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Formula 1

Has Hamilton got lucky or is he really better than ever?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

In response to the renewed threat from Red Bull and Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton’s made his best start to a Formula 1 season.

A bonus point for fastest lap in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix means his tally of 94 points is his best haul from the first four races, as he also won three races and took a second place at the start of the 2015 season before the fastest lap point was introduced.

Hamilton F1 points graph

That race in Imola has more significance to Hamilton’s season start than the extra point that makes this statistically his best opening four races of a season.

After his mid-race off that dropped him a lap down, he got a huge slice of luck almost immediately when the race was red-flagged and he was put back on the lead lap for the restart – setting up a charge to second, with the fastest lap in the process, that would otherwise have been impossible.

Without that particular intervention of the red flag Hamilton would likely have finished seventh. He wouldn’t be enjoying his best start to a season and he’d have a lower points tally after four races than at the same stage in the last two years.

But he’d still be leading the championship.

Lewis Hamilton Imola F1 Mercedes

Regardless of the good fortune behind Hamilton’s ‘best-ever start’, trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin finds it “a bit” surprising. Because the significance of the stat isn’t some arbitrary cut-off by which we measure points after a certain number of races, it’s what it represents.

Shovlin says: “He’s doing a good job, isn’t he? To be honest, in Bahrain winter testing, what you could see with Lewis was he realised that he and the team were going to have to be absolutely perfect to be able to go out and win races.

“You also realise that one bad test was not an indication to him that this might be a championship he’s not in the running for.

“It surprised me, that stat, because you think this has been the least competitive margin we’ve had for a number of years, but what I would say is he has arrived in a frame of mind that is just about maximising every little opportunity be it on track, be it in the set-up, be it in how we approach the weekend.

“He brought that to Bahrain and we haven’t seen it wane at all since.”

Essentially, the good fortune at Imola is simply the only reason it’s Hamilton’s best-ever start statistically – it doesn’t account for the excellence around it.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

Hamilton has earned everything that’s come his way this season. Mercedes’ advantage – does it even have an advantage? – is smaller than it’s been at any time other than probably the first few rounds of 2018, when Ferrari looked like it had a performance advantage.

Yet the Hamilton-Mercedes combination is still too strong for its rivals to vanquish regularly on Sundays, no matter how strong they look in qualifying or at times during a given grand prix. How Hamilton has risen to the occasion is key to that.

It’s often said that Hamilton learned from his defeat to team-mate Nico Rosberg in the 2016 championship that he needed to redouble his efforts to eliminate the off days – gift his opposition as few points as possible, and control everything that is in his power to control.

Perhaps, as Shovlin suggests, the Verstappen/Red Bull threat refocused Hamilton again for 2021.

Not that long ago, maybe even including last year given the below-par season opener Hamilton endured in Austria, there were suggestions that Hamilton was a slow-starter. That was probably most true in the 2017-2018 fights against Ferrari.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Australian GP Ferrari F1

Well, up against another team for the first time since then, Hamilton is doing almost everything to avoid a repeat. He came out swinging, winning the opening round of the season since 2015, and he hasn’t really stopped since.

Usually, team-mate Valtteri Bottas has managed at least one Hamilton defeat by now. But his peak is grabbing that Portugal pole, and he’s yet to finish higher than third in a race.

After years of battling accusations he only wins because of Mercedes, Hamilton is making his strongest ever case that he’d make the difference even without a clear car advantage.

“Every year I come back and I’m always trying to improve,” says Hamilton. “Most often it tends to be, or it seems, impossible, but it’s a necessity. The Red Bulls have started off incredibly strong. They do both have a championship-winning car and opportunity. As do we.

“It’s going to take everything from us, not only me bringing my A-game but the team bringing their A-game, weekend-in, weekend-out. Otherwise, these guys will be winning.”

Hamilton is the reason they haven’t been winning more. He executed two bold Mercedes strategies perfectly in Bahrain and Spain, combining his car’s gentler touch on its rear tyres and his own freakish judgement of how hard to push without overstressing them, especially when in the dirty air of another car.

He made life tougher for himself in Portugal, gifting his title rival a place at the restart, but recovered expertly to pass both Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas to win.

Max Verstappen Lewis Hamilton Red Bull Mercedes F1

That restart mistake exposed a small chink in Hamilton’s armour, as did his misjudgements at Imola – first trying to hold the line around the outside of Verstappen at the first corner in the wet, then sliding off the road going off-line to lap George Russell.

But that same weekend he’d also pipped the faster Red Bulls to pole position, and it was Hamilton who emerged on top of the ultra-tight qualifying battle in Spain to net his 100th pole position.

“Every time I get asked the question about was this his best lap, best race… he’s just operating on this never-seen level,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after that Barcelona pole lap.

“Probably the car wasn’t perfect and he just edged the other ones out. One hundred poles is incredible.”

It is, and it’s also a reminder that Hamilton is still capable of extraordinary one-lap piece even if his tyre management and judgement in battle are the most impressive parts of his modern-day arsenal, and very possibly his greatest assets in this championship battle.

Though he flirted with it at Imola, Hamilton’s not getting suckered into stupid fights either. He’s showing what many have argued through his period of dominance with Mercedes – that he is a master of his craft, and his car has simply augmented that all-round ability as a driver.

There are still small errors here and there because Hamilton isn’t perfect, but the mistakes are vanishingly small and he’s doing well to recover from them. More importantly, the peaks look as high as ever, if not higher given they are coming in the context of fresh pressure.

Lewis Hamilton Portuguese GP Mercedes F1

In a tight fight like this it’s the fewest errors that will win out. The pendulum may swing between these teams circuit-to-circuit but the margins are so fine that the driver can make the difference and that’s broadly what we’ve seen so far, with Verstappen making more mistakes and Hamilton doing a better job of threading it together.

So, while the points Hamilton was deeply fortunate to get at Imola are crucial to the headline number of ‘Hamilton’s best start’, so too are the many more points he has won through his own quality.

You can call that the benefit of experience, call it Hamilton reaching a new level – call it anything you like, except luck.

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