The turn of the screw
We’ve been here before: those periods in an F1 season when the champion-elect hits his groove and leaves his rivals whimpering at the roadside, with nothing better to show for their efforts than a covering of road dust. Michael Schumacher did it routinely in the noughties; Sebastian Vettel closed out 2013 with ten wins from 11 races. And that’s pretty much how it looks for Lewis Hamilton right now, despite the valiant efforts of Seb, Ferrari and, latterly, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, to stand strong in the face of the Hamilton-Mercedes tsunami.
It’s remarkable how Ferrari’s title campaign has imploded.
The stats tell their own story: since the August break, Lewis has won four from five, dropping only seven points from a maximum 125 with his P2 finish in Malaysia. In the same period, Vettel has taken only a second, a third, a fourth and two DNFs. Don’t forget that he left the Hungaroring in July having fronted a Ferrari one-two as Mercedes struggled for pace. And he led the world championship all the way from Melbourne to Spa, until Lewis finally edged ahead at Monza.
It’s remarkable how Ferrari’s title campaign has imploded – and I say that without glee, for I’d like nothing more than to see Lewis and Seb lining up on the front row in Abu Dhabi for an all-or-nothing showdown. But the Scuderia have come up against a finely tuned winning machine, battle-hardened after four consecutive seasons of domination.
Yes, Mercedes’ W08, is “a diva”, highly strung with performance flat spots Ferrari have exploited. On tracks requiring high levels of low-speed downforce, such as Monaco, the Hungaroring and Marina Bay, the SF70H has been the weapon of choice. But when the W08 flies, it flies. And the same could be said of Lewis himself. A global megastar, yet sometimes not quite ‘at the races’, he is now on a plane beyond that of his peers. His driving has been pitch-perfect and he has found a degree of harmony with himself, his car and his team that he has perhaps never experienced before.
The wellspring of his state of grace? The absence of his quick-but-needly former team-mate Nico Rosberg, who beat Lewis to the title last year using every trick in the book. As Nico admits this month in our interview on p32, he had to “mess with [Lewis’s] head” to beat Hamilton, and his method underpinned a carefully crafted strategy. Like a partner in a long relationship, he knew what buttons to push to get a rise out of his ‘other half’.
None of that applies now for Lewis, who seems to be winning in an almost beatific state. Although as our dear chum Murray Walker once noted, in F1, “anything can happen – and it probably will”.
It’s not over till the diva sings...