Lewis Hamilton has consistently been among Formula 1’s most outstanding performers for a decade now, but 2017 was arguably his best season yet among a very impressive bunch.
Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement at the end of last year allowed Hamilton to reset his mind and achieve a fresh equilibrium within Mercedes coming into 2017. New team-mate Valtteri Bottas was stunned by Hamilton’s work ethic, and it seemed that a renewed threat from Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel drove Hamilton to new levels of excellence.
It was impressive enough that he equalled Vettel’s tally of four world championships, vanquishing his rival with two races to spare, breaking Michael Schumacher’s record for F1 pole positions in the process, and surpassing Jackie Stewart as Britain’s most successful grand prix driver in terms of titles won. But the way Hamilton raised his game through the season to get the job done was outstanding.
It seems rather unfair that Hamilton was often cast as merely a seat-of-the-pants driver, living on his wits, while Rosberg was considered the brainiac. Hamilton is prepared to graft as much as rely on his natural skillset. He struggled much more than Bottas in the early part of this season, when the capricious diva that Mercedes produced was at its most, well, capricious, but a forensic approach to destroying those weaknesses, and adapting his own driving to get the most from that difficult car, made Hamilton 2017’s most outstanding driver.
He put together a remarkable run of six wins from eight races between July’s British Grand Prix and October’s US race at Austin, which proved decisive in turning the championship battle in his favour. Hamilton is still the same super-fast, instinctive racer he always was, but marrying that to growing maturity and a fiercer work ethic than ever makes him potentially unstoppable.
"Silverstone felt like that – the right blow, like when Anthony Joshua gets the right hit."
“Silverstone – that was really turning the wick up,” says Hamilton, reflecting on the first race in which he definitively destroyed Vettel in what until then had been a close, seesaw fight. “It was like sailing without wind then suddenly you pick up the gust. Silverstone felt like that – the right blow, like when Anthony Joshua gets the right hit and the [other] guy’s on the back foot after that.
“We went to Hungary and we were not quick enough. [But] Hungary was a special weekend because the difficulties we went through, plus the scenario we had as a team [with Bottas and Hamilton twice swapping positions under instruction], really solidified the dynamics in the team, and sent such a positive ripple effect. It was like, ‘OK, this is what we’re here to do, this is how we’re going to operate, these are our core values’. That was a very, very important weekend in that respect. So, while we didn’t win, it was a huge win in terms of our unity.”Continued below...
Mercedes' Technical Director, James Allison, on Lewis Hamilton
“He’s got, as you can imagine, far more in common with the other great champions than things that are different,” says the Mercedes technical director. “His hunger to win, even after being on the right end of nearly all the records in the sport, is just astonishing.
“The most remarkable thing about him [as a driver] is just his raw, raw speed. You don’t get all those pole positions without being a pretty special controller of the car. I think I’m very lucky to work with a whole bunch of very good people, but his ability on a Saturday is second to none. And he rarely drops the ball on race day having put it on pole on Saturday.”
It’s no surprise to hear a eulogy about Hamilton’s obviously impressive driving skills, but the way he carries himself outside the car has also left a serious impression on Allison.
“His disappointment in himself when he makes very rare, normally quite small, errors is also very admirable,” Allison explains. “I’ve worked with drivers who tend to lash out when they screw up; Lewis doesn’t do that. That’s a pleasurable aspect of working with him.
“When we screw up, and we have done on a number of occasions this year – most notably the headrest incident in Baku – he’s been completely and utterly calm and reasonable about it, even though the points swing created by an event like that is big. Similarly, when we were forced to ask him to take a gearbox penalty in Austria, same deal – it just didn’t faze his approach to the weekend. Those are nice things when a driver’s like that.
“Earlier in the year I’d spoken about the fact that he was impressive as a man. I imagine there’ll be people hearing that who see the Instagram Lewis and the fashion Lewis, who’d be thinking, ‘Really?’ You’ve got to look at his career as a whole.
“Every great champion we’ve seen in recent years, in some way or another they’ve done something really ugly on the track that we’d all love to excuse somehow or another because we like our heroes, but you just look at it and go, ‘No, that’s just plain ugly.’ He’s not [done things like that].
“He just goes out and races with his huge gifts, and when actually he’s called to do something that is the right thing to do, he steps up and does it – even when it is very, very difficult to do it and the whole world is watching. That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say he’s impressive as a man.”
Team unity has been a huge part of Hamilton’s improvement this season, allowing him to cast off the mentally draining difficulties of being Rosberg’s team-mate and managing the unique pressures of their exclusive internal battles for the world championship. Free of the shackles of doubt surrounding codes of conduct, factions supporting one driver over the other, collisions on-track, and management stress of trying to handle the fallout, Hamilton has devoted the extra headspace to fighting off the external threat from Vettel and Ferrari.
