Sunday, 19 June 2011

What's eating Lewis Hamilton?

The knives are out for Lewis Hamilton it seems. In Canada he squeezed two collisions with other cars in attempted passing moves, one terminal, and a further near miss, into a grand total of three racing laps. This might not have been so bad in itself, but it followed but a fortnight from Lewis's Monaco race, which included a further two controversial collisions as Lewis attempted to overtake a rival, as well as an extraordinary and frustrated verbal diatribe after the race. This in turn continued a series of slightly strange public comments from Lewis this year, in a season that started with Lewis insisting his head and off-track situation was now sorted.

Lewis Hamilton was in the wars again in Canada
Credit: ph-stop / CC
After the Canadian race there were many looking to stick the boot into Lewis. This was most egregiously so for Niki Lauda, who variously described Lewis as 'completely mad', and that the FIA should punish him as his driving will result in 'someone getting killed' (as an aside, with all respect due I think Lauda sometimes crosses the line between being outspoken and irreverent, and being a cheap, over the top, rent-a-quote). Stirling Moss was also critical.

Clearly not all is right in Lewis's world right now. But what?

The first point to make is that holistically Lewis Hamilton is a massive asset and unique selling point for F1. Formula One is about having the best drivers in world showcasing their talent, and Lewis is unquestionably among the best of the best. He's certainly among the top three in the world right now. His is an instinctive and amazing driving talent, and his pure speed is extraordinary. Further, if Formula One Management ever get around to offering a TV service wherein you could pick a single driver to follow for an entire Grand Prix then surely Hamilton would be the one you would pick. He's Formula One's most intense racer and best overtaker (the past couple of races notwithstanding), is always on the attack and rarely outwardly gives up on a race. As was the case with Nigel Mansell drama invariably follows him.

Commenting on Lewis should be done in this context. We're ultimately glad to have him, in other words.

And to a certain extent, the fact that Lewis is a front runner and high profile, as well as that he's always had a strange tendency to polarise wider opinion, means that he gets disproportionate focus and, to an extent, criticism of his conduct (as does Alonso to some extent). It's something curious about F1 that the racers, the guys who go for it, seem to get the most criticism (I always felt that way about Juan Pablo Montoya - part of me wishes the timid, cruise-and-collect pilots got as much censure). Therefore, negative reaction to Lewis's lapses will be stronger and more widespread than for his most of his fellow drivers.

Credit: ph-stop / CC
Secondly, a little perspective needs to be applied to Lewis's recent woes. Prior to the Monaco race was the race in Spain, where Lewis chased Vettel down all the way to the flag in finishing in a fine second place, and there was no reason to think then that Lewis wasn't driving better than ever. His victory charge in China was arguably the best performance of anyone this season. And without a team error in qualifying in Monaco Lewis would never have been in a position behind slower cars to get into the scrapes that he did.

And none of the instances of contact with other cars in the past couple of races were nearly as clear-cut as Lewis's fault as first viewing indicated. In the Webber clash he was bang to rights (the move was optimistic and from a long way back and with unclear grip levels he was asking for trouble), but as I've said elswhere I felt the Button clash was more Button's fault than Lewis's. As for his two clashes in Monaco, there was at least some culpability for the other guy in both. But the fact that these clashes have come in quick succession doesn't look good, and makes people wonder if it's really all coincidence or bad luck that Lewis is getting involved in them. Rather like the kid in the school who keeps getting into fights with various other kids, and each time claims it was the other guy who started it, it stretches credulity a little to suggest that he's not contributing to the situation. And Lewis perhaps would be well served to bear in mind the following quote from Frank Williams (and thanks to Peter Windsor for sourcing it): 'In F1, as in any form of motor sport, it is as much a crime to hit another car as it is to put yourself in a position to be hit by someone else, regardless of whether it is your fault'.

