Harder, faster, (slightly) stronger: How Lewis and Mercedes were crowned champions

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Lewis Hamilton celebrates in front of a sell-out Mexican crowd. (Photo: Mercedes AMG Petronas)

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    Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari did what they’ve done best all season at the weekend in Mexico: they got on with it. It’s just that business as usual was never going to be enough for the fabled red team.

    The Scuderia and its lead driver fought like hell. Falling to last with Hamilton after the two made contact on lap one, Vettel scythed back up the field, leaving Hamilton in his dust, but it was too little too late.

    Although Lewis Hamilton said he wanted to win his title “the right way” by standing on the top step of the podium, the Briton cruised home in ninth to put an early end to a championship season that had promised so much.

    Today seems worlds away from the euphoria at the Australian Grand Prix, where Vettel bested Hamilton on merit in a promise to end Mercedes’s three seasons of dominance, but while it took Hamilton until September to relieve Vettel of the point lead, he was able to claim the crown just weeks afterwards through an irresistible combination of critical factors.

    Renewed intra-team atmosphere
    “People in the team will be able to tell you what the dynamic was, and I can’t say it was great last year,” Hamilton said in Austin, only barely hedging on the toxicity of his relationship with 2016 champion Nico Rosberg.

    At no time was the mental strain of that relationship more evident than late last season, when a power unit failure in Malaysia sent Hamilton into a meltdown that temporarily pitted him against the team and the media. By the time he resurfaced, Rosberg had a large enough points lead to ride out the season in second place.

    But with Valtteri Bottas installed in the other garage, the intra-team dynamic is noticeably more harmonious. It’s easy to say this is because Hamilton is comfortably beating Bottas in the drivers standings, but even when Valtteri was asserting himself as an equal contender in the first half of this season it was true.

    In Bottas Hamilton has a dependable and apolitical teammate, and after three years of internal politicking and subterfuge, his arrival has refreshed Mercedes and Lewis for a battle with another team in a way a Hamilton-Rosberg partnership may not have allowed.

    Decoding the diva
    The Mercedes W08 was so nearly the team’s downfall, but the team’s work ethic in decoding what Toto Wolff called a “diva” after an inconsistent opening phase of the season has proved its strength.

    The nadir was Monte Carlo, where Ferrari cruised to an easy 1-2 qualification and finish while Hamilton finished seventh and Bottas claimed fourth.

    “Since Monaco there was light in the factory 24/7, the simulator was 24/7 ten days in a row,” Wolff told the F1 website. “No stone was left unturned: aero, mechanical balance, set-up work, the tyres themselves and the way the drivers drove the car.”

    Mercedes dominated the next round in Canada, where Lewis scored pole, set the fastest lap and won the race from teammate Bottas by 19 seconds.

    Yes, Montreal was always going to suit Mercedes’s inherent strengths, but never again did the team struggle quite so much. Only the Singapore Grand Prix, the most Monaco-like circuit on the calendar, was still a cause for consternation, but victory in the city-state was meaningful beyond car performance alone.

    This development cannot be understated, particularly given the 2017 regulations were penned specifically to dethrone Mercedes.

    Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas unveil Mercedes' new car - the Silver Arrow.

    (Image supplied by AMG Petronas Motorsport).

    Ferrari’s Asian implosion
    None of this discounts Ferrari’s challenge — indeed the Scuderia has continuously exceeded expectations. To roll out a car during the preseason quick enough to challenge Mercedes was beyond the imaginations of many; to develop that car at a rate enough to stay neck-and-neck with the Silver Arrows is almost completely incongruous with the shambles of the Scuderia’s 2016.

    Even when Vettel lost the points lead after the Italian Grand Prix there remained reason for optimism — Ferrari’s sole weakness, speed in high-velocity corners, had been neutralised at the previous race in Belgium, giving it virtually no vulnerabilities for the rest of the season.

    What followed, however, is a run of poor form and fortune that beggars belief.

    Vettel crashed at turn one of the Singapore Grand Prix despite Hamilton starting from way back in fifth. Hamilton went on to win the race in his stead.

    In Malaysia Vettel finished fourth after power unit problems dropped him to the back of the grid, then in Japan a spark plug problem ended his race on lap four.

    In all three race Ferrari had a car capable of victory. An easy 50 points, if not the full 75 points, went begging from Vettel’s championship account.

