This season Lewis Hamilton has done two things usually considered impossible in Formula 1. He has affected the performance and decision-making of the opposition, and he has demonstrated that boy racers can mature.
These twin achievements have taken him to the brink of his fourth world drivers’ championship, with four races left: he could clinch it at the United States Grand Prix this weekend. “I can’t affect what the opposition does so I just concentrate on myself…”
This is the standard interview reply in any sport. But Hamilton, driving for Mercedes, has affected the performance of their closest rivals, Ferrari. This season he has developed before our eyes from a great racer to a grand master: marrying speed with a new serenity that makes his recent dominance seem almost inevitable.
He is now 59 points clear of Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. As Hamilton continued his sweet run of form, Ferrari have become increasingly desperate to keep up, and have been affected by the constant struggle for speed. As they pushed harder and harder, inevitably things started to break. It’s an old truth of the sport: the harder you go for speed, the more you compromise reliability.
As the season approached the sharp end, Vettel’s car has failed to complete races on two occasions. What looked like a duel that would go to the last race suddenly and dramatically changed. And what looked like a contest between equals now looks like a procession, with a great driver at the head of it. Part of this comes from the changes in Hamilton himself. Last season wasn’t good for him: he lost a championship he should have won, and to a teammate, Nico Rosberg, he had consistently dominated in the past.
For much of that year Hamilton played the part of a moody teenager, not a good look for a man past 30. He was insecure, tetchy, irritable and unable to find his best. Now he seems to have embraced the fact that he is in his 11th season, that he is 32, that he has young thrusters like Max Verstappen, aged 20, in his wing mirrors.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said: “My experience with sportsmen at this level is that the way they develop is almost inspiring. They look at their weaknesses and try to improve them. Over the winter, Lewis analysed what went wrong and came back a completely different person. And since then we haven’t had a moment where we saw any weakness.”
Hamilton has relished the challenges thrown at him this season, whereas last season he seemed to resent them. Now the difficulties inspire him. The youthful challenge of Verstappen has played a part in this.
After the last race, in Japan, Hamilton said, “I was driving down the back straight at one point thinking, the guy behind [Verstappen] is so much younger than me, I’ve got to make sure I kind of man up and show my age and make sure I stay ahead.”
We are probably going to be denied a breathless finish to the season, but that’s not really a disappointment. See it instead as a revelation of greatness. Hamilton reached a level of genuine excellence – and then got better.
The F1: US Grand Prix is on Sat 9pm (qual 10pm) C4/SSF1, 9.55pm 5 Live Sports Extra; Sun 7.35pm (race 8pm) C4, 7.30pm SSF1/Main Event, 7pm 5 Live