Another point that I believe that can be dismissed somewhat is claiming that these clashes are an inevitable by-product of Lewis's attacking driving style (this has been claimed by David Coulthard among others). This is true, but only to a point. It's worth reflecting that while Lewis in his time in F1 has deservedly established a reputation as F1's best and most exciting racer and overtaker, he previously didn't actually make contact with other cars that often. Think back over his time in F1, and prior to the last two races it's hard to cite many collisions with others cars. It's even harder to think of occasions that were unequivocally his fault. Indeed, in his debut season he quickly became seen as F1's best and most decisive overtaker, and almost never collided with opponents (the only time I can think of was Kubica hitting him in Fuji, and Kubica was definitely culpable on that occasion). Lewis's passes, while decisive, were also always clean and well thought-through and judged. There was none of the extreme chance and desperation that's been on display in the last two races.

So, what's changed?

The most obvious explanation is frustration. There's little doubt Lewis is desperate for wins and championships and rates himself highly (and why wouldn't he? It's a comment not a criticism as Murray Walker used to say). You suspect that if Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel (whom I consider to be the top three drivers in the sport right now) were offered a shoot-out in equal equipment then Lewis would be by far the most keen to take up the offer, such is his faith in his own outright pace and talent. Equally, it's been a long time since McLaren has provided Lewis with the best, or nearly the best, car to allow Lewis to fight for the titles that his freakish talent deserves. You could argue that the only time they've done that was in Lewis's debut year in 2007 - astonishing for a team with their resources and heritage. In other years, such as 2008 and 2010, Lewis's ability possibly flattered his car a little. Lewis probably sees one title in four (and most likely five) seasons as poor return. It's reasonable to think that frustration at this, especially as Red Bull and Adrian Newey continue to make stride after stride at the front, has built up over time, and the past couple of races has represented this frustration boiling over, resulting in Lewis forcing the issue in a way that he hasn't done before. The fact that the McLaren is much better on race day than in qualifying, meaning a likelihood of slower cars ahead, and that Sebastian Vettel has won most of his races this year by establishing an early advantage from pole rather than an outright race pace advantage, won't have helped matters. Some of Lewis's recent public comments have indicated such frustration, such as saying that his loyalty to McLaren 'has its limits', as well as that he's the only driver capable of challenging Vettel in an inferior car.

It also won't necessarily have helped that Jenson Button has very rapidly got his feet under the table at McLaren in the last year and a bit. Button is clearly very popular within the team on a personal level (as he is among F1 fans more widely) in a team that Lewis probably, consciously or unconsciously, had regarded as his fiefdom. This may have contributed to Lewis's frustration, perhaps feeling that what he's contributing to the team's results isn't fully being appreciated and helping him feel slightly unloved. His rather public visit to the Red Bull garage after the Canadian race on Sunday may, at the very least, have been a warning shot across McLaren's bows in response to this.

Another factor in his recent performances and demeanour, which is sometimes forgotten, is that Lewis off the track is very much in a period of transition. The happy-go-lucky kid of 2007 now is a million miles away and, as was the case for Fernando Alonso at a similar point in his life, the transition of the boy with a relatively humble, slightly off-the-beaten-track, background into the global superstar hasn't proved to be an entirely easy one. And also like Alonso at the same point in his life (in his case around 2007), this has coincided with a rather defensive, prickly and negative outlook and the development of an entourage who don't appear to be particularly helpful to his equilibrium (I've always thought that Alonso and Hamilton share a lot more than either of them would likely admit).

In Lewis's case the sprouting of conspicuous signs of megastar trappings, such as the pop star girlfriend, earrings, facial hair, expensive clothing, virtually permanent shades, has been noticeable. Then there's his entourage of hanging-on R&B and NBA stars (they were particularly conspicuous in Canada). Of course, we don't know the extent that all of these are impacting on Lewis's on track performances, if they are at all, and if Lewis was still doing the business on the track no one would be mentioning all of this, so we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from it. But the fact that such stratospheric influences have coincided with more erratic, impatient performances, a less visibly happy Lewis out of the car, and seemingly less respect for his fellow drivers (both in his attempts to overtake them and in some of his comments) has caused some to ask questions of exactly what impact they're having on Lewis, and whether some perspective has been lost.

