Lewis Hamilton’s 2019 Formula 1 campaign was ostensibly not as impressive as what he did last year.
There were few of the attention-grabbing virtuoso performances such as Monza, where he defeated both Ferrari’s in wheel-to-wheel combat, or Russia, where he overtook Sebastian Vettel to correct a strategic blunder. But what made Hamilton’s season so impressive was that he excelled in less showy areas, taking control of the world championship early in the season and never looking like losing the title.
The way he did this reflects what has become the defining characteristic of the later years of his F1 career, the desire to leave no stone unturned in the quest for self-improvement. While in his early years there was sometimes a feeling that he felt his prodigious speed was enough, in recent seasons his drive to chip away at his weaknesses - which really should be regarded as nothing more than less powerful strengths - has rendered him utterly formidable.
“This season is an interesting one because everyone was really impressed by what Lewis did in the second half of  just crushing a Ferrari assault on the championship that looked pretty threatening with a relentless, flawless second half of the year,” says Mercedes technical director James Allison. “Everyone who watched that thought, 'woah, that's how to do it', that’s how to teach the opposition that there’s no flaws here and that you’re going to be the ones making the mistakes.
"What he said to all of us at the end of that year was ‘I've had a good second half of the year, but I don't want it to be like that next year, I want to start next year with this level of strength’. He knew that he hadn't been at that level of strength at the beginning of last season and it took him a few races to really get on a war footing. And he said to all of us that he was determined to come back and start from the off and be like that from the beginning.
In qualifying, Hamilton hasn’t been helped by the fact that the Ferrari was often the fastest car on Saturdays, with Charles Leclerc getting the most pole positions. But while he outperformed his team-mate over the season with an average advantage of 0.116s, Valtteri Bottas matched Hamilton’s five pole positions in a car that, particularly after the German Grand Prix update, wasn’t the easiest to get into a sweet spot for qualifying. But Hamilton excelled in overturning a track position disadvantage, winning eight times from pole position.
"If you look at the points trace through the year that pretty much rings true,” says Allison. “Valtteri won in Melbourne but I don't think you could say Lewis was not on form that weekend. If you look race-by-race all the way through the year, Lewis’s line of points gathering just looks like that because he didn't have any weak points beyond lows when maybe we made the weekend difficult, like in Austria where the car overheated. If you want to see the embodiment of Lewis's often repeated mantra of continuous improvement look at that. He told himself that's what he's going to do. That's what he's done.”
Hamilton certainly achieved that objective by winning six of the first eight races of the year. But consistently he executed races well. His Monaco victory, leading throughout under intense pressure from Max Verstappen in the second stint after Mercedes made a bad strategy call and put him on medium Pirellis, stands out, as does his excellent drive with a marathon stint on hards in Mexico. But there were also less memorable races that showcased his ability, such as wins at Paul Ricard and Barcelona where he dominated, albeit without such a strong storyline that makes them stick in the mind.
While Mercedes’ success is down to its strength across the board, with outstanding teams of people at Brixworth and Brackley and a management culture that appears to get the best out of people and a focus on avoiding a blame culture, Hamilton has been one of the key pillars of its success. Allison is quick to admit the value Hamilton - and Bottas - bring.
“Both are [key], look who is the second in the championship,” says Allison. “We've got two drivers who just keep getting this big fat haul of the points each weekend. They very rarely put the car in the wall in practice, even more rarely in any sort of event where it counts, and race really quickly without making mistakes. Of course, not for nothing is Lewis a six times world champion. He is an extraordinarily effective racer. Even if it hasn't been a vintage year for him in qualifying, he's still managed to turn that around for himself more often than not on a Sunday. And just shows weekend after weekend.”
“Track position is probably a little overrated across the championship,” Allison continues. “There are definitely tracks where you want it more than you want anything else, but race pace is a more valuable commodity over the season than track position. Ideally, you have both, but if you're going to have a car that could go really swiftly on a Sunday, but maybe not be quite where you want to be on the Saturday, you'll generally win the season quite comfortably.
“But that being said, that race pace needs to be converted and that's a mixture of team and driver because we try to increase the chance of that through strategy. But the strategy is only deliverable if the driver is capable of delivering it. And while we can line up the deck in their favour, the drivers have to actually play the cards and Lewis has been spectacularly good, not just this year, at teasing every last bit of performance out of the tyres on race day, and we've seen him do that in different flavours this year. You see him run a really, really long stint when everyone else had to make another stop and be able to keep the lead - like he did in Mexico.
