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Lewis Hamilton has won a rare fifth world championship after a difficult drive to fifth at the Mexican Grand Prix, vanquishing title rival Sebastian Vettel with two rounds still to run.
Despite his best efforts with a sizzling start off the line, Hamilton wasn’t unable to close his championship campaign with a podium place, hamstrung by excessive tyre wear for the second successive race.
He finished an understated 78 seconds behind race winner Max Verstappen, but it was enough to conclude what has been a hard-fought championship and surely one of his best.
The Briton is only the third man in Formula One history to claim a fifth crown, following in the footsteps of five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio and seven-time winner Michael Schumacher, the sport’s most successful driver.
But though the feat is historic, it is by no means surprising; the writing has been on the wall for the better part of two months.
A championship that waxed and waned between Hamilton and Vettel, Mercedes and Ferrari, across its first ten races turned rapidly and aggressively partisan. Hamilton has now won six of the last nine Grands Prix and four in succession to comprehensively snuff out any hope of the silverware returning to Maranello.
How the season arrived here depends on one’s perspective, but whereas Vettel’s failed campaign crumbled over a series crucial of moments, Hamilton’s success was achieved in three key phases.
Act 1: Keeping afloat
The lowest ebbs rather than the highest peaks decide a driver’s championship fortunes, and in 2018 Hamilton had to battle against recalcitrant machinery that frequently handed Ferrari a small but decisive pace advantage to build the bedrock of his title campaign.
With that in mind, consider his finishing record across the first ten rounds, when he finished off the podium only twice, only one of which – a subdued drive to fifth in Canada, his lowest finish of the season until matching it this morning – was down to the driver.
Consider further that Hamilton spent more time on the podium than Vettel during this part of the season despite Ferrari holding a slim performance advantage for much of it, with Vettel errors in Azerbaijan and France leaving the Briton untroubled in reaching the top step.
Ensuring he collected maximum points on days he couldn’t contend for victory defined the first part of his season, and the odd strong weekend for Mercedes, in particular in Spain and France, meant he had a deficit of just eight points after his British Grand Prix fightback to second place.
Act 2: Dancing in the rain
Ferrari grew to the peak of its powers between rounds 11 and 14, but its mechanical advantages were matched by Hamilton’s appetite for the fight.
If the year hinged on a single turning point, it was the German Grand Prix, where Vettel’s despair over his painfully slow crash from the lead as the rain fell was complemented by a vintage Hamilton mixed-conditions recovery drive, powering from 14th on the grid to a scarcely believable victory, doubling Vettel’s pain.
“I’ve never experienced a race quite like this,” he said. “I would never have thought you could do something like that today, but I just kept pushing, I kept believing, and it happened.
“It’s been a real dream and a day I’ll always remember.”
Hamilton consolidated his newfound points lead by exacting unlikely domination on the Hungarian Grand Prix, where he trounced the undoubtedly quicker Ferrari team with a masterful pole position in soaking wet conditions, taking a 24-point championship lead into the midseason break.
Act 3: Twisting the knife
If Ferrari fans thought Vettel’s effortless victory in Belgium was a sign of things turning around, they were sorely mistaken, for despite Ferrari maintaining its pace advantage through the summer break, Hamilton was about to hit his straps.
When Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen fumbled converting what should’ve been an impregnable front-row lockout into a one-two finish, Hamilton was there to stick the boot in, forcing Sebastian into making a crucial defensive error and pressuring Kimi into undermining his own strategy. With a little help from his pit wall and teammate Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton scored a prodigious win he had no right to take, breaking Ferrari hearts on home soil.
With three wins from four races, Hamilton’s campaign was becoming irresistible, and the supremely confident Briton stamped his authority on the championship with a blistering pole lap on what should’ve been a slam-dunk Ferrari circuit in Singapore.
“That felt like magic,” Hamilton said buoyantly as he got out of the car. “Honestly I don’t there was a moment in the lap that we went wide or there were any problems, it was just perfectly to the limit.
“It felt like one of the best laps I remember feeling.”
Ferrari floundered in the race, and a 40-point deficit had Vettel on the ropes. The championship was still mathematically alive, but the force of Hamilton’s momentum, finally matched by a significant step forward from his car, felt unbreakable.
A perfect 50 points from Russia and Japan finally cracked Ferrari and won him the proverbial championship point for the United States Grand Prix. He wasn’t able to convert thanks in equal parts to Mercedes struggling with set-up and Ferrari making a major breakthrough on the problems that had afflicted its car for the previous month, but he extended his point advantage to an almost insurmountable 70.
Finally, at the weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix, the same race that decided last year’s title in his favour, Hamilton got the job done.
From its seemingly unlikely beginning through to its consolidation and, eventually, domination, Hamilton’s campaign was underpinned not by mechanical advantage nor entirely by Ferrari and Vettel error; rather it was Lewis’s bloody-mindedness in the heat of battle, his unwillingness to rest on his laurels or simply cruise and collect, that made the difference in his favour.
This was a true drivers championship, defined by individual brilliance and contrary to the mechanics that so often play a decisive role in Formula One.
“I’ve always been able to go head to head with the guy you’re competing with,” Hamilton said on the eve of the United States Grand Prix. “To see who breaks earliest and who falters is always the ultimate challenge of your mental stability under that pressure.
“I always welcome them, and I’m grateful that we’ve had some of those moments.”
This was Hamilton operating at his highest level to date, and after responding to Vettel’s challenge so comprehensively, he’s left only one question unanswered: how much higher can the new world champion rise?