x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Formula One: A silver lining for hungry Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes

Mercedes' new driver delighted to express himself, writes Gary Meenaghan in Melbourne

Mercedes' British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.
Mercedes' British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.

Forget fuel injections, the most important addition to a Formula One team could well be an injection of fresh blood. And not in the dirty, doping sense of the phrase.

At times last year, perhaps no surprise for a team dressed in grey, Mercedes-GP appeared as dull as a condiment-free bratwurst. Norbert Haug, the former vice president of Mercedes-Benz motorsport, was notoriously straight and serious, while Michael Schumacher made a career from driving brilliantly and speaking banally.

This year, the German works team are revitalised. Out have gone Haug and Schumacher, replaced with a new management set-up that includes former drivers' champion Niki Lauda and the personable Toto Wolff.

It is naturally behind the wheel that proves most crucial to a team's public guise and in Lewis Hamilton, the Silver Arrows have snared the most engrossing personality in the paddock.

Nobody splits opinion like the 28-year-old Englishman. If Sebastian Vettel is the boy with the cheeky charm and Kimi Raikkonen is the amusingly monotonous mumbler, Hamilton is quickly becoming the girl-getting, tweet-toting, tattooed bad boy.

Yet only now, having broken free of McLaren's micro-management chains, is the public seeing the real him, he says.

"I have come from a place where there was a lot of control and a controlled environment where you had to do and say what you were told," Hamilton said earlier this week. "But here, while you have to keep your values and remain respectful and polite, you can still be who you want to be. Everyone has their own tastes, but I feel that I can express myself better nowadays, be more myself."

Travelling the world in his newly purchased private plane (estimated cost: £20 million, or Dh111.1m) with a fresh sleeve of ink on his right arm (father and former manager Anthony does not approve), a pop-star girlfriend (Nicole Scherzinger) and a pet bulldog (complete with paddock pass), Hamilton certainly seems relaxed, refreshed and reborn since his winter switch to Mercedes.

During a season-launch event in Melbourne this week, the 2008 world champion displayed a grin arguably greater than any he has sported in the past two seasons.

His winter switch from McLaren, where he had spent 13 formative years but grown frustrated of the corporate constraints, has clearly been positive for him, emotionally as well as economically.

"It's such an amazing feeling. I can't really explain it," he said. "It's all so new and fresh for me and it's great to have that feeling after so long in the sport. It's definitely put me in a better place."

The vitality works both ways. Ross Brawn, the team principal, conceded the relationship is still new but said Hamilton has brought a "fresh buzz to the team in terms of how he approaches things". The fact he has effortlessly replaced a seven-time world champion in Schumacher has also not gone unnoticed.

"Inevitably, when someone of the status of Michael leaves the team, it's a very big hole to fill, but I think Lewis is filling it perfectly - and in his own style," Brawn said. "We don't want a clone of Michael; we want somebody who does it in his own way. We have not been in the white heat of battle yet and when you go racing you start to learn a lot more about your drivers, so that is still to come, but so far we are delighted."

Similarly, Wolff appears smitten. "You can see the difference between the good drivers and the very good drivers," Mercedes's executive director said. "Obviously, while all the drivers are strong, working with Lewis has been interesting because not only is he very talented with a heavy right foot, but he is also very intelligent and has settled in well."

The story of Hamilton's rise from sleepy Stevenage to superstardom has been relayed so many times it reads like a parable to potential petrolheads. His move to Italy at age 13, however, is likely to be a time period re-explored as it marks the moment he first met new teammate Nico Rosberg.

How that long-standing friendship develops in the face of fierce team competition will prove fascinating.

While much was made of Hamilton's amicable relationship with Jenson Button during the pair's early days with McLaren, there was no deep-rooted friendship there. The two teammates, separated by a five-year age difference, had little in common off the track and kept separate social circles.

In Japan, when Button was first informed Hamilton had aimed a now-famous Twitter outburst at him, the elder Englishman simply rolled his eyes and asked, "What's he done now?"

The team dynamics will undeniably be different with Rosberg. "I know how quick Lewis is from our go-karting days," the German said. "It's nice because away from the track we have always got on well, but obviously on the track there is big competition and I'm sure it will remain that way this year and in years to come."

When pressed, Hamilton painted a picture of the friendly rivalry that surrounded the two drivers' early days: "We met when we were 13. I had just moved to race in Italy and Nico was kicking everyone's butt at the time. I remember the first bit of real competition we had: Nico used to ride this unicycle everywhere and I remember thinking, 'Man, I have to learn how to ride this unicycle better than him.' So I spent all my time outside of the car trying to learn how to ride this unicycle." It took him about two hours to master the one-wheeled bike, Rosberg added, laughing.

Wolff said the Mercedes new driver line-up is reflective of the manufacturer's new road cars - "young and sporty" - while Brawn believes he is now in charge of the strongest pairing in the sport.

It is hard to disagree: both drivers have shown over the years an ability to get the maximum out of their machines, and complemented by the "vibrant relationship" between them, the team can be confident.

"It is a great asset," Brawn said of friendship between drivers. "If you have teammates who have a very poor relationship, it sucks a lot of energy out of the team because you are always managing that situation. If you have teammates who can work together and have respect for each other, it means you can take everything they say at face value and there is one simple motivation: to make the team faster."

The true pace of the Mercedes W04 remains unknown following a substantial but ultimately inconclusive pre-season.

In the first free-practice sessions of the year, yesterday, the two drivers showed impressive speed (as well as confusingly similar yellow helmets) as Hamilton finished fourth-quickest in the morning and Rosberg third in the afternoon.

Technical issues ended the final outing of both cars prematurely, however, with Hamilton suffering floor damage and Rosberg experiencing a gearbox problem.

"Overall it was good, if perhaps not the smoothest," Hamilton said. "I'm happy with where we are and to see Nico in third place on the time sheets shows we're pretty competitive."

Exactly how competitive the Silver Arrows can be tomorrow will be determined this afternoon in qualifying. Wolff, however, is hoping the Hamilton effect can motivate his team beyond recent capabilities - and in turn mark the start of a new era for Mercedes.

"Are we maybe," he asked, "underestimating the impact of a driver as a driving force?"

With Mercedes appearing increasingly revitalised, the answer is clearer each day.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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