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
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 ...