“From the Hungary experience, it really just added a good amount to the foundation of the relationship with the team, with the engineers as well,” adds Hamilton, who describes 2017 – particularly the second half – as one of his most complete seasons in F1.
"I don’t look at myself as the leader of the team, I believe I am a small link in a long chain."
“We just worked better from then on. And my understanding of the car… I did some studying during the summer, to analyse where I’d been with the car and just basically jotting down ‘this is what the car wants, this is how I’ve got to drive it’. I just did that consistently throughout the season.
“You do try to step up, particularly in the second part of the season. But I think I’ve always been really consistent. Ultimately, you start a weekend with the potential you have and the potential the car has, and during the weekend you want to reach your potential and over-exceed [if possible]. You want to squeeze out those extra drops that no-one else can get. That’s where I feel my value is.
“Often, if you go the wrong direction you don’t even get to the car’s potential. The car just won’t allow you to squeeze out the extra bit. Understanding the car has really allowed me to get the potential, and a little bit more. So, even in the races where we’ve struggled, we’ve come out with more than we’d hoped. Consistency-wise, that’s all been in the solidity of my mindset.”
It is Hamilton’s fresh and more-robust mindset that has most impressed team boss Toto Wolff this season. The two met in the kitchen of Wolff’s Oxfordshire home last winter, to clear the air after a troubled end to 2016, when Mercedes interfered in the title showdown between Hamilton and Rosberg, having said before the race it expressly would not. This was the culmination of growing tensions inside the team. Rosberg’s sudden retirement allowed both parties to hit the reset button.
“If you are at the office and your boss doesn’t want you there, it’s going to be a shit environment, isn’t it?” says Hamilton of those clear-the-air talks. “That’s just negativity drawing away from what you’re great at. That meeting was really important to reset things, so when I arrive and the guys know I’m going to be giving it everything, they work that extra bit harder, and vice versa.
“If there’s any negativity or question, it can only hold us back. It was almost a purification of the relationship, and a restart of the solid foundation we had already built years ago. I don’t look at myself as the leader of the team, I believe I am a small link in a long chain. The key is making the link as strong as it can be, and that’s what we have managed to do this year.”Continued below...
How Hamilton's life restructure paid off
Hamilton is conscious of the need to balance his time properly between F1 and his other interests, and not allow these other aspects of his life to become a distraction. Outside the car he is still pushing as hard as ever, but also doing things more on his own terms.
“I just wanted to go back to my roots – up until F1 I didn’t have a trainer and did all my training on my own,” says Hamilton. “It was about trying to get back to finding that within myself, because when you have a trainer they’re whispering, hanging around, they nag you, push you, which is all good, but you can get complacent and lazy because you rely on something and I wanted to get away from that.”
Hands-off management seems to have helped Hamilton get more out of himself than ever this year, as has his decision to shift to a vegan diet, which he announced around the time of September’s Singapore Grand Prix.
Adopting particular diets can have a transformative effect on athletes. Tennis star Novak Djokovic famously improved his game significantly after discovering he was intolerant to gluten and adopting a gluten-free diet.
“I do have more energy, but before I had more than enough energy anyway,” says Hamilton of his decision to go vegan. “I just feel cleaner. I don’t feel bogged down, don’t have problems with my stomach like I used to have. It’s hard to stay on the diet I’m on, [and] it’s actually really weird, once you get across that side. The other day I was at dinner and my friends were eating meat and I look at it and I’m disgusted – and I used to love meat!”
There is moral as well as physical purpose in Hamilton’s lifestyle choice, and what’s good for the mind and soul can be just as beneficial as what’s good for the body.
“I met people, friends, who were vegans, who exposed me to some of the things that were happening that I was completely oblivious to,” Hamilton adds. “It affected me so much when I saw these things, so bit by bit I weaned [myself] off it.
“I came off red meat two and a half years ago, stopped eating chicken at the start of this year and was pescatarian, then the final thing was seeing this one documentary. I’d seen a couple, but this one was, ‘OK, I’m done’. It does change your life. I feel the best I’ve ever felt.”
Mercedes has needed to pull together like never before. The W08 represented a fine attempt at meeting the challenge posed by F1’s new wider Pirelli tyres and enhanced aerodynamics, but such a long car was overweight to start with, difficult to set up, tricky to drive, and ate its tyres.
Although Hamilton set pole position for five of the first nine races, he won only three as Mercedes ran into trouble and Ferrari took full advantage. But, crucially, Hamilton made sure he picked up solid points finishes on his bad days – crucial to winning any championship.
