The 2017 season had it all – new cars, new faces and new owners. But for Lewis Hamilton it was business as usual. Here he takes us through his epic title winning championship.
A watershed season, 2017 marked the return of F1 drivers having to drive flat out – after seven years in which the quickest way to finish the race was to drive slowly. It was a season in which F1 cars became wider and meaner-looking, running on fatter tyres. But most of all it was the first post-Bernie Ecclestone season as new owner Liberty Media dismissed the man who had changed the face of the sport.
It was a condition of Ross Brawn’s recruitment as technical and sporting boss that he would only accept the role if Bernie wasn’t there – and Liberty’s Chase Carey lost no time in making that change.
They didn’t alter much in their first season as custodians, preferring to be guided by Brawn’s carefully considered research before making big changes. What was significant was the structure established behind the scenes, as Ross allied Liberty with the governing body through his relationship with FIA president – and former partner in success at Ferrari – Jean Todt. The commercial rights holder and governing body were thus aligned in a way they hadn’t been since the days of Bernie and Max Mosley, thereby potentially outflanking the teams.
But that’s for the future. This season was really all about a sometimes fantastic duel between two of the era’s pre-eminent stars. Against pre-season expectations, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari was a formidable threat to Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. After three seasons of Merc domination, that was a nice change. Hamilton’s fourth title was clinched in Mexico, with two races to go, but that undersold Ferrari’s competitiveness. The team just failed to keep control of its processes and systems as effectively as well-oiled Mercedes.
It’s maybe not too fanciful to suggest there might have been an element of manipulation in creating a more competitive field. Certainly, the banning on the eve of the season of Mercedes’s asymmetrically-valved heave spring (something Brawn had been instrumental in overseeing when he was at Mercedes) seemed to make the justification of its low-rake/long wheelbase concept obsolete. Certainly, Brawn works hand-in-hand with the FIA. Certainly, the SF70H featured a much-enhanced input from Brawn’s old partner Rory Byrne. “A fourth season of Mercedes domination would have been very dull,” said Brawn in Montréal. “Luckily, we’re seeing two teams fight it out. I can’t take any of the credit for that.” As he said this, a nearby FIA man gave a wry smile and shake of the head…
Not that Ferrari escaped the FIA’s attention. It had a hugely innovative design with some very clever trick details and, at various points in the season’s first half, the team was asked to attend to the flexibility of its floor, to a moving caliper arrangement that allowed the front axle to be either blown or unblown (according to whether downforce or drag reduction was required) – and to desist with oil burning. Impressively, the aero department was able to recover its losses quite quickly (albeit after both cars ran out of front tyres at Silverstone through being unable to balance the car because of the stiffened floor). The oil-burning row rumbled on as engine manufacturers sought ways around the fuel-flow limitation.
Ferrari lost out through inferior reliability (possibly related to oil burning) and a couple of errors from Vettel. Hamilton, meanwhile, broke Michael Schumacher’s pole record and surpassed Jackie Stewart to become Britain’s first quadruple world champion. In the ‘diva’ Merc W08 he was frequently mesmerising and rather left his new team-mate Valtteri Bottas gasping, though the latter did take a couple of accomplished victories in the season’s first half.
But it wasn’t only Vettel that Hamilton faced as competition. As Red Bull came on song in the season’s second half, Max Verstappen established beyond any doubt his credentials as a driver of Hamilton-like ability – enhanced by the audacity of youth and not having to worry about a title. Certainly, he caught Hamilton’s attention after taking the lead from him in Malaysia with a characteristic move out of nowhere. A week later and he was stalking Hamilton hard in the closing stages at Suzuka and the latter remarked afterwards, “I was driving down the back straight thinking ‘Jeez, the guy behind me is so much younger than me, I’ve got make sure I kind of man-up and show my age, make sure that I stay ahead, show that I’m still very young at heart’.”
Verstappen’s arrival definitely seems to have brought into focus the passing of the years for Hamilton. Here are his observations about several of the season’s key subjects.