Formula 1 – Mark Hughes
Any debut Formula 1 season is a big challenge, but a poor showing against your team-mate could stultify your career for good. And if that team-mate is World Champion…
The good news for Lewis Hamilton is he’s entering F1 with one of the very best teams. The bad news is his team-mate at McLaren is Fernando Alonso.
Because a driver is always measured against the man across the garage in the same car, Hamilton faces arguably the toughest challenge of anyone on the F1 grid. Alonso’s ability is all-encompassing, the fire of youth burning bright but allied to four seasons of racing at the top level, not to mention the swashbuckling confidence that two consecutive world titles will have given him. Michael Schumacher would have found that combination quite a handful, let alone a guy fresh out of a junior category.
Hamilton has consistently shown great talent, wonderful fighting spirit and breathtaking race craft on his climb up the racing ladder, never more so than in his victorious GP2 season last year. But he is a rookie. A season spent being beaten by his team-mate could hurt not only his confidence, but also his standing in a sport that is all about perception. But Hamilton’s is actually not an impossible task.
It would be unreasonable to expect him to consistently shade Alonso; that’s just not going to happen. But if he can just turn the tables on him a few times, or consistently hang within a whisper of him, Hamilton could yet emerge from the challenge with his career intact.
Stirling Moss wasn’t quite a rookie when he went up against Fangio at Mercedes in 1955, but was still very much a new boy. He came out second-best but the fact that he ran with him and on one occasion possibly beat him fair and square gave him enormous credibility and confidence. Far from finishing Moss’ F1 career before it had barely started, the season alongside the great man gave him a springboard.
Then consider the case of Jochen Rindt. The 1970 world champion is recalled as one of the fastest, most spectacular drivers the sport has ever seen. Yet few will recall that in his rookie season of 1965 he was fairly well turned over by his senior team-mate Bruce McLaren, a good F1 driver but not a great one. Bruce was quicker in qualifying eight times to two and shaded the young charger in the races too. When John Surtees joined Cooper in 1966, he was instantly quicker than Rindt and maintained a general superiority through the season. Yet it had no visible effect on Rindt’s career progress or subsequent stunning turn of speed at Lotus. That might well be something that Rindt’s mechanic, a young guy called Ron Dennis, took on board.
Hamilton is a grounded, well-balanced and very focussed young guy. It’s a pretty good bet that he’ll just hang in there, take full advantage of all the help that will be on hand, study Alonso’s telemetry and never let his head drop. And if in doing that he can give Alonso more to think about than Giancarlo Fisichella did, then the F1 world could yet be at his feet.