So what of the future? As mentioned, Lewis's problems have broadly been squeezed into the last two races, so they've not been long term, and Lewis is exactly the sort of guy who would bounce back right away and prove everyone wrong. There's no reason why he can't do that again. Don't bet against him for a win in Valencia, which would result in all of this being forgotten.

More broadly, Lewis needs to start to play the long game. Perhaps Michael Schumacher's unprecedented run of titles in the early noughties has caused the next generation of top drivers to increase their expectations and believe they can, and perhaps should, be winning titles every year. However, this run of success was a historical freak, and is very unlikely to happen in the current generation of F1. This is because with resource restriction and the like it's very hard to achieve that level of performance advantage, as well that there's now a strength in depth of drivers and teams that never existed in the days of Schumi's dominance. Therefore, Lewis would be well-served to be a bit more patient, not only on the track but also in terms of how often he can access clearly the best car (though, as mentioned, it can't be denied that McLaren are stretching this patience). He could, after all, quite feasibly, drive in F1 for another fifteen seasons, and Lewis will always be in demand by the most competitive teams, so there's plenty of time for him to win things. I feel that a few years ago Alonso went through a similar process of frustration followed by an eventual acceptance of the new reality, and now is a better and more respected driver (as well as a more balanced individual) as a consequence.

And somewhere within all of this Lewis needs to re-apply the thought and strategy to his overtaking that used to characterise it, and lose the shut-your-eyes-and-hope stabs that he's been practicing in recent races. 'Going for a gap' (to use the Senna-ism) isn't the best option if the gap's not there, or is about to disappear. Lewis's status as F1's best racer and overtaker is not under threat any time soon.

And frankly some people (who know who they are) should lay off Lewis a bit. As mentioned, while no one is beyond criticism, Lewis is a massive unique selling point for F1, and adds a lot of fun to our Sunday afternoons. He's still relatively young, will learn and is only going to get even better. We therefore should cherish Lewis Hamilton.

10 comments:

  1. What does his girlfriend have to do in all this? He's been with her for 3 years now, why suddenty people think she can be the problem? Can't he have friends either?

    Lewis problem is Sebastien Vettel. Not only he has more pole than Lewis, now he has more wins than him too.

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  2. Lewis Hamilton is a dangerous driver who always blames other people for his mistakes and poor driving. Get a grip Lewis, you are not Gods gift to F1. You blame Mark Webber for braking a bit too early at the first corner, thats why you touched. Again you blame Jenson Button for out braking himself into the chicane, thats why you got alongside and crashed. Its always someone elses fault !!!! I'm convinced that you think other drivers should get out of the way when you are behind them, and pull over and wave you through. Lewis Hamilton, you are a poor driver, a dangerous driver, and an irratic driver who should be hauled in front of the stewards (again) and severly repremanded over your style of dangerous driving, but then again you will blame the stewards for picking on you because you are black.

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  3. Thanks for your comments.

    I never said that his girlfriend was the problem. Indeed, I'm very keen to avoid the Lady MacBeth explanations, which I think are lazy (as well as frankly often rather sexist).

    I was making the point that a lot has changed for Lewis (and has changed very quickly) since his debut in F1, and it's possible that's having an impact on his equilibrium right now (it's just conjecture though, I don't have any inside line on Lewis as I point out).

    But I agree that Lewis's main problem is that he's not winning races and championships with the regularity that he craves.

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  4. Is that second comment by Niki Lauda?! Only joking :)

    Thanks for that. I agree with some of what you say, you're right that Lewis has too frequently blamed others for recent crashes (though in mitigation many of the comments from him were heat of the moment/adrenalin pumping stuff).

