Sebastain Vettel may be the champion, but the McLaren-Mercedes driver is the pass master, writes Gary Meenaghan.
Lewis Hamilton leads by example in passing stakes
Sebastian Vettel may be the reigning world champion and the leader of this year's drivers' standings, but he is mostly unaware of the feeling Hamilton spoke of in Shanghai. Of the 13 grand prix victories the German has achieved, he has started on pole in all but three.
In Abu Dhabi in 2009, Vettel passed the pole-sitter Hamilton during the pit-stops, while last year during his wins in Malaysia and Brazil, he was able to squeeze past amid the traffic-laden chaos of Turn One. Vettel has never successfully taken the lead on-track in mid-race and gone on to win.
If anything, he is more accustomed to making an error while attempting passing manoeuvres on competitive drivers. In Turkey last year, with his teammate Mark Webber leading, he tried to pass, failed, and the subsequent crash handed the race win to Hamilton. In Spa, he tried to overtake Jenson Button and took the Englishman out of the race. Vettel undeniably is a great driver; he does not yet appear to be a great overtaker.
Hamilton, in contrast, is widely recognised as being the best in the business when it comes to passing cars at high speed. His manoeuvre against Vettel in China, which the German acknowledged caught him by surprise, was the latest in a long list of breathtaking displays.
The Briton's aggressive style has served him well in his five seasons in the sport.
What is the secret behind being a good overtaker?
"It's tough to answer," said Button, Hamilton's teammate, when asked by The National.
"We're all pretty good at overtaking because it's something you learn on the way through. You learn racecraft at a very early age when you're fearless and you carry it through, judging situations - that's exactly what we do when we're driving a Formula One car.
"Judgement is very important. Normally, in Formula One, if there is a overtaking manoeuvre to happen, it happens. Most of the time, touch wood, it doesn't end in an accident, which is very different to some other formulas out there."
Hamilton, listening as Button spoke, interrupted to ask if his teammate's answer meant he is no longer "fearless".
"Not like I was when I was eight," Button replied. "I never knew how much it hurt."
The sepia-tinged stories of Hamilton growing up in karting and telling then-McLaren team principal Ron Dennis that one day he would race for him are now well known, but the 2008 world champion said it was in these early days that he honed his skills. "We learn all the overtaking manoeuvres and the skills that we have in the early days of our careers," he said. "But, obviously, to be a good driver, it takes heart, commitment, precision and understanding how wide your car is, as well as what moves and opportunities arise."
Heikki Kovalainen, a former teammate of Hamilton's and now racing at Team Lotus, remembers watching his old stablemate shining at Hockenheim in 2008 as well as enjoying a "great battle" with Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen at Spa in 2008. He agreed with Button that an element of courage is required.
"It is both physical and psychological," Kovalainen said. "But generally it is somebody who is good with the brakes as then you can brake late and if you lock the wheel you can control it well.
"You need to be willing to brake hard and not be afraid to go over the braking areas. That requires bravery, but also you have to have the skill and balance to naturally brake late in the car and control it when you're close to someone."
Four classic F1 passes
Lewis Hamilton on Sebastian Vettel, above, China 2011
Hamilton had the advantage of Kers (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and newer tyres, but what was impressive about this pass was where it took place. Coming out of Turn Six in Shanghai he completely caught out the world champion by going around the outside at a place not normally considered advantageous for overtaking.
Jenson Button on Romain Grosjean, Brazil 2009
Button created this pass over a number of corners by thinking ahead. He put pressure on Grosjean at Turn One in Sao Paulo and put the Frenchman off line going down to Turn Four. Button kept himself on the racing line and was able to get the better exit out of that turn to blast past Grosjean on the inside going into Turn Five.
Fernando Alonso on Michael Schumacher, Japan 2005
Alonso did an astonishing move around the 130R corner at Suzuka on Schumacher. It was brave, as speeds through there are usually 300kph, but Alonso trusted in the grip of his car and Schumacher not moving from his line to make the change of position possible.
Mika Hakkinen on Michael Schumacher, Belgium 2000
The world champion went three abreast with Schumacher and backmarker Ricardo Zonta heading to Les Combes at Spa-Francorchamps at 320kph to take the lead. It was a bold move by Hakkinen, even more so considering that he and Schumacher had almost touched on the same straight.