THE F1 ANALYST
Edd Straw on the evolution of Lewis Hamilton
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”