Fer­rari are not go­ing to like me for the next cou­ple of years.’ But it’s okay, be­cause we’re go­ing to make it as hard as it can pos­si­bly be for them to win cham­pi­onships. I re­ally am look­ing for­ward to that bat­tle with them.”

Hamilton has this sea­son also talked about the end of his ca­reer, and want­ing to move on from F1 to other in­ter­ests that keep him en­thused and en­er­gised. But that has to be con­tex­tu­alised along with his aware­ness of the old adage that ‘you’re a long time re­tired’. “There’s a lot of life to live be­yond 40,” he said. “There’s go­ing to be a point at which, okay, I’ve had enough. But the bal­ance is: I can’t come back to For­mula 1.

“I’ve al­ready been blessed and had such a won­der­ful time here in these ten years. Hope­fully I have my place here. And I’m go­ing to con­tinue – while I’m at my best – and I want to go out on top. Ob­vi­ously each year, I could do the easy thing like Nico [Ros­berg] did, which is just to stop and re­treat, with these four ti­tles. But I think there’s more in me. I think there’s more to come, more of a chal­lenge, as there’s harder times ahead and I like that; I love that. That’s chal­leng­ing.”

So Lewis in­tends to con­tinue for at least another few years, and that will be at Mercedes. Both driver and team have said they want to ex­tend their re­la­tion­ship be­yond its cur­rent ter­mi­na­tion date, which is next year. Vet­tel is con­tracted to Fer­rari un­til the end of 2020 – and Max Ver­stap­pen has just ex­tended his Red Bull con­tract to the same date, in ex­change for a sub­stan­tial pay rise.

At 32, Hamilton has at least five years left at his peak – prob­a­bly longer. Schu­macher was still op­er­at­ing at his best when he stopped at the end of 2006, near­ing the age of 38. Fer­nando Alonso is like­wise still ex­cep­tional at 36.

As for com­pet­i­tive­ness, the move to Mercedes from Mclaren at the end of 2012 has been the defin­ing de­ci­sion of Hamilton’s ca­reer. He has won 41 races since join­ing them, and 40 in the past four years, a pe­riod in which Alonso, who spent three of those years at Mclaren, has won two. If Hamilton main­tains his av­er­age of ten vic­to­ries per year, then Schu­macher’s records are very much within reach by the time he is 35.

But there are no guar­an­tees. Not least be­cause the lessons of 2017 are that Mercedes may need to re­vise their chas­sis de­sign phi­los­o­phy in fu­ture years. They have very much bucked the trend in re­cent sea­sons in go­ing for a low-rake aero­dy­namic ap­proach, whereas most other teams have fol­lowed the high-rake route set by Red Bull.

But this sea­son has ex­posed var­i­ous weak­nesses in the de­sign of the Mercedes ma­chine. These weak­nesses re­duce the pos­si­ble max­i­mum down­force of the car and nar­row the set-up win­dow – hence the strug­gles Mercedes have been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing at low-speed, high­down­force tracks with what they have taken to re­fer­ring as their “diva car” com­pared with the more user-friendly and flex­i­ble Fer­rari and Red Bull.

If Mercedes de­cide to fol­low a high-rake phi­los­o­phy, they will be sev­eral years be­hind their ri­vals in terms of ex­pe­ri­ence. And so Hamilton’s as­sault on Schu­macher’s records could hang on whether they can some­how com­pen­sate for that lack of knowl­edge.


One area in which it can prob­a­bly be as­sumed that Mercedes will con­tinue to ex­cel is in the en­gine depart­ment; their mas­tery of turbo hy­brid power units has been the foun­da­tion for their dom­i­nance in re­cent years. And while ri­vals are catch­ing up – Fer­rari are now pretty much on an even foot­ing, and the FIA in­sists Re­nault is within 0.3s of lap time on en­gine per­for­mance in race trim – Mercedes re­main the stan­dard-set­ters.

But the clock is tick­ing on the cur­rent en­gine for­mula. With the aims of re­duc­ing costs, clos­ing up com­pe­ti­tion, ‘im­prov­ing’ the noise and en­cour­ag­ing in­de­pen­dent en­gine com­pa­nies into F1, the FIA and F1 Group have pub­lished a pro­posal for a re­vised en­gine post-2020.




This fol­lowed months of con­sul­ta­tions with the man­u­fac­tur­ers, but is not to the en­gine com­pa­nies’ lik­ing.

The out­line is su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar to the cur­rent engines, in that it is based on a 1.6-litre V6 turbo hy­brid, but the pro­posal does away with the con­tro­ver­sial MGU-H (the turbo en­ergy re­cov­ery de­vice), while in­creas­ing the en­ergy re­cov­ered from the rear axle (MGU-K). This would be driver-de­ploy­able to im­prove the rac­ing, and re­stric­tions would be im­posed on the turbo with a num­ber of parts stan­dard­ised. Mercedes and Re­nault ob­jected im­me­di­ately, say­ing that this amounted to a new en­gine, which would re­quire mas­sive in­vest­ment when much of the stated aim could be achieved with the cur­rent engines at a frac­tion of the cost.