    Hamilton steps up a gear
    But while his teammate, the team and Ferrari have all played their parts, it’s hard to argue Hamilton hasn’t simply stepped up in 2017.

    “I have worked with him for five years and I have never seen him operate at that level,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “The sustainable performance on that level I haven’t seen before.”

    More than just five years, this has been Hamilton’s best year in 11 seasons of Formula One, even amongst his previous three title-winning campaigns.

    His 2008 season was coloured by rookie performances. In 2014 he allowed Rosberg too many psychological advantages. By 2015 Mercedes was so dominant and Rosberg so uncompetitive that he had little reason to exert himself.

    Last season Hamilton let himself down with a poor season start and mental fragility at key moments, but in 2017 he has had no such problems.

    A lesser driver could easily have become lost in Mercedes’s technical troubles, but Hamilton’s worst result remains P7 in Monaco borne of his lowly qualifying position, which was partly down to reasons beyond his control.

    Contrast this with Vettel, whose massive points gap is as much down to some key mental lapses at crunch moments in Azerbaijan and Singapore as it is unreliability and it’s easy to see how the cool, calm and collected Hamilton made himself an irresistible four-time world champion in what should have been one F1’s most hotly contested seasons.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • October 30th 2017 @ 3:26pm
      Dexter The Hamster said | October 30th 2017 @ 3:26pm | ! Report

      The sport is crying out for a heavyweight battle between 2 top drivers in opposing teams, and it was on the cards this year. Those three races from Singapore onwards ended the hopes of that.

      Lets hope 2018 throws up a season like 2010 (seems sooooo long ago now) where 5 drivers from 3 different teams went into the final race with a chance of winning the championship. F1 needs it.

      • Columnist

        November 1st 2017 @ 8:03am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:03am | ! Report

        I reckon you could be right! There are a lot of unknowns, but McLaren’s performances more recently are cause for optimism once the team pairs with Renault. The Renault works team, too, is improving rapidly and could be in podium contention. That makes five teams and 10 drivers — half the grid — potentially fighting for the same places, and you’d have to back at least half of them making it to the end of the season in title contention if all cars were performing on the same level. Worst case scenario is we get that a year or two down the track.

    • October 30th 2017 @ 4:39pm
      Simoc said | October 30th 2017 @ 4:39pm | ! Report

      Hamilton has been fantastic this season. I thought he used to crack, crash under pressure but that was many years ago. Now he reigns supreme. But let us hope that’s the end of Mercedes dominance.

      Mclaren tells us they have a great chassis and with a Renault motor and Alonso they need to put race wins up next season. Its likely Red Bull will win a number of races in 2018 and Ferrari will want to go all the way after this disastrous period of this season. All we need is a dramatic chassis improvement from Renault to give us a vintage F1 season in 2018.

      • Columnist

        November 1st 2017 @ 8:05am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:05am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate. It’s definitely a bit underwhelming that the season ended early in essentially the same way it has for the last three years, but barring those races in Asia it’s pretty competitive.

        Yeah, I think 2018 could be good. Renault have been targeting next season to start scoring podiums. I was sceptical at the start of the year, but the power unit and especially the chassis has come so far this year that I believe it’s possible — and Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz are the right drivers to deliver on that potential.

    • Roar Pro

      October 31st 2017 @ 1:45pm
      anon said | October 31st 2017 @ 1:45pm | ! Report

      None of it had anything to do with increased focus from Hamilton, from Mercedes, from Ferrari imploding.

      The Mercedes was simply the faster and more reliable car all year and were inevitably going to win.

      Ferrari were the best car in Monaco, Hungary, Singapore, possibly Sepang. And Sepang was more due to the high wear rate the Mercedes suffers in those conditions. Not Ferrari all of a sudden having an edge on Mercedes in terms of outright pace.

      Vettel won in Australia but that’s only because Mercedes got caught out big time by the overcut. And Bahrain is where Hamilton was penalised for trying to block Ricciardo in the pit lane. Mercedes had better pace.

      Mercedes has won 11 races, Ferrari 4, Red Bull 3. Even Bottas had two wins in the Mercedes. He was barely quicker than Massa at Williams!

      • Columnist

        November 1st 2017 @ 8:19am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:19am | ! Report

        That for the comment, mate, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of the season.

