Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes out to set new record this season
British champion’s mental strength key in bid for sixth drivers’ and constructors’ double
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton in action during the second practice session ahead of the 2019 Formula One Grand Prix of Australia at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Melbourne. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA
There are no illusions at Mercedes as to how tough a Formula One season lies ahead as the team principal, Toto Wolff, calmly sets out the scale of the challenge. They are attempting to become the first team to claim six consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles.
Ferrari would like nothing better than to deny them and in doing so end their title drought. As they begin what is likely to be a season-long struggle this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix, Wolff was, however, relaxed and assured of one vital facet. He has the man behind the wheel who will make the difference. He has Lewis Hamilton.
The British driver took his fifth title last year and only Michael Schumacher has more with seven, a once seemingly insurmountable tally that now looks to be achievable. Hamilton and Mercedes managed to secure both titles in 2018 despite a resurgent Ferrari. That the 34-year-old had it sewn up with two races to go reflected errors by the Scuderia and their driver Sebastian Vettel, but equally just how strong Hamilton and his team were in the second half of the season.
Wolff always insists victory is a team effort but recognises that, in Hamilton, he has a driver operating on a different level to his rivals. “It is one of the key differentiators, that the best guy out there first assesses and criticises himself, and then internally criticises the team, all in an environment of brutal honesty and transparency,” he says. “This is the difference, mentally and emotionally, between all the rest and him. His mental strength.
“That brutal honesty within yourself and the team is so important – if you made a mistake, you had a bad day, or you could have reacted better – and that honesty with himself is one of his strengths.”
Last season Ferrari enjoyed the better car for a long period but it was Mercedes who won the development war in the final third and Hamilton, always a strong finisher, stood astride their work with nary a chink in his armour. His motivation in his 13th season appears stronger than at any point in his career and is allied to a touch and judgment that at times is sublime and was notably lacking at key moments for Vettel.
During winter testing Ferrari appeared to have the advantage and Hamilton was circumspect at Albert Park, acknowledging that he and his team might be on the back foot; but they once again looked strong in practice in Melbourne.
“It’s not difficult to read it. I think it was quite clear,” he said. “We said we have work to do and we weren’t talking BS. We have work to do.”
There is an unmistakable air, however, that this a challenge to be relished rather than a daunting prospect. “Just after the test I went back and Toto rallied the troops, we all sat together,” he said. “It’s really impressive to see so many people so passionate about their jobs and so passionate about racing and wanting to do better. I just know they’re the soldiers. They’re the real, true fighters within the team.”
His enthusiasm towards his team is matched by a personal determination to not be simply defined by the sport to which he has dedicated his life. Other sports (skydiving is the latest), fashion and music occupy his time but he has struck a balance that means he remains razor-sharp when it matters.
Wolff points out his exceptional qualifying lap in Singapore last year, coming just after Hamilton had flown between fashion show launches in Shanghai and New York. “He produced the best lap I’ve ever seen. No such thing as being distracted,” he says. “He is someone who understands he needs to live his life and to let his creativity flow, to do his thing.”
The contrast with Vettel, who revels in the quiet life when he is away from the track, could not be more marked. It makes their rivalry all the more intriguing, especially given they have defined almost all of the past decade of F1.
“They are two greats of our time,” Wolff says. “Sebastian is a four-time world champion, Lewis a five-time world champion. It’s a rivalry that has determined the last nine years. They are two very different personalities that I enjoy seeing compete and I expect it to be another tough one between the two.”
Wolff joined Mercedes in 2013, the same year as Hamilton jumped ship from McLaren. The pair have shared their journey ever since and it seems only grown closer and closer. The Austrian says the Hamