Doubters said quit­ting McLaren was a mis­take but Hamil­ton keeps on prov­ing them wrong

Fourth world ti­tle would keep Mercedes driver on track to be­ing hailed the best in the sport’s his­tory

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Formula One - Oliver Brown

When Lewis Hamil­ton jumped ship from McLaren to Mercedes in 2012, there were more than a few voices of alarm. “I don’t think it’s the right de­ci­sion,” mut­tered Jen­son But­ton, his team-mate for three sea­sons. Al­lan McNish, a triple cham­pion of the Le Mans 24 Hours, was gloomier still. “It is a gam­ble,” the Scot said. “Just look what hap­pened to Jac­ques Vil­leneuve when he joined British Amer­i­can Rac­ing, hav­ing taken the ti­tle in 1997. He never won an­other race.”

Talk about giv­ing a hostage to for­tune. Hamil­ton has not merely won an­other grand prix, but 40 of them, while lay­ing the plat­form for a fourth world ti­tle to­day, which prom­ises to ce­ment his stand­ing as a For­mula One

Mercedes have given him a ve­hi­cle to con­tinue sep­a­rat­ing him­self from even the greats of the past

im­mor­tal. The glory, how­ever, is not his alone. Just as Michael Schu­macher owed his leap to great­ness to a Ferrari team that bull­dozed all be­fore it, Hamil­ton is burn­ing through the record book as part of a Mercedes be­he­moth that could yet be­come the most dom­i­nant dy­nasty this sport has ever seen.

There is an art to tim­ing one’s move in F1. Fer­nando Alonso, whom Hamil­ton of­ten iden­ti­fies as his most gifted ri­val, last claimed a cham­pi­onship in 2006, hav­ing joined both Ferrari and McLaren in pe­ri­ods of flux. Hamil­ton, by con­trast, has rid­den the wave to per­fec­tion, hitch­ing his wagon to a Mercedes op­er­a­tion rich in tal­ent, re­sources and am­bi­tion.

While the con­struc­tors’ prize is typ­i­cally of in­ter­est only to pad­dock afi­ciona­dos, or to those in line to re­coup the en­su­ing bonus, Mercedes’ feat of win­ning it four years in suc­ces­sion should not pass un­no­ticed.

For a start, they have be­come the first team to do so in spite of a rad­i­cal reg­u­la­tion change. Dras­tic re­forms in 2009, de­signed to slash 30 per cent from F1 bud­gets, en­abled Ross Brawn’s pri­va­teer team to burst to the front.

In 2014, the in­tro­duc­tion of hy­brid V6 en­gines brought the supremacy of Red Bull, who achieved a quadru­ple, to an abrupt halt. Be in no doubt, Mercedes are eyeing the prece­dent of Ferrari, who with Schu­macher in the cock­pit won a record six straight ti­tles from 1999 to 2004, as they chase their next piece of his­tory. With an­other shake-up of the rule book not due un­til 2021, the chance is theirs. James Al­li­son, the Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor prised from Ferrari after Paddy Lowe’s de­par­ture, said: “This lat­est change was de­signed to make it in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to win again. So, to do some­thing that no team in the sport has ever man­aged – stay in the mix, and to come out on top – is just the most enor­mous credit to ev­ery­body in­volved.”

For F1 to tran­scend its own bound­aries, it is not al­ways healthy for one team to as­sume such dom­i­nance. At the height of Ferrari’s power, with Schu­macher wrap­ping up his fifth cham­pi­onship in 2002 as early as the French Grand Prix in July, any sense of ten­sion or ri­valry evap­o­rated. This year for Mercedes has been rather dif­fer­ent. For sev­eral months, a resur­gent Ferrari threat­ened to knock them off their perch, while their car has be­haved, ac­cord­ing to Toto Wolff, “like a diva”. At Monza, they crushed all pre­tenders as em­phat­i­cally as ever. In Monaco, they were also-rans.

Al­ready, the like­li­hood is that 2018 will set the scene for an­other Mercedes-Ferrari du­op­oly. Chris­tian Horner, Red Bull’s team prin­ci­pal, sees

lit­tle hope of the hi­er­ar­chy shift­ing. “These two man­u­fac­tur­ers have stolen such a march, have such com­mit­ted in­vest­ment,” he said. “It’s dif­fi­cult to see how oth­ers will catch up in the pe­riod from now un­til 2021.”

Lib­erty Me­dia, F1’s own­ers, are keen for such a yawn­ing ad­van­tage to be reined in, be­liev­ing it to be no good for business. Ac­cord­ing to Forbes, mo­tor­sport di­rec­tor Ross Brawn told an in­vestor meet­ing this month: “Mercedes spend around half a bil­lion dol­lars a year to get re­sults on track, and that’s a fan­tas­tic achieve­ment. The prob­lem is, they are four sec­onds quicker than the guys at the back of the grid. It’s not re­ally sus­tain­able.”

There is a cer­tain irony, of course, in Brawn aim­ing a broad­side at a team that he used to run. Plus, he was at the helm at Maranello when Ferrari swept up ev­ery piece of sil­ver­ware avail­able. One per­son who will not be com­plain­ing, we can be sure, is Hamil­ton him­self. Mercedes have given him a ve­hi­cle to con­tinue sep­a­rat­ing him­self from even the greats of the past.

“Lewis is about to break all records that have been set in F1, and it is just a mat­ter of time be­fore peo­ple will say he is on track to be­ing the best driver that has ever ex­isted,” Wolff said. Lofty praise, in­deed. But he could hardly have earned it with­out the sil­ver bul­let that it is his priv­i­lege to drive.

F1 driv­ers’ ti­tle win­ners since 1999 Catch me if you can: Vic­tory in the US took Lewis Hamil­ton closer to ti­tle No 4 The car in front is a Mercedes ...

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