Edd Straw on the evo­lu­tion of Lewis Hamilton

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - @ed­dstrawf1 face­ 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.


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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