THE F1 AN­A­LYST

Edd Straw on the evo­lu­tion of Lewis Hamilton

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - @ed­dstrawf1 face­book.com/ f1rac­ing­mag EDD STRAW

Lewis Hamilton – five-times world champion. That this was his des­tiny seemed pre-or­dained from the mo­ment a bril­liant 13-year-old was signed by Mclaren in 1998. But now he has be­come, along with Michael Schu­macher and Juan Manuel Fan­gio, the only driver to reach that mark, we shouldn’t let a mis­placed sense of in­evitabil­ity over­shadow what a re­mark­able driver Hamilton has be­come. None of this was handed to him on a plate, he had to earn it. And he’s only get­ting bet­ter.

Speed is a pre-req­ui­site for a world champion, but it’s not the full story. Lewis has al­ways had prodi­gious pace and was im­me­di­ately ca­pa­ble of fight­ing for, in his first sea­son, and win­ning, in his sec­ond, the world cham­pi­onship. But the ver­sion of the driver the F1 world hails to­day is very dif­fer­ent to the one who burst onto the scene in 2007. That’s some­thing his crit­ics, and there are still a baf­flingly large num­ber of them, of­ten fail to un­der­stand.

Ev­ery­one changes dra­mat­i­cally be­tween the ages of 22 and 33, both per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally, and the youth­ful Hamilton who ex­u­ber­antly passed Mclaren team-mate Fer­nando

Alonso at the first cor­ner on his de­but in Aus­tralia in 2007 is not the win­ning ma­chine of to­day. The qual­i­ties that made Lewis per­haps the most re­mark­able rookie in grand prix his­tory re­main, but Hamilton has built on them re­lent­lessly.

To­day’s Hamilton com­bines that out­stand­ing car con­trol and feel­ing with an abil­ity to be proac­tive and make the car do the work, and that op­por­tunis­tic over­tak­ing style with long-game race­craft. He knows, un­like those who slav­ishly re­peat the Ayr­ton Senna quote, that some­times the rac­ing driver doesn’t have to go for the gap.

It’s only when you take a step back and re­flect on the way Hamilton was on and off track a decade ago that you re­alise how well-rounded his game has be­come. He’s far more than sim­ply a fast driver in a great car, as some would have it. Although even back in 2007, he was far more than that.

Of­ten over­looked is that Hamilton is an adapt­able driver. In his early years, he was famed for his late brak­ing and ag­gres­sive ro­ta­tion of the rear on turn-in. That’s still in his ar­moury, but over the years he has started to turn in a lit­tle ear­lier, let­ting the car set­tle into the cor­ner. He still car­ries in tremen­dous speed, but whether it’s to en­gi­neer-in a small mar­gin, or be­cause of the ever-ris­ing weight of grand prix cars mak­ing them lazier, it works. Other greats have fol­lowed sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ries, Jim Clark for ex­am­ple. It’s all about tem­per­ing that sheer speed with the nous that ex­pe­ri­ence gives you.

The best drivers are adapt­able. On the cur­rent grid, Hamilton per­haps stands along­side Max Ver­stap­pen and Alonso as the ones most ca­pa­ble of ex­tract­ing speed from most sit­u­a­tions. But what of his prob­lems early this sea­son? By his own ad­mis­sion, at times he was like a golfer used to hit­ting ea­gles piec­ing to­gether a round of pars and bo­geys, but through those dif­fi­cult times he still man­aged to lead the cham­pi­onship after his for­tu­itous vic­tory in Azer­bai­jan. That you win cham­pi­onships on your bad days is an apho­rism proved time and time again.

After that win, his heart­felt ex­pres­sions of sym­pa­thy for Mercedes team-mate Valt­teri Bot­tas, who suf­fered a right-rear blowout while lead­ing, and ad­mis­sion that he didn’t de­serve to win, were crit­i­cised by some. One of the prob­lems Hamilton does have is that of­ten sin­cere ut­ter­ances come across badly in print. In fact, while his im­me­di­ate post-race re­ac­tions some­times lack depth, once he has di­gested and un­der­stood the race and you speak to him later he’s an en­gag­ing and thought­ful char­ac­ter. This is the side that doesn’t al­ways come over on tele­vi­sion.