Clearly the de­bate will run for some time, and how heated it be­comes will de­pend on whether the pro­posal does what the FIA and F1 Group say it will. Ac­cord­ing to Re­nault’s Cyril Abiteboul it will fail on at least one level in par­tic­u­lar, namely the de­sire to open up F1 to in­de­pen­dents. He claims the pro­posal “would maybe lower the cost of ac­cess for a car maker but you would still need a sub­stan­tial amount of mar­ket­ing dol­lars to spend on re­search and de­vel­op­ment to make any busi­ness plan work for the new en­gine. I don’t think an Ilmor or a Cosworth will be able to go for it in­de­pen­dently with­out the subsidies of another car com­pany.”

Re­nault and Mercedes both make the point that it seems some­what coun­ter­in­tu­itive to in­tro­duce a new rule to at­tract other man­u­fac­tur­ers who have not com­mit­ted to F1 but that an­noys the ones who al­ready have.

The joint en­gine pro­posal has been in­ter­preted by the man­u­fac­tur­ers as a show of strength and unity from the FIA and F1. It is also the first big state­ment from F1’s new own­ers Lib­erty Me­dia about how they see the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the sport. Pre­vi­ously, Lib­erty had fid­dled around the edges, scor­ing rel­a­tively easy wins with ini­tia­tives such as fan zones at races and so on. But a new di­rec­tion is beginning to emerge, and fo­cus­ing much more ef­fort into ex­pand­ing F1’s ex­po­sure lies at its heart.

Re­leas­ing video clips onto so­cial me­dia is one ex­am­ple of this. Another is a pro­posal from F1 to hold a pre­sea­son ‘launch day’ next spring. The ini­tial idea was to hold this be­fore test­ing in Barcelona at the end of Fe­bru­ary, but the teams have pointed out that the cars come to­gether at the last minute and have asked for clar­ity about Lib­erty’s aim: is the event aimed at the me­dia or fans, or is it to en­cour­age on­line en­gage­ment?

F1’s com­mer­cial arm is also press­ing ahead with chas­ing races in des­ti­na­tion events in the US, with grow­ing in­di­ca­tions that plans for a grand prix in Miami in 2019 are well ad­vanced.


Lib­erty’s clear plan is to in­crease the ‘razzle-dazzle’ of F1, and to do that they need a strong core prod­uct with ma­jor stars and com­pelling sto­ries front and cen­tre.

F1 has cer­tainly had that this year with Hamilton vs Vet­tel, while Red Bull’s fightback and the in­creas­ingly im­pres­sive per­for­mances of Max Ver­stap­pen are cre­at­ing a com­ple­men­tary nar­ra­tive. What’s more, the pres­ence of an old favourite has now been guar­an­teed for at least one more year fol­low­ing Alonso’s re-sign­ing at Mclaren.

For now, Alonso is com­mit­ted only to the end of 2018, but the con­tract has op­tions, and the clear de­sire is that he and Mclaren stay to­gether for some time and race competitively not only in F1, fol­low­ing their switch to Re­nault engines next sea­son, but also to win Le Mans and the Indy 500. To which end, Alonso is com­pet­ing in the Day­tona 24 Hours next Jan­uary in a bid to gain ex­pe­ri­ence for Le Mans, which he may well en­ter with Toy­ota next year. Ini­tial con­ver­sa­tions have al­ready taken place.

Wil­liams may yet pro­vide Lib­erty with another PR coup next year if they de­cide to sign Robert Ku­bica along­side Lance Stroll. It would be a fairy-tale re­turn for the Pole af­ter seven years out fol­low­ing his hor­rific rally ac­ci­dent. Ku­bica, who has only par­tial move­ment in his right arm, did well in two tests for Wil­liams in Oc­to­ber, but they are yet to make a de­ci­sion, due to their con­cern that he might not be phys­i­cally strong enough to com­plete a race dis­tance at the tough­est tracks. Ku­bica re­mains the favourite, though. Present in­cum­bent Felipe Massa is set to re­tire at the end of the year, and the other can­di­dates – re­serve Paul Di Resta, Sauber’s Pas­cal Wehrlein and ex-toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat – are all out­side bets, and in that or­der.

Kvyat has now been fully jet­ti­soned by Red Bull, who are al­most cer­tain to re­tain Pierre Gasly and Bren­don Hart­ley at Toro Rosso in 2018. That just leaves Sauber, whom Fer­rari are push­ing to ac­cept their ju­nior driver An­to­nio Giov­inazzi and ris­ing star Charles Le­clerc. This would en­tail Sauber drop­ping Mar­cus Eric­s­son, re­gard­less of his close links with the team’s Swedish back­ers.


Cyril Abiteboul, manag­ing di­rec­tor of Re­nault Sport, be­lieves the new en­gine pro­pos­als will ac­tu­ally re­pel in­de­pen­dents

Mercedes tend to run a low-rake setup in con­trast to the high-rake setup their ri­vals copied from Red Bull

The Mercedes en­gine is still the class of the field. For now, at any rate…

His P9 in Mex­ico was his weak­est fin­ish of the year, but se­cured Lewis a fourth driv­ers’ ti­tle

The fairy-tale re­turn of Robert Ku­bica would be a great boost for Lib­erty. But Wil­liams are un­de­cided about of­fer­ing him a drive

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