“Some of the issues we’ve had have been with us for years and we are only just realising we need to really do something,” says Hamilton of the W08, which he describes as the “toughest” to understand of the F1 cars he’s driven in his career. “I’m hoping next year some of those go. New car, being on a wider scale, magnifies the issue, I think. A different tyre dynamic – it has been the hardest in that respect; 2008 was a difficult one too; ’09 was horrible. This is a great car, but it has been tricky getting it to work.
“Often to get that extra potential you have to overdrive a little bit, but it’s a fine balance of getting into that region. This year people have talked about us having the best car, and for sure it’s been good, but there are some fundamental issues with it that pop up that I’ve had to fight to overcome. I feel like in those moments I’ve been able to extract more than it was willing to do, and that’s been a positive.”Continued below...
It is often said that world championships are won on the bad days as much as the good, and there is probably no better example of this than Singapore, where Hamilton won from fifth on the grid on Mercedes’ least-competitive weekend of the season, while Vettel’s title challenge imploded thanks to a startline crash with Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen.
Hamilton and Vettel both drove brilliantly at times this season, but arguably the key difference between them was how Vettel made mistakes at key moments under extreme pressure while Hamilton did not. This is another aspect to Hamilton’s impressive evolution – he has become stronger than ever mentally, no doubt bolstered by the difficult experiences he had paired alongside Rosberg, and the remaking of the Mercedes team anew in Rosberg’s absence.
Vettel lost his composure completely during a battle with Verstappen in Mexico last season, and that mental weakness resurfaced in Azerbaijan, where Vettel threw away a potential victory against the odds by misinterpreting Hamilton’s safety-car-restart tactics as brake testing, then deliberately driving into his rival.
Further errors at the start in Singapore, and on the first lap in Mexico – where Vettel collided with Hamilton and Verstappen after losing the lead – suggest a residual lack of composure, or perhaps Michael Schumacher-esque clumsiness, from Vettel in wheel-to-wheel situations, which Hamilton can exploit.
“Pressure points, weak points – you just keep your foot down, keep the pressure on and when the other shows no sign of weakness… that’s definitely difficult,” says Hamilton. “Look at Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, at some point in the game one will see a slight weakness in the other – even if just half a per cent, that’s what they try to capitalise on and which makes the difference, and that’s really how it has been this year [in F1]. The key for me is to be the most solid driver here.
“I’m not going to tell you what I’ve learned [about Vettel], but you can see it and I think you guys have learned about him. He shouldn’t shy away from that. He will learn from the experiences, as we all do. I have had years like that. He has had years of complete solidity, like [mine] this year, as well.
“I imagine next year he’s going to be coming back guns blazing. But I don’t feel there’s anything I can’t achieve if I put the work in. How I strategise over these next months into next season… When you watch [Usain] Bolt out the start blocks he’s just a little bit slower than the others. He’s just behind and then he creeps back. When he backs off at the end, that’s always the goal for anyone. That’s really how my season’s been.”
There has naturally been a lot of focus on Vettel as Hamilton’s main rival this year, given the way the championship battle played out, but Hamilton also has eyes on a couple of other drivers as potential threats. Former McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso is still operating at the peak of his powers, while Hamilton found himself pushed hard in several of the late-season races by the irrepressible force that is Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
If Renault can get its engine properly together over the winter, it would be great for F1 if Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Verstappen could all slug it out for championship glory.
“We’re the four strongest drivers,” says Hamilton. “You look at them all slightly differently. They all have different characteristics. Sebastian, this year you could say, ‘give more space’; Max takes a lot of risks, also you have to give more space, but he is more inexperienced than the other guys; Fernando, toughest driver there is, so you have to keep that utmost respect for each other, but you’ve really got to play your cards right to utilise the racecraft. His racecraft is mighty, but Max’s racecraft is [also] very impressive.
“He’s doing wonderful things, but he is going to grow so much over the next 10 years. I don’t think it will be a problem [for me], it’ll just be freaking tough. Wouldn’t that be a fight? Even I’d pay to see that. I really hope we are all in the fight next year. It would be friggin’ amazing.”
For now, Hamilton can simply reflect on a job expertly done in 2017. The manner in which he found a way to raise his game to a whole new level, amid Mercedes’ travails with its car, his own struggles extracting its potential, and Ferrari’s relentless onslaught, was the most remarkable aspect of arguably Hamilton’s best season yet in Formula 1.
He is now a four-time world champion, one of the all-time greatest drivers in the history of grand prix racing, yet he is still finding ways to get even better.