With the level of hype surrounding Lewis Hamilton’s imminent race debut for Mercedes, you could be forgiven for being swept along on the wave of excitement and expectation and joining the cohorts that cast the 2008 World Champion in the role of redeemer, the saviour of Mercedes F1 hopes as he joins a team that not six months ago failed to score points in five of the last six races.
The belief that the winter redemption of the Silver Arrows was down to this lad from Stevenage alone is, however, a mistaken one; the groundwork for success at Merc was laid in the past three years of turmoil and strife. To imply the loyal and devoted staff at Brackley have been motivated to somehow work harder because of the arrival of one of F1’s ‘big three’ names is a slur on the work ethic of the team that remain the last outfit to have beaten the acknowledged colossus that is Red Bull in the modern era.
In fact, if you delve deeper into the hard stats, is there any basis for the claim Hamilton himself is one of the ‘big three’ that, in the minds of many, comprises World Champion Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari ace Fernando Alonso and the Englishman himself?
Contrary to frenzied media-fuelled beliefs, he isn’t quite there yet; several large and noticeable markers and boxes need to be ticked off before he can be ranked alongside the Ferrari and Red Bull aces.
Multiple World Champions
Fernando Alonso is the man who brought the Schumacher era to a close, defeating the German in 2005 before adding his second and latest title in 2006. That Ferrari’s number one driver is a great is not up for debate, for it takes an immense talent to repeatedly triumph in such inferior machinery as the Renault R28, the Ferrari F150 and last year’s ungainly F2012. Despite poorly-hidden jibes from his peers, Sebastian Vettel has still achieved greatness through his multiple World Championships; 2012 was no easy battle in particular. That Lewis has yet to experience the mediocre machinery experienced by Alonso, or tread the same paths as Vettel by maximising a superb car shows he still has some way to go to prove to the world he too is as great as either man.
Lewis’ qualifying speed is not in doubt; a superb one-lap specialist and arguably the fastest in the sport, his tally of poles certainly stands up to scrutiny. Formula One however is not about Saturdays; if the claims about Hamilton’s ‘prodigious’ talent are true, his inability to dominate any one season is a reminder he is no Schumacher, Vettel or Senna. All won in inferior machinery, all amassed the greatest number of points to complement their speed; and in Formula One, points make prizes. Senna, Schumacher and Vettel all had (or have) the ability to beat their team-mates repeatedly, to pummel them into submission and cast them in the unfancied role of supporting act.
Equal with Alonso in 2007, beaten by Button over their three-season tenure together – the inexperienced Heikki Kovalainen is the only team-mate Hamilton has comprehensively outperformed. Until Lewis can repeatedly beat a team-mate with the consistency of a Prost or Alonso-class driver, he can’t mount that final step into the hall of greats. His lack of tactical nous and ability to remain positive in the face of adversity are both key weaknesses of the Hamilton make-up that need to be addressed, as does his solidarity with the team. While remonstrating with his race engineer over the radio or revealing key team information on the internet in a sulk may have been acceptable in the bosom of his family at McLaren, one would expect it to be less well-received at pastures new on the Mercedes pit wall.
While Lewis’ single title is a commendable and significant addition to his curriculum vitae, there is a common misconception that it is somehow ‘worth more’ than those held by his fellow active ‘one-off’ champs Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button. Nothing could be further from the truth, and to assume so belittles the achievements of these other talented Grand Prix drivers. Whether Lewis is destined to win more is a subject for much debate and the future alone to decide, but Mercedes seem to be on target to allowing him to achieve that. In order to do so however, they must produce a flawless car or Hamilton may struggle to stem the tide of Red Bull titles; while he can maximise the performance of a competitive car, Lewis has yet to outperform his machinery over a season-long distance.
In his seventh season of Formula One participation, Hamilton is no longer the wet-behind-the-ears rookie that could be forgiven the odd character flaw or on-track over-exuberant accident. Even as late as 2011, five long years into his top-flight career, there were worrying insights into the mental fragility and darker inner-character of a man who felt the era that was rightly his was being snatched from his grasp. McLaren failed him in 2012, and his response was not that of a man prepared to work for his reputation. In many ways Hamilton is similar to Kimi Raikkonen; the team do the work, I do the driving. He also wears that aura of self-righteousness, perhaps with a hint more arrogance than the Finn which, unfortunately, does not endear him to the stewards.
2013 is the perfect opportunity to start afresh. His maturity sometimes seems at odds with his battling character out on the track, and to be a great he must master both. Names like Senna, Prost, Schumacher and Alonso know how to manipulate events and design ideas, to twist things to their own advantage within the limit of the rules in order to achieve the status of ‘legend’. Leading a battered Mercedes team into a new period of sustained success and prosperity in such a manner would prove Hamilton doesn’t just have the raw speed but the tactical brain, political skills and awareness of his craft that all the true greats, and many of his peers, unfairly cast as inferior by the media, share. He hasn’t managed it in the past – 2013 is a decisive point on the Lewis Hamilton timeline.