While the debate rages on surrounding the outcome of the 2021 Formula One world championship, won by Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton amid a controversial conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is easy to forget the rest of drivers and teams.
The French Grand Prix was no thriller, but Formula One’s weekend in southern France was perfectly representative of the 2019 season being bent to the will of the sport’s unstoppable force.
Lewis Hamilton’s dominance at Le Castellet was absolute. He was imperious in qualifying, stealing pole position from under teammate Valtteri Bottas by a considerable 0.286 seconds.
He aced his getaway, immediately building a buffer to the Finn from the first lap. And he led every lap, having built such a margin over the field that his sole pit stop was effectively free.
Only the fastest lap was missing from the Briton’s otherwise complete weekend — thanks to a rule change this season, Ferrari was incentivised to pit the otherwise underwhelming Sebastian Vettel from fifth for a new set of tyres to claim the consolation point, thereby robbing Hamilton of a sixth grand slam.
But even his inability to claim this rare race achievement was remarkable, for his attempt on 29-lap-old hard tyres was just 0.024 seconds slower than Vettel’s last-gasp effort on new softs.
It was a powerful illustration of the gap between Hamilton and the rest.
The peerless victory takes Hamilton to an ominous 36-point title lead over Bottas. Though it is chilling the championship little more than a third of the way into the season and contributed to a barely watchable French Grand Prix, you can’t help but be impressed with the domineering style with which Hamilton has opened proceedings in 2019.
This is statistically the most successful start to a season in Hamilton’s 13-year F1 career, and more than being a mere marker of Mercedes’s good work mastering this year’s regulation changes, it signifies that the Briton has eliminated perhaps the final exploitable weakness in his game: his tendency to start slow and force himself into a fightback.
It’s been a flaw evident since the start of what we might term the Hamilton era beginning in 2014.
Eight rounds into the one-sided 2015 season he led Nico Rosberg by only ten points; today he leads Valtteri Bottas by 36.
In 2016 his lethargic start was particularly costly, his winless first four rounds directly contributing to his loss to teammate Nico Rosberg at the end of the season.
In 2017, a season in which he comfortably saw off Sebastian Vettel, it took him until the midseason break to really grasp the championship fight on his way to a 46-point victory.
Even last year, on points the most convincing championship of his career, it wasn’t until Round 11 that he really hit his straps, his emphatic drive to victory in Germany marking the beginning of a six-win run in seven races to extinguish Vettel’s title hopes.
But in 2019 this weakness has evaporated with his strongest ever start, immediately putting Ferrari to the sword and teammate Bottas under immense pressure just to stay afloat.
The seeds were sown at the end of last year with a flawless win at the dead rubber Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Whereas a previous version of Hamilton would’ve allowed himself to ease off with the title safely tucked away — once with a disastrous consequence in the following season — this new-specification Lewis refused to give his rivals any oxygen.
As a result he’s carried all the momentum from his fifth world title into another season that’s sure to deliver him a sixth.
“The moment you sit back is the moment you lose,” Hamilton told Sky Sports Formula One in France. “I don’t plan on doing that.
“It’s just switching the mentality to always be fighting, always be hungry and always be pushing. There’s never a moment you shouldn’t be pushing.”
It is impossible for any fan of sport not to be impressed by this constant quest for self-improvement.
There is no other driver operating on the same level as Lewis Hamilton today. While the Briton has earned the benefit of a class-leading car and is obviously immensely naturally talented, it’s his insatiable desire to be the best — surely the point of any elite competition — that is setting him apart from his undoubtedly fast rivals.
No serious sport fan begrudges Roger Federer his decades of records record-breaking success, and we all laud the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi for their indelible impact upon modern football. Lewis Hamilton deserves to be accorded the same level of regard.
Of course soporific spectacles like the French Grand Prix, lamentable for the vast gaps in performance between the cars, aren’t made any more watchable for Hamilton streaming unopposed into the distance, but the Briton can hardly be blamed for maximising his possession of the best car on the grid.
And anyway, would you have bet against him winning even if all the cars were equal at the weekend?
I’m not sure I would’ve.