        Vettel one in Australia on strategy, yes, but the over it only works if you have the faster car, which Ferrari did in Australia — having a faster car is the only reason Vettel could follow Hamilton so closely for the first part of the race despite the dirty air. The same is also true in Belgium, where Ferrari wasn’t able to get ahead.

        Mercedes has undoubtedly been quicker over one lap thanks to its more established power unit — and this has been a key advantage — but it has shared performance honours roughly 50-50 across much of the season.

        I think that’s also a but unfair on Bottas. Notwithstanding the second half of the season — a combination of Hamilton stepping up and Bottas getting a bit lost — early in the year Bottas was close to a match for Hamilton. Their qualifying gap was a tiny 0.041 seconds and, like you said, he won two races. Obviously he hasn’t been on Hamilton or Vettel’s level, but to say he won only because the car is that much better than the rest is just incorrect — after all, the race he won were those in which Mercedes was at some of its lowest ebbs of the season.

        • Roar Pro

          November 2nd 2017 @ 2:50am
          anon said | November 2nd 2017 @ 2:50am | ! Report

          I think Vettel really flattered the Ferrari’s performance in Australia. Bottas in his first race for Mercedes cruised home in third place, 2 seconds behind Hamilton and ahead of the other Ferrari. As the season as dragged on its been apparent how Bottas simply doesn’t belong in a top team. Mercedes were very strong.

          I have never rated Bottas. Was barely much faster than Massa and I don’t rate Massa at all as a top driver (I like Massa though he’s one of my favourite drivers).

          If you start with the assumption that Hamilton’s more talented than Vettel and Bottas is a good driver, then you would probably come to the conclusion that Mercedes and Ferrari were equal.

          I just don’t see it. Hamilton’s best year is still 2007 and really he hasn’t improved much as a driver since that incredible debut (probably helped having Ron looking out for him).

          Put it this way. If Alonso had that Mercedes over the last 4 seasons, Alonso would be sitting on close to 90 wins right now. Hamilton’s merely on 62 because he couldn’t put away his less talented teammate and lost an unloseable championship in 2016.

          Hamilton’s won 40/77 races at Mercedes 2014-17. I find that astonishing.

          2017 he’s had a dominant car that clearly best on the grid as well as a complete puppy dog for a teammate. 2014-16 he had the greatest, most dominant car in the history of the sport and a teammate that was not really any better than the Barrichello or Webber’s of the world. Rosberg’s general racecraft was in actual fact terrible.

          He should have won 55-60 races over the past four years with such a massive advantage over the field. And that’s being generous. I think Schumacher at age 29-32 would have won close to 65 races over that span with such a fast and reliable car.

          Instead Hamilton’s won 40.

          • Columnist

            November 2nd 2017 @ 2:34pm
            Michael Lamonato said | November 2nd 2017 @ 2:34pm | ! Report

            I think you’re right to say Vettel flattered the car — but what is the difference between flattering the car and getting the most out of it? I think in reality that just emphasises how far off the pace Raikkonen was (and is). Bottas finished close behind, but the times suggest Hamilton stopped pushing once it became obvious the Ferrari had enough pace to keep him behind, so the small gap to Bottas is probably a little artificial.

            I don’t know if Hamilton is more talented than Vettel; I think they’re more or less the same overall in terms of ability. Where Hamilton was stronger this year was in the psychological game (something I never thought I’d say about him!) and that’s what made the difference.

            Obviously Hamilton’s 2007 debut was impressive, but he was somewhat flattered by the fact Alonso was imploding in the opposite garage and, like you say, Dennis backed him through it. I think it’s probably fair to say he hasn’t become too much better as a driver over that time — maybe an argument for him being innately talented — but he’s certainly become more rounded or more complete. He’s more level-headed now.

            I think you underrate Rosberg. Yes, he had the most dominant car in 2014–16 and a teammate of lesser racecraft, but but there’s more to him than racecraft. A championship is won over the course of a season, and after recognising he was never going to become faster than Lewis in a single race he worked on being better than him over the entire year. Those little percentage points added up for him. It all counts.

            Maybe you’re right in saying Alonso would’ve won more races at Mercedes — I do rank him as the better driver, certainly compared to earlier versions of Hamilton. But then it’s not like he thrashed Hamilton in 2007…

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