The Independent

Hamilton and Mercedes may be on diverging paths


Did you spot it? That little glimpse of time. A snippet when Lewis Hamilton was hopeful, maybe even anticipati­ve that his fate – number eight – could be conquered in 2023. A new allblack livery unveiled, eliciting rosy memories preceding last year’s horror-show, and a fresh start after a hopeless, winless

season to forget. That was before Hamilton squeezed himself in to the Mercedes W14 car for the first time at Silverston­e on launch day in February. A simple shakedown. But straight away, hope faded.

“I knew from the moment I drove the car where we were and the challenges we were facing,” Hamilton stated – with an honesty like a dagger to his 2023 title hopes – on Thursday in Bahrain. And that was it. Three months since he retired late on in Abu Dhabi, the final race of 2022. Three months of focus away from the track. Three months of hard yards. Three months… all for another year of nothingnes­s?

That’s the prospect heading into this season. Throughout the winter, Hamilton chronicled his off-season in fleeting social media posts, much to the delight of a joyous fanbase starved of such content a year earlier, during Hamilton’s social media abyss post-Abu Dhabi 2021. A trip to Egypt, adding to his African portfolio of last summer. New York and the Rocky Mountains for Christmas. A mega trip to Antarctica to bring in the new year. All the while, physical conditioni­ng was maintained and enhanced.

“I stay away from karting but do other sports,” Hamilton said of how he trained in the off-season. “Squash, surfing and swimming. Running a lot, training on Christmas Day running up the mountain. That’s something I’ve adapted to.” Away from racing, Hamilton is in a headspace purer and wiser than ever before. Previously his outstandin­g aura and presence was often mistaken for sheer arrogance. Now, he’s wholeheart­edly respected by the masses, both in and out of racing.

Yet for all the projects on the side – minority rights activism, environmen­talism, Project 44 – Hamilton’s energy is still fully manufactur­ed for Formula 1. This is his craft, his living, his never-seen-before area of expertise. Ahead of a 17th straight season, his 103 victories are 13 more than the rest of the field put together.

His legend is already cemented, his joint-top haul of seven world championsh­ips etched into the record books. He is, arguably, in the shape of his life. And yet? A pre-season test bequeathed with issues – not least an unignorabl­e deficit in straight-line speed to Red Bull – has dashed much optimism at Mercedes before the campaign has even started. Hamilton’s mere tone tells the tale right now ahead of any notions of positivity.

"Hopefully those behind will continue to apply pressure [to Red Bull]. Ferrari have a decent package, Aston have a decent package and we are hunting too.” We are hunting too. Mercedes, the hunters. A position previously unfathomab­le. It presents Hamilton himself at something of a crossroads. With a £40m-ayear contract expiring at the end of the season, all parties insist a new deal is a mere formality.

But the longer Mercedes fail to give Hamilton the machinery to challenge for race victories – which may well depend on how long they persevere with their unique “no-sidepod” philosophy – the longer questions surroundin­g Hamilton’s future will linger.

Seven times a champion; he’s not interested in battling amongst the midfield. “Not having bouncing is a huge plus and trying to understand what the problems were while having bouncing made it difficult to work out what those are,” Hamilton added.

“We don’t have that now and we can focus on pure performanc­e. This still is a multi-championsh­ip-winning team and group of people." Another side-plot could be his teammate George Russell, who finished 35 points ahead of Hamilton last year and won a race. It’s all amicable for now. But should Russell take the lead and remain in front of the teammate stakes, will Hamilton’s patience snap? He’s used to being world champion, let alone the clear No 1 in his own garage.

In front of the cameras, Hamilton continues to display defiance as the first Grand Prix weekend begins in Bahrain. Defiance of the stopwatch itself. The word being bandied by Toto Wolff and his team ahead of this season is “eventually.” Eventually they’ll have a car capable of race wins.

Eventually they’ll haul in Red Bull. But eventually in all sports, teams lose their grip on top. Lose their magic touch. Has that time now come? Their prospects – Hamilton’s prospects – remain to be seen.

Meanwhile, Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso was the quickest in the second practice session in Bahrain yesterday ahead of the new season. The world champion Max Verstappen was second – 0.169 seconds off the pace – with Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez in third. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc came fourth while Hamilton was 0.636 seconds slower than Alonso, but did finish as the fastest Mercedes in eighth.

In the first practice Perez was quickest for Red Bull. The Mexican driver finished the first one-hour session ahead of Alonso for Aston Martin, with Verstappen in third. Hamilton was only 10th for Mercedes, more than two seconds off the pace.

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 ?? (Getty) ?? The Briton shows no signs of slowing down at 38 but his Mercedes car is struggling to keep up
(Getty) The Briton shows no signs of slowing down at 38 but his Mercedes car is struggling to keep up
 ?? (AP) ?? Hami l ton, left, is facing rivalry within his own team as Russe ll ’s star rises
(AP) Hami l ton, left, is facing rivalry within his own team as Russe ll ’s star rises

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