x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hamilton in good position to get back on track

Aside from Red Bull’s waning dominance, there are four reasons why the Briton could win his first Formula One drivers’ title since the 2008 season.

During his first season with Mercedes-GP in 2013, Lewis Hamilton won the Hungarian Grand Prix and took fourth in the final standings. Toru Hanai / Reuters
During his first season with Mercedes-GP in 2013, Lewis Hamilton won the Hungarian Grand Prix and took fourth in the final standings. Toru Hanai / Reuters

History is not in Lewis Hamilton’s favour as he bids to win a second Formula One drivers’ championship this season.

Five seasons have passed since the Briton won his only world title and only one driver in the past, Graham Hill, won a second championship with a gap of more than five years between his first and second crowns.

But Hamilton and his team, Mercedes-GP, start the 2014 season as favourites, and here are the reasons to be positive about his chances of being the man celebrating when the season climaxes in Abu Dhabi in November.

Car advantage

In the time since Hamilton so dramatically claimed the 2008 title with his last-lap overtake of Timo Glock to take fifth spot in his McLaren-Mercedes, the car to be driving has been the Red Bull Racing car, something Hamilton has not had access to.

The cold reality of F1 is that it does not matter how talented, or skilled, a driver you are. If you do not have the best car in the field, your chances of winning championships are diminished.

McLaren gave Hamilton a car to fight in at the front in his debut year in 2007 and again in 2008. After that, they failed to do so.

In his final four years with McLaren, before he left them at the end of 2012, Hamilton won 12 times, but the most that came in one year was four, in 2012 – not enough to win a title.

If you are not the fastest package in F1, you are relying on mistakes from the people quicker than you to challenge.

That can happen and almost did in 2010 as Hamilton led the title race with six races to go, largely based on consistency and the errors of the much-faster combination of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull.

As Vettel got his act together, Hamilton and McLaren had no answer in terms of pace and that has been the story of Hamilton’s career since the dawn of the 2009 season.

But that could change this year. Mercedes look fast and, more importantly, have shown reliability in testing and are expected to be the front-runners in Melbourne at the opening race of the season on Sunday.

This year, the new V6 turbo engines are expected to suit the teams who manufacture their own power trains, which is why Hamilton chose to join Mercedes when he did, not for the 2013 season; that was a throwaway, in his mind, in the wait for 2014, when German efficiency was anticipated to shine.

The last time Hamilton had a car that consistently challenged for victory, he won the title.

There is reason to expect that if that scenario is replicated this year and he has an equipment advantage, Hamilton will win many races.

Better driver

An irony, looking back now, is that 2008 was not one of Hamilton’s better years in terms of driving performance.

There were moments of brilliance, but also many mistakes, the worst being when he drove into the back of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in the pit lane in Canada.

After a difficult 2011, when off-track issues were clearly a distraction, the errors have been rare in the past two seasons and his improvement has come without sacrificing raw speed.

In a 2012 season that promised much after he took pole position in the opening two races, it was the chronic unreliability of the McLaren and the car’s inconsistent speed that killed any hint of a Hamilton title challenge, not his driving. He was never comfortable with the Mercedes last year, which had continuing issues with the brakes, but he drove maturely. There were no major mistakes, crashes or mood swings. Red Bull were just too good.

Inevitably, in a tight fight, there will be low points along with the high, but from the outside looking in, Hamilton looks better placed to deal with the pressures of a championship challenge.

Raw speed

Winning 13 times in five years is pretty good going when you have not had a Red Bull at your disposal.

Vettel leads the way in most wins since the end of 2008, with 38, but of the other drivers in F1, only Jenson Button (14) has won more races in that five-season span than Hamilton.

When victory has been on the cards for Hamilton, he has been very good at taking the opportunity and not wasting it.

Car failures and bad luck have cost him wins, too. At least two went begging in 2012 to engine breakdowns when he was comfortably ahead in Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

The fact he took five poles for Mercedes last year demonstrated his speed, but that does not tell the whole story.

The Red Bull improved as the season went on last year and, by midseason, it was practically unbeatable over a race distance.

Hamilton and Mercedes had no right, given their package, to claim pole on some occasions, particularly in Germany, Hungary and Belgium.

Yet, perfect laps, pushing the car to the absolute racing limit, gave Hamilton the fastest times and small personal victories. Over a race distance, Hamilton could not compete with Red Bull, but over a single lap he could and, if that was all he could achieve, he made sure he did it.

It was his speed that made Hamilton stand out from the crowd in his karting and GP2 days, and it is clear he still has it.

Track position, as always, will be vital in F1 in 2014, with fuel consumption and tyre wear requiring managing. Being out in front will also allow control of a race and avoid being stuck behind traffic.

Hamilton’s outright speed means he should have plenty of chances to lead this year, if the Mercedes is as good as it looks, and expect a lot of pole positions to come his way.

Best overtaker

From his audacious opening seconds of his first race in Australia in 2007, when he went around the outside of Fernando Alonso and Nick Heidfeld to move up two places at the first corner, Hamilton has relished having a reputation as the man with the ability to do daring deeds on track in F1.

Not all of his gambles paid off but, in an era of processional racing, he was a breath of fresh air. He has not lost his willingness to take a risk, even with the advent of the drag reduction system.

Sometimes that can be the difference between victory and second, and the extra points in a title fight that can prove decisive.

Consider the Hungarian Grand Prix, Hamilton’s lone triumph last year. To make his strategy work, he had to pass Mark Webber’s Red Bull midway through the race at the Hungaroring, where overtaking is notoriously difficult.

He did it on the rundown from Turn 3 to Turn 4, a place that is not a typical overtaking spot at the Budapest track.

Webber was not expecting it, which was why it worked.

The racer’s instinct within Hamilton saw him seize the opportunity, something Vettel, who was Hamilton’s main challenger for victory that day, was unable to do as he lost copious amounts of time trapped behind slower traffic, unable to make a pass.

Even if he has a strong package, there will be occasions in the months ahead when Hamilton will be stuck behind a rival.

But he is not likely to end the race wondering if a pass was possible.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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