When Lewis Hamilton exploded onto the F1 scene in 2007, then won the world championship just a year later, many people (particularly in the British press) thought they had a potential multiple world champion in their hands.
Then came Sebastian Vettel. A Red Bull rise coincided with a McLaren slump. The German won four on the bounce. Vettel was having the career that many expected for Lewis Hamilton.
Two years ago Hamilton made the decision to move from the comfort of familiar McLaren to Mercedes. Many scoffed. At the time, Mercedes were far from front runners.
But it turned out to be the perfectly timed move. Knowing when to jump ship requires a bit of luck, but also a lot of judgement. Getting the timing right can be what separates the good from the great (Contrast this with Fernando Alonso, who seems to have developed a knack for moving to teams at just the wrong time.)
Being in the right car at the right time is only part of the story though. When your team mate is quite fast as well, it can make life complicated.
Nico Rosberg: a competitive challenger
I wrote two years ago that Nico Rosberg would be the driver to watch at Mercedes because up to that point he never had a strong team mate to be compared against. Lewis Hamilton was a known quantity, so the pairing would finally enable us to judge just how good Nico Rosberg was.
In 2013 the answer came. Rosberg was better than some people thought. He trailed Hamilton in the championship, but took two wins to the Brit’s one. In Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton has a competitive challenger.
This year, they have been at the sharp end of the field. That brought an intensity to the on-track battles that we only saw glimpses of last year. By and large, Lewis Hamilton had the better of Nico Rosberg in those wheel-to-wheel jousts.
Rosberg was able to take the momentum early in the season after Hamilton’s car had reliability problems in the first race. But despite this setback, Hamilton was able to take the championship lead by winning the next four races, while Rosberg had to settle for second.
That set the tone for the season. Rosberg appeared to have the upper hand so often during the season. But when it really mattered, Hamilton was able to dig deeper.
Their battle in Bahrain had fans fizzing with excitement. In a way, that one race tells you everything you need to know about the championship.
Rosberg started from pole, as he did 11 times over Hamilton’s seven. Over one lap, the German had the advantage for most of the season.
But come the race, Hamilton always seemed to have an extra trick up his sleeve. It could have been a better start, the ability to set a fast lap when it really mattered during a pit window, epic defending, or the killer overtaking move. Whatever was asked of him Lewis Hamilton normally had the answer.
Hamilton saw the chequered flag 11 times to Rosberg’s five. In the end, reliability issues more or less hit both drivers equally. Yet Hamilton’s championship advantage in the end was a substantial 67 points. Even taking into account double points for the final race, that is as decisive as a down-to-the-wire fight can get.
In the middle of the season such a lead would have been unthinkable. A mid-season slump for Hamilton enabled Rosberg to take the initiative.
Misplaced mind games
The biggest mistake Hamilton made all season was engaging in mind games. His raw pace has never been in doubt. But he has been prone to being distracted by his personal life or other off-track situations.
This season provided further clues that Hamilton isn’t as mentally strong as he might be. His ill-judged comments about Rosberg’s background going into the Monaco Grand Prix weekend backfired on him badly.
Rosberg batted away the suggestion that he lacked the hunger to succeed because of his privileged background. While the media generated a lot of hype about the comments, Rosberg’s very nonchalance about the situation appeared to rattle Hamilton.
When Rosberg’s car went down the escape road at Monaco, it sent the mind games into overdrive. The low point came when Hamilton said he would consider taking a “page out of Senna’s book”, implying he would deliberately crash into Rosberg. An undignified spat over whether the pair should call each other friends was petty and did nothing to further his cause.
It may be a coincidence that these ill-judged mind games coincided with some of Hamilton’s worst results of the season. But I doubt it. He won just one race all summer.
Rosberg’s big mistake
Then came Rosberg’s big mistake — his crash with Hamilton at the Belgian Grand Prix. Rosberg may have been pleased with himself for taking victory. But after climbing out of his car he had to face the furious Mercedes management.
Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda both took to the TV cameras to lay the blame for the crash squarely at Rosberg’s feet and to underline how angry they were. It is highly unusual to see team bosses speak out against their own driver in such a way. Rosberg was never quite the same again, winning just one more race all season.
Come the final race in Abu Dhabi, mind games was the only weapon Rosberg had in his arsenal. But by then, Hamilton had seemingly learnt his lesson not to get involved. Hamilton focused on what he’s best at: driving.
Some readers will know that I am not particularly a fan of Lewis Hamilton. But over the course of this season, in a high pressure scenario, Hamilton clearly demonstrated his superiority. His second championship has been overdue.
Before this year I thought he may never win a second championship. Now I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a third.