F1 frontline: December 2018

Lewis Hamilton went into the final three Grands Prix needing only one seventh place to secure the title, but his year hasn’t been as comfortable as that sounds

"The 2007 me would have been nowhere near this championship,” said Lewis Hamilton in Austin. “He’d have been far, far, far away. 2007 me wouldn’t have had a ****ing chance. And he was still very quick.”

It was a startling assessment on the surface – as surely in a car as competitive as this year’s Mercedes W09, the guy who was in title contention until the final round of 2007 would have been OK – but he went on to qualify what he meant.

“What you don’t get to see is I have this group of people to utilise; my tools, my soldiers. How you get the best from everyone is such a vital part of it. We all individually think we’re operating at the highest but one of us can lean against another and pull more out of them. My job is to try to extract the most from every single person there. So, how you debrief, how you understand personally, how you engage with everyone when you have a shit weekend, how you lift everyone up. How you nurture that and build upon it has been key this year.

“You’re learning about a car through the season, learning what it likes and where its ride-height sweet spots are. After a race you can say, ‘Oh, we should have had more wing on, should have had rear ride height a bit higher, should have made it a more consistent car in this part of the track etc.’ Finding that balance is something you are fighting every weekend. There’s so much information.

“I have a core of my closest guys – my engine engineer, a couple of guys on the electronics side, who are the ones I’m most connected to in terms of talking and extracting the maximum. I’ll sometimes be telling them, ‘Hey, make a note of that because if you don’t you’ll forget and I’ll forget to remind you.’ If I didn’t get from those guys what they can give me, I wouldn’t be able to extract what I have in me. In terms of driving I’ve always had what I have; that isn’t what’s changed over the years. But if they mess up or slip up, I cannot unlock the potential of the car and that’s why it’s a collective effort.”

The complexity of these cars, their systems and the way they need to be operated – and in an era of almost no testing – makes extracting their full potential a difficult task even for a big team of brilliantly capable engineers. Hamilton takes particular satisfaction from this year’s campaign as he feels that extracting the last small pieces are what has made the difference in the fight with Ferrari.

His ability to stretch the possibilities of physics in the dying moments of Q3 has several times this year been the reason it’s been him on pole and not Ferrari. But the 2007 him, he believes, could not have got himself into a position often enough to be able to utilise that talent fully.

In a season during which the competitive edge has oscillated wildly between Mercedes and Ferrari, this combined ability has been a cornerstone of putting a compromised Ferrari and Vettel under enough pressure for the crucial errors to be induced. In terms of which has been the faster car over the season it’s still very difficult to call. Not all of those poles and wins have been car wins. A crucial few have been Hamilton wins – and without those, might Ferrari not have crossed that threshold of pressure?

The fact that Hamilton, at the time of writing [just before the Mexican GP], looks all but certain to bag the title with races to spare gives a misleading picture of how closely balanced the competition has been. Without that pressure being applied and without the resultant Ferrari/Vettel errors, Vettel could have conceivably been 30 points clear coming into the Austin weekend – but with an on-form Hamilton hunting him down in the remaining races.

“I’ve never known a season like it,” says Merc’s technical director James Allison. “We’d bring a big update, see how much performance it had brought us and we’d think, ‘Right, that will have got them off our back and we can now crack on,’ but one race later they’d leapfrog right past us and our big gains. And all the while we were both pulling further away from everyone else. I’m sure they were having very similar meetings to us and thinking, ‘How have they done that?’”

Mercedes made a crucial error in the opening race of the season, unnecessarily handing Vettel a win by having the wrong VSC number in its software. There were also a few first-half season races where Hamilton and his core group didn’t manage to find that sweet spot – China, Montréal. But thereafter they began firing on all cylinders all of the time. The first significant Ferrari error came in Baku, where Vettel was pitted too early, losing him the lead to Bottas. In trying to put that right Seb then locked up and went from second to an eventual fourth. In France Vettel’s first-lap collision with Bottas turned a likely third place into a fifth. In Austria, Vettel’s baulking of Sainz in qualifying cost a grid penalty that turned a likely victory into third.

Most costly of all, Vettel crashing out of the lead in Germany while being chased down by Hamilton in the wet was a 32-point swing in Hamilton’s favour. In Italy Ferrari failed to co-ordinate the track’s powerful tow effect in Vettel’s favour rather than Räikkönen’s and a perfectly feasible victory became fourth, with Hamilton given a bonus win. In Japan, Ferrari sending both cars out in Q3 on inters while there was fleetingly still time for slicks conceivably turned a second place into a sixth.

Those combined errors potentially cost Vettel and Ferrari 98 points.

The performance pattern was ultimately very different to the pattern of results – and when you scratch beneath the surface of that, it’s fascinating to ponder how much of the Ferrari collapse was ultimately induced by Hamilton’s squeezing the pips from his core group of ‘soldiers’.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation