Does Hamilton’s target-based approach mean 2019 is his year off?

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas on the Azerbaijan Grand Prix podium (image by President.az)

Four races into the Formula 1 season, patterns are being set. For instance, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix continued the trend of Valtteri Bottas turning up the heat on Lewis Hamilton.

After an anonymous 2018 in which Bottas failed to win a single race, ‘Bottas 2.0’ has emerged from the winter break. With a new attitude (including inexplicably saying the fuck word on his radio), and a feistier on-track demeanour, Bottas has won two of the four races this season, and now leads the drivers’ championship.

Bottas looks like a much more hungry driver this year. But is it also the case that Hamilton has gone off the boil?

Something I’ve noticed about Hamilton is that he seems to set himself high but realistic career targets. After he reaches one of his targets, he seems to need a short while to psyche himself up for the next challenge.

Hamilton’s five world championships have come in three streaks that denote the three targets he has set himself.

His first one came in 2008. He’d fulfilled his childhood ambition to win a world championship.

For a long time it seemed as though his second championship may never come, particularly as his McLaren team gradually drifted away from the front of the grid.

Moving to Mercedes brought long-term benefits, and his next championship didn’t came in 2014. He took his third the following year — and in doing so he emulated his great hero Ayrton Senna.

He said at the time:

For me the target was always to get the three Ayrton had. I don’t know what’s coming next. There is no-one else I want to equal or emulate.

The following year, Hamilton’s team-mate Nico Rosberg dug deep and had the upper hand. Hamilton didn’t perform at his peak, and Rosberg took the championship. Perhaps having emulated Senna, the hunger, briefly, was gone.

The next obvious target was to reach five world championships. That would pull him clear of his contemporary Sebastian Vettel, and level with Juan Manuel Fangio.

Once again, Hamilton took two titles in a row — winning last year’s “fight for five” against Vettel. On doing so, he said:

It’s hard to realise it at the moment. It’s something that of course I dreamed of, but I never in a million years thought that I would be standing here today as a five-time world champion.

The next logical target is to match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships. But Hamilton doesn’t seem concerned about that just yet.

At the end of last season, Hamilton told the BBC that beating Schumacher’s records has never been on his mind. When asked what he dreamed about now, Hamilton instead talked about learning languages and going to space.

If anyone can beat Schumacher’s records, it is Hamilton. I don’t doubt that he’ll regain the hunger to fight for a sixth and seventh world title.

But at the moment, there’s a chance that 2019 will be one of Hamilton’s off years.

Certainly, the way Hamilton yielded to the unusually aggressive Bottas at the start of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, it seems as though Bottas has the mental edge just now.

We are only four races in, but already there are some striking parallels with Nico Rosberg’s championship year of 2016.

Having spent the winter to think about things, Hamilton’s less talented team-mate has come out fighting, brought a new attitude, and got results on the racetrack. Bottas possibly thinks, like Rosberg did, that this is his one chance at beating Hamilton to a championship.

Header photo by President.az (CC BY 3.0)

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