There was a time when Hamilton per­haps wasn’t a think­ing driver. Some­times that was mis­in­ter­preted as a lack of in­tel­lect – one ri­val once sug­gested, very off record, that this was his prob­lem. And early Hamilton per­haps bought into the idea that speed was ev­ery­thing and that some of rac­ing’s black arts were al­most cheat­ing. In 2014 he was frus­trated that Mercedes team-mate Nico Ros­berg was able to crib off his data and pick up many of his tricks. It’s not that Hamilton paid no at­ten­tion to the tech­ni­cal side before, but it feels like he has truly em­braced it now, leav­ing no stone un­turned in the past few years.

And he has needed to, with Fer­rari and Se­bas­tian Vet­tel be­com­ing an ever-more se­ri­ous threat. This year in par­tic­u­lar, in the bad times Hamilton demon­strated an un­der­stand­ing of what the car wasn’t do­ing that it needed to. But he al­ways backed the team to crack it, then put the ti­tle out of Vet­tel’s reach with a run of su­perb vic­to­ries.

The Ros­berg ri­valry has been crit­i­cal to Hamilton step­ping up from the realms of a great driver to one of the greats. Dur­ing his ear­lier years, there were races where he might go miss­ing, know­ing there was usu­ally an­other day. But Ros­berg – a lesser driver than Hamilton in the es­ti­ma­tion of al­most ev­ery­one, but not by much given the small mar­gins at this level – pushed him hard and beat him to the 2016 ti­tle.

Hamilton learned a key les­son that year, one that’s made him into the driver we’ve seen since. Yes, re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems hurt him badly – and not just the in­fa­mous Malaysian en­gine fail­ure – as a quirk of fate meant he was hit by the ma­jor­ity of that sea­son’s Mercedes en­gine fail­ures, but there were races he left points on the ta­ble. The un­der­stand­ing that no mat­ter how good you are, you need to score ev­ery point to in­su­late against mis­for­tune has made him into a re­lent­less per­former. He crushed Vet­tel this sea­son as a re­sult. 2016 might prove to be the defin­ing mo­ment that pushed him to true great­ness.

There are still oc­ca­sional complaints about Hamilton’s ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, that he spends too much time jet-set­ting and get­ting dis­tracted. There was a time when this was per­haps true, and that his per­sonal life was com­pro­mis­ing his pro­fes­sional one. Dur­ing Hamilton’s worst sea­son in 2011 there were those in Mclaren who be­lieved that to be the case.

But to­day, it’s a red her­ring. When chal­lenged, Hamilton re­sponds that he knows what works for him and how to best pre­pare him­self. The idea he dis­ap­pears be­tween races then rocks up not hav­ing given his day job a mo­ment’s thought since the last race is an in­ac­cu­rate car­i­ca­ture. He knows his own mind, he knows what he needs to give the team and the team has been built around his needs. This is Schu­macher and Fer­rari ter­ri­tory in terms of the ef­fec­tive­ness of the unit.

Drivers do not ar­rive in F1 fully formed, they de­velop, they evolve and the best never stop do­ing that. Omi­nously for his ri­vals, the best for Hamilton may be yet to come.

HE KNOWS HIS OWN MIND, HE KNOWS WHAT HE NEEDS TO GIVE THE TEAM AND THE TEAM HAS BEEN BUILT AROUND HIS NEEDS. THIS IS SCHU­MACHER AND FER­RARI TER­RI­TORY IN TERMS OF THE EF­FEC­TIVE­NESS OF THE UNIT

Hamilton has built on his speed and is a much more com­plete driver than he was even two years ago

For the sec­ond year run­ning Hamilton has over­come a sus­tained ti­tle chal­lenge from Vet­tel and Fer­rari

It was his ri­valry with team-mate Ros­berg that pushed Lewis to his “leave no stone un­turned ap­proach”

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