Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 September 2020

Abu Dhabi F1: Another masterclass from the remorseless Lewis Hamilton

Season comes to an end with young pretenders still fighting to mount a serious challenge

Another Formula 1 season ends soon after dusk on Sunday but the sun is yet to set on Mercedes remorseless domination of the sport.

Even though the ruler’s crown wobbled briefly in mid-season - as Red Bull and Ferrari conjured five wins in seven races bridging the summer break - it was too little, too late.

The reigning champions had kicked off the year like they had never been away with eight straight wins, finishing the first six of them 1-2, and the die was cast.

So the first lesson was: never trust pre-season testing. Every lap until the first race in Melbourne suggested Maranello were runaway pacesetters.

Instead Mercedes have become the first F1 operation to win six double world titles on the trot.

As devastating as ever, Lewis Hamilton pretty much tucked the driver’s championship away by mid-May

His teammate had promised us Bottas 2.0 and he duly won the opening round. But that was it and his dignified announcement a couple of days ago over the end of his three-year marriage revealed the private torment he has been battling.

The only real discussion when it comes to Hamilton is where he stands in the pantheon. Not his right to be there – but just how high up the scale he should sit.

Some put him ahead of Ayrton Senna and Fangio, others say he is behind Michael Schumacher. Take your pick.

Inside the cockpit he has been as remorseless as ever; beyond the paddock he appears to have matured, selling his Lear jet, and taking on more of the responsibilities of a global icon, speaking out on social issues such as climate change, veganism, dolphin hunting and even depression.

And then there is the rise - and rise - of Max Verstappen. If this year has proved anything it is that the Mercedes champion has at least one equal.

This is not one fading super nova standing in the face of a new sun. Hamilton is at the peak of his powers – and at times the Dutchman has been more than his equal - most noticeably in Brazil a fortnight ago.

While their stock rose, Sebastian Vettel’s shrank. On this form he is a busted flush, outclassed by a lightning-fast teammate fresh out of rookie school.

Vettel’s season has been erratic and error strewn (causing daft accidents at Silverstone and Brazil) and his only win owed more to a dubious team strategy call than his own speed.

Then crashing into his own teammate in Sao Paulo. On the straight. That’s plain embarrassing.

Whether he lacks the speed or simply the desire to achieve it is a moot point. His days at Maranello appear numbered.

Given 2021 will usher in radical rule change there is a strong argument for changing a driver at the end of this year and not next, when his deal expires.

The answer could be to recruit Daniel Ricciardo, who was so fast Renault have shown highly-rated Nico Hulkenberg the door for 2020. But could Ricciardo be prised from Renault? Doubtful.

The Scuderia’s problems cannot be blamed on Vettel alone. Under their fourth principal in five years Ferrari reminded everyone of their talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, throwing away four possible wins even before the summer break.

Charles Leclerc instantly established his credentials as a risen star, eclipsing Vettel in every department. Not bad when you’re racing a four-time champion who has won more races than you’ve competed in. Basic newboy errors, the worst of which cost him victory in Austria, has shown he is not yet the finished article.

Liberty Media, F1’s new owners, unveiled long-overdue rule changes for 2021 which promise closer racing and more overtaking.

But the teams, disgruntled as they were with the eventual compromise, managed to water down some of the proposals (aero and braking among them) proving yet again they have too much influence.

Ferrari’s power to veto any rule it doesn’t like is chief among them, although it was not exercised here.

But one of the most fundamental issues highlighted time and again in 2019 was the job done by the race stewards.

Erratic decision-making and inconsistent penalties rankled with fans much as VAR does in the Premier League.

Liberty Media and the FIA continue to resist a move to a permanent stewards panel made up, largely, of ex-F1 racers. Currently, the four-man panel is an odd mix of local and international motor sporting dignitaries led by the Race Director with one ex-racer picked on a rotating basis.

As ever the deciding factor is surely money (well this is F1!) The driver steward is an unpaid, voluntary role and one cynic suggested it is easy to see why any organisation would resist switching to a system with, say, three permanent ex-drivers which would surely increase their annual salary bill by something approaching £1m.

Updated: November 30, 2019 12:37 PM

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