“And you see it the other way around at places like Budapest where he can use his pace to get up to the back of the car on the same strategy and then duck out with a fresh set of tyres and chase that gap right back down and overtake at the end. So you can see it in both modes but each of those is characterised by a driver who can get every last little bit of goodness from the tyre. That's been a real weapon.”
The other factor in evaluating Hamilton’s campaign that can’t be underestimated is how much Bottas has improved, particularly with his strong performances on Saturdays. While Hamilton has usually had the edge on Sundays thanks to his excellent tyre management and, as showcased at Monza, ability to sit in the turbulent wake of another car and force mistakes out of Leclerc, qualifying has been a little harder. That, combined with the pace of Ferrari, are the characteristics of the car over a single lap that doesn’t allow Hamilton to express himself to his maximum behind the wheel, which suggests Hamilton has not regressed and it’s more about Bottas progressing.
“He’s had a formidable team-mate in Valtteri this year who has stepped up across the whole season and has provided Lewis with a real challenge in qualifying and in the races,” says Allison. “So he's had stiff competition from Valtteri, who has really focused on what went wrong for him last year and has made good progress with it. And then I think that maybe we haven't quite got the car in qualifying to a sort of balance where he can make what he feels is his difference on Saturday.
“So I think it's a little bit of two things, his team-mate stepping up and a car which suits Lewis down to the ground on Sunday, but not quite so special for him on Saturday.”
The combination of Hamilton and Bottas is certainly effective for the team. Both have demands of the car that aren’t too dissimilar but form an effective alliance. This also showcases a strength of Hamilton, who along with Bottas offers the kind of feedback that teams lap up.
“Both of them are important for that, but I wouldn't pick Lewis out particularly,” says Allison. “Every corner, every lap, every track, they tell us what the car does and it's not always a consistent picture. But sufficient information comes from them for us to be able to piece together ideas of how to make it quicker or how not to make mistakes with the set-up. In that regard, they're both really valuable assets.
“We’ve been lucky for these three last seasons to have drivers who both want to support the team and each other by giving completely candid feedback about the car, not conserving for themselves little special secrets that they think are going to be their weapons and that's that served us well.”
Hamilton turns 35 next season, but this determination for constant improvement means there are no signs yet of him sliding backwards in what, for an F1 driver, is his early old age. The insatiable appetite for success, and the growing desire to leave a legacy both in terms of the sheer weight of success - with Michael Schumacher’s win and championship records in his sights - and how to go about winning the right way, means he might only get better next year.
Lewis Hamilton isn’t an easy taskmaster. Like all the great drivers he focuses far more on his failings, such as they are, rather than his strengths and that’s at the heart of his success.
“On the team side, I think we could say we’ve done 9.6 out of 10 maybe,” says Hamilton when asked how he rates his and his team’s season. “Just because there’s always room to improve and we’ve not been perfect all year, we’ve not won every single race and there’s just areas where we could definitely do better.
“It’s really important to be critical of yourself, never say that you’re perfectly happy with the job that you’ve done. You always know there’s areas that you can improve on. For myself, I don’t ever really judge."
What stands out about Hamilton is the way he has continued to lead the way against the rise of a generation of outstanding talents. Both Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are potential future champions, but even though he’s giving away more than a decade in age to the duo, he shows no signs of decline.
“I by no means feel old at all,” says Hamilton. “I still feel super light on my feet, healthier than I’ve ever been. When I was 25 years old, I had age on my side but I lacked the knowledge and experience that I have now. It’s not something you can leapfrog.
“All I’ve got to do is just continue. Each year I’m constantly looking at how I can be fitter, how I can be more focused, how I can have more energy, which all complement my general natural ability. I’m excited there’s these youngsters that are coming now. Every day’s a school day and every day is a day to be schooled!”
While Hamilton is expected to continue in F1 beyond the end of his current contract expiring in 2020, it’s clear he has fewer years ahead of him than behind him. The legacy he is building is a formidable one and even though he’s not keen on talking about it, there are hints he’s given some consideration to what that legacy will be.
“I hope it's a good legacy,” he says. “I can't really get caught up with what's too far ahead. All I can try and do is try to focus on now and shaping the following months and following short years ahead of me.”