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.
HAMILTON MAINTAINS HIS AVERAGE OF TEN VICTORIES PER YEAR, THEN SCHUMACHER’S RECORDS ARE VERY MUCH WITHIN REACH BY THE TIME HE IS 35
“I DON’T THINK AN ILMOR OR A COSWORTH WILL BE ABLE TO GO FOR [THE PROPOSED ENGINE FORMULA] INDEPENDENTLY WITHOUT THE SUBSIDIES OF ANOTHER CAR COMPANY CYRIL ABITEBOUL
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.
GIVE IT THE OL’ RAZZLE-DAZZLE
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.
“THE CLEAR DESIRE IS THAT ALONSO AND MCLAREN STAY TOGETHER FOR SOME TIME AND RACE COMPETITIVELY NOT ONLY IN F1… BUT ALSO TO WIN LE MANS AND THE INDY 500
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