This season has been an­other mas­ter­class from re­lent­less and re­morse­less Hamil­ton

▶ Bri­ton made a mock­ery of pre-season test­ing while Vet­tel and Le­clerc en­dured a mixed bag for Fer­rari

The National - News - - SPORT - BY­RON YOUNG

An­other For­mula 1 season ends soon af­ter dusk tonight but the sun is yet to set on Mercedes re­morse­less dom­i­na­tion of the sport.

Even though the ruler’s crown wob­bled briefly in mid-season – as Red Bull Rac­ing and Fer­rari con­jured five wins in seven races bridg­ing the sum­mer break – it was too lit­tle, too late. The reign­ing cham­pi­ons had kicked off the year like they had never been away with eight straight wins, fin­ish­ing the first six of them 1-2, and the die was cast.

So the first les­son was: never trust pre-season test­ing. Ev­ery lap un­til the first race in Mel­bourne sug­gested Maranello were run­away pace­set­ters.

In­stead Mercedes have be­come the first F1 op­er­a­tion to win six dou­ble world ti­tles on the trot.

As dev­as­tat­ing as ever, Lewis Hamil­ton pretty much tucked the driver’s cham­pi­onship away by mid-May.

His team­mate had promised us Bot­tas 2.0 and he duly won the open­ing round. But that was it and his dig­ni­fied an­nounce­ment a cou­ple of days ago over the end of his three-year mar­riage re­vealed the pri­vate tor­ment he has been bat­tling.

The only real dis­cus­sion when it comes to Hamil­ton is where he stands in the pan­theon. Not his right to be there – but just how high up the scale he should sit.

Some put him ahead of Ayr­ton Senna and Fan­gio, oth­ers say he is be­hind Michael Schu­macher.

Take your pick.

In­side the cock­pit he has been as re­morse­less as ever; beyond the pad­dock he ap­pears to have ma­tured, sell­ing his Lear jet, and tak­ing on more of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of a global icon, speak­ing out on so­cial is­sues such as cli­mate change, ve­gan­ism, dol­phin hunt­ing and even de­pres­sion.

And then there is the rise

– and rise – of Max Ver­stap­pen. If this year has proved any­thing it is that the Mercedes cham­pion has at least one equal.

This is not one fad­ing su­per nova stand­ing in the face of a new sun. Hamil­ton is at the peak of his pow­ers, and the Dutch­man has been more than his equal at times – most no­tice­ably in Brazil a fort­night ago. While their stock rose, Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s shrank.

The only dis­cus­sion is where Hamil­ton stands in the pan­theon. Not his right to be there, but just how high up he should be

On this form he is a busted flush, out­classed by a light­ning-fast team­mate fresh out of rookie school.

Vet­tel’s season has been er­ratic and er­ror strewn (caus­ing daft ac­ci­dents at Sil­ver­stone and Brazil) and his only win owed more to a du­bi­ous team strat­egy call than his own speed.

Then crash­ing into his own team­mate in Sao Paulo. On the straight. That’s plain em­bar­rass­ing.

Whether he lacks the speed or sim­ply the desire to achieve it is a moot point. His days at Maranello ap­pear num­bered.

Given 2021 will usher in rad­i­cal rule change there is a strong ar­gu­ment for chang­ing a driver at the end of this year and not next, when his deal ex­pires. The an­swer could be to re­cruit Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, who was so fast Re­nault have shown highly-rated Nico Hulken­berg the door for 2020. But could Ric­cia­rdo be prised from Re­nault? Doubt­ful.

The Scud­e­ria’s prob­lems can­not be blamed on Vet­tel alone. Un­der their fourth prin­ci­pal in five years Fer­rari re­minded ev­ery­one of their tal­ent for snatch­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory, throw­ing away four pos­si­ble wins even be­fore the sum­mer break.

Charles Le­clerc in­stantly es­tab­lished his cre­den­tials as a risen star, eclips­ing Vet­tel in ev­ery depart­ment.

Not bad when you’re rac­ing a four-time cham­pion who has won more races than you’ve com­peted in. Ba­sic new­boy er­rors, the worst of which cost him vic­tory in Aus­tria, has shown he is not yet the fin­ished ar­ti­cle.

Lib­erty Me­dia, F1’s new own­ers, un­veiled long-over­due rule changes for 2021 which prom­ise closer rac­ing and more over­tak­ing.

But the teams, dis­grun­tled as they were with the com­pro­mise, man­aged to wa­ter down some of the pro­pos­als (aero and brak­ing among them) prov­ing yet again they have too much in­flu­ence.

Fer­rari’s power to veto any rule it doesn’t like is chief among them, al­though it was not ex­er­cised here.

But one of the most fun­da­men­tal is­sues high­lighted time and again in 2019 was the job done by the stew­ards.

Er­ratic de­ci­sion-mak­ing and in­con­sis­tent penal­ties ran­kled with fans much as VAR does in the Premier League.

Lib­erty Me­dia and the FIA con­tinue to re­sist a move to a per­ma­nent stew­ards panel made up, largely, of for­mer F1 rac­ers. Cur­rently, the four­man panel is an odd mix of lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional mo­tor sport­ing dig­ni­taries led by the Race Di­rec­tor with one ex-racer picked on a ro­tat­ing ba­sis.

As ever in F1, the de­cid­ing fac­tor is surely money.

The driver-stew­ard is an un­paid, vol­un­tary role and one cynic sug­gested it is easy to see why any or­gan­i­sa­tion would re­sist switch­ing to a sys­tem with, say, three per­ma­nent ex-driv­ers which would surely in­crease their an­nual salary bill by some­thing ap­proach­ing £1m.

Victor Besa / The Na­tional

Mercedes-GP driver Lewis Hamil­ton talks to the me­dia be­fore yes­ter­day’s qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion

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