    But calling Lewis Hamilton 'poor' and 'dangerous' as a driver is over the top in my view. He's not suddenly become a fundamentally bad or dangerous driver in the last two races, despite his clashes.

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  5. People blaming his personal life are a bite ignorant. He still has the same life style since 2008.He didn't start going out with Nicole or having those friends since Monaco. He had the beard and the shades when he won China this year. It's not difficult to see what's going on with him. He said if he ends his career with only one championship, he will consider it as a failure. He wants to win more championships and he wants to stop Vettel. He's getting desperate about it. He doesn't know if he have to join him in RB or stay at McLaren to stop Vettel. McLaren isn't helping either. At least Ferrari, when they messed a driver race, they take responsibility. McLaren a lot of time has messed up Lewis's races and then blame him for it. They even blame him for bad pit stops. hahaha!
    Hope when he start winning again, I'm sure he will, all of you judging him, writing stupidity about him don't jump ship again and stay supporting Button. I've never seen people more hypocrite than British people.

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  6. "You suspect that if Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel (whom I consider to be the top three drivers in the sport right now) were offered a shoot-out in equal equipment then Lewis would be by far the most keen to take up the offer, such is his faith in his own outright pace and talent."

    I remember him being challenged by Jense to a tri-athalon, accepting the challenge and then backing out (or being backed out).

    HE has talent but I'm afraid his real problem is his mouth (maybe it's part of his management Co.'s "strategy" for the future).

    He has developed a tendency to whinge - just like Mansell - a really unattractive quality. He's whinging about his team, about other drivers, about who's to blame, etc.

    You have to rely on your team to get you the wins and if you keep having a go then they won't be too worried about you when you need a fast pitstop, a reliable car.

    Add that to regular crashes and you have a driver who's blaming his team for decisions which he's entitled to have an input into and then fails to bring the car home.

    If he finishes the races and keeps his mouth shut, apart from a bit of Ronspeak, he might find that life gets a little easier.

    As for your last anonymous commentator - ??? 'nuff said really!

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  7. It's a very difficult feat to write passionately about Lewis whilst managing to present a balanced perspective but I think you've done an admiral job here.

    I really hope that Lewis finds a happy mindset soon, it must be so tuff trying to deal with all the negativity and still perform as he does. Though not really a fan of Lewis the personality, I for one would miss the excitement he brings to the sport if he were to give up racing.

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  8. Thanks very much for your compliments Jackie - much appreciated!

    I also agree absolutely with what you say in your second paragraph.

    Thanks also to everyone for your comments. It's always good to hear what you think. I agree with a lot of the points made, though to be fair BazL when I said Lewis would accept a shoot out with Vettel and Alonso I was talking about in racing cars and not in a triathlon!

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  9. The problem with lewis is simple, the car isn't fast enough for him, full stop.. vettel is winning and is the best thing since sliced bread, he doesn't win and he suddenly isn't. next race everyone realises he's still in the fastest car and he's brilliant again.
    Everyone loves a winner whether they deserve it or not and I'm not saying vettel doesn't as he's obviously got talent.
    Paul Di resta is stunningly good for a rookie, but if there's no Red bull or Mclaren for him, like Lewis and Seb had then what? I know it's a technological sport but rather than ask about Lewis wouldn't it be more nearer the truth to look at the love life and social habits of the team's designers

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  10. Thanks for that. I's an interesting point you make. You're right that F1 is a results business, and if the McLaren was better than the Red Bull and Lewis was winning all the time no one would be talking about any of this stuff.

    But he isn't, and compounding that he's been, for the first time in his career, behind his team mate over a season and making contact with cars too often over the last 12 months or so, much more often than he had previously. With all that and the fact that Lewis is a very high profile personality it's inevitable people will look for explanations, including looking at Lewis's approach off the track.

    But today's race in Korea was more like the old Lewis we know and love. Let's hope it's the first steps on his journey back to the very top of his game.

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