Friday, 2 November 2018

Lewis Hamilton 2018 World Champion - Not only...but also

It was just like last year. Only more so.

Photo: Octane Photography
The parallels between the 2017 and '18 drivers' title battles were uncanny. Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel. Mercedes versus Ferrari. In the balance, with ebb and flow. That was until Singapore where Hamilton and Mercedes, against the run of play, stamped on the accelerator pedal while Vettel and Ferrari unravelled. And Hamilton won it officially two races ahead of time in Mexico. Having as good as won it a while before.

And there's another thing that's just like last year. That it almost doubtlessly is Hamilton's best of his world championships so far. That we have here an astonishingly-skilled driver at something like his peak. Only more so.

In 2018 he demonstrated many things we already knew about. His blinding speed of course, quintessentially with his scarcely-credible Singapore qualifying lap, on which the championship momentum pivoted. His unmatched skills in the wet as demonstrated in his Hockenheim win and grabbing pole in Hungary - both vital in stemming Ferrari momentum at a time when the red car was on top. His piercing aggression and immaculate judgement when wheel-to-wheel, such as on Monza's opening lap.

As before there have been a few of his off-days, particularly early in the year. In China, Azerbaijan and Canada he was subdued. But in these there was again evidence of another Hamilton attribute which he doesn't nearly get the requisite credit for. That on such days he still brings his car home for solid points. His results in those three rounds read fourth, first (albeit lucky) and fifth. Fifty-two points in other words. More than enough to have the drivers' title still in the balance had he chucked it off the road instead.

Photo: Octane Photography
This season he's only failed to finish on the podium four times, and those included two fourths and a fifth. The other was his car letting him down in Austria, though equally in that race he was overly affected by a team strategic blunder. As for mistakes, disappearing down a Baku escape road perhaps is the only one, along with straight-lining the opening complex on very second-hand tyres in Mexico. This is crushing relentlessness that we'd more associate with Fernando Alonso. Hamilton wasn't without adversity either. In Germany he won after a technical failure in qualifying meant he started 14th. In Britain he finished second having been spun to the back.

Would Alonso have beaten Hamilton to the 2018 title in a Ferrari, or in a Mercedes for that matter? Perhaps; perhaps not. But that it's in the balance says much for Hamilton's campaign.

Another aspect like last season but more so is the extent that Hamilton benefited from a car advantage. Or rather did not benefit from a car advantage. It is by no means beyond contention that the Mercedes was better than the Ferrari this year, indeed as recently as Monza the suggestion would have been risible. And while since Monza Merc has beaten Ferrari in the development war it also is the case that the difference in Hamilton and Vettel's ability to rack up points has given the fight a very different slant. A recent analysis eliminating Vettel's errors had the Ferrari man ahead by a gaping 24 points heading into the Mexico round, where in fact Hamilton sealed the title. Hamilton doubtlessly made a personal contribution. Probably a crucial one.

Therefore it is Hamilton who takes world championship number five. Juan Manuel Fangio is equalled; only Michael Schumacher is ahead.

Photo: Octane Photography
Yet in another annual event with Hamilton's success the praise vies with the 'yeah, but...'. Is he all that? Is he loved? Plaudits never seem universal with Lewis Hamilton.

It's hard to imagine anyone doubting Fangio as he clinched title number five in his astonishing run in the Maserati 250F at the Nurburgring in 1957 (though for what it's worth I'm told Denis Jenkinson reckoned Alberto Ascari was better). Similar goes for when Schumacher bagged his fifth title in 2002's French Grand Prix in July (don't let anyone tell you F1's getting boring), aside from the auxiliary debate about Schumacher's driving etiquette.

In Hamilton's case the criticism often seems based on a character judgement, in turn based on his flash image and flash range of extra-curricular pursuits. His garish clothing; his clear interest, often indulged, in music and fashion - indeed he in recent weeks launched his first fashion range. Yet the sniping often comes from those who in their next breath laud James Hunt (or whoever) for indulging in similarly outlandish pursuits in an earlier era.

Mark Hughes hit the nail on the head a few years back. "Much of the vitriol directed towards him comes from what the image is - not the fact that he's trying to convey it," Hughes said. "He's from a culture with very different social mores to those of the conservative motor racing crowd. He's the rapper in the yacht club and many fans don't like the fact that he has diamond ear studs, wears his trousers like Drake, tattoos his body. But what would they expect him to be into - Pink Floyd and Ben Sherman? He's not of that world or generation. What really is the difference between those choices and Jackie Stewart's long hair in the '60s or Jochen Rindt's pink shorts and mohair coats?"

Photo: Octane Photography
And seeing Hamilton tour America's highest profile TV studios in the build-up to the recent US race it's hard to deny that he is good for F1. It also doesn't seem to negatively impact his driving - indeed in the last two seasons it has been the monastic Vettel who has shown top-level evidence of lacking stamina in the title battle. Mercedes has long since learned that a happy Hamilton is a productive one.

The man himself reckons so too. "Being able to tap into your creativity is only a positive, there's no negatives about that," he said in the aftermath of his latest title win. "Naturally people will have opinions for and against things that you do but one thing I do do is I do me. Only I can live my life the way I live it and it can't be steered by anyone else and I try to do the right things in order to be my best.

"Having these opportunities to do these other things, tapping into a different part of the mind, naturally doing these things outside a race and it has nothing to do with being a racing driver, but I think it's keeping the brain stimulated and knowledge is power."

As for other charges laid against Hamilton? He's arrogant - well those who work with him don't agree. He's a tax dodger - so are most F1 drivers. He benefited from team orders - so have almost all world champions; the two we've mentioned in Hamilton's sphere of title-winning did so plenty. And, another common one, what would he do not in a Mercedes?

Photo: Octane Photography
This sort of contention doesn't just afflict motor racing. To take one high profile case, the highly decorated football manager Pep Guardiola's praise usually is countered by a round of 'yeah but could he do it if he was managing Burnley?' Well, parking the rather glaring point that top individual practitioners and top teams will attract each other almost inevitably, quite why extraordinary sportspeople should be obliged to compromise themselves is anyone's guess.

It also is self-evident that drivers will not win without the equipment underneath them (Alonso can attest). It is additionally self-evident that getting into the right car at the right moment is a key part of the game. And always has been. We laud Fangio for winning his five world titles (in seven years) at four different teams as it underlines his skills in ensuring he was in the right place at the right time. Similar goes for Michael Schumacher perfectly timing his jump from the Benetton ship to build extraordinary sustained success at Ferrari - a move which has notable parallels with Hamilton's from McLaren to Merc. Therefore it seems odd to suggest Hamilton doing the same is something to count against him.

And while we had reason to believe that Mercedes would exploit deftly 2014's grand shift in regulations, Hamilton's move still was by no means a no-brainer. What was said at the time is testament to this.

Hamilton too, in another thing that doesn't get noted enough, has had tough team-mates in his F1 career, including three world champions. And for all that went down in Russia this year, things have never been titled his way inside his teams in the way that Schumacher for one benefited from routinely.

Photo: Octane Photography
All in you can make a coherent case, as Scott Mitchell has, that Hamilton's titles have been more difficult than Schumacher's. As this includes, as we've noted, that this time and possibly the time before Hamilton's driving was a clear factor in winning the title rather than coming second.

"It took some special laps, it took some special moments in the car and I honestly could just re-live those moments all the time," Hamilton added in the afterglow of his latest championship. "Some of those experiences I had in the car were really magical. I truly believed that we could win this championship but it has been the toughest battle that we've had collectively as a team."

Hamilton's case shows also that in F1 nothing is final. Schumacher's records since they were set were often spoken of as untouchable; the possibility of matching them theoretical only. Yet all of a sudden Hamilton has them in his sights. Two more titles; 20 more race wins. The next grand regulation shift is not due until 2021 and you wouldn't bet much against Hamilton and Mercedes retaining their advantage in the two seasons between times. At his current rate of wins per year he'll be around Michael's race win mark by then too - at Mercedes Hamilton's wins per season reads 11, 10, 10, 9, 9 (and counting).

And if he does the previously unthinkable and topple Schumacher's towering marks, what will be saying then? Probably much the same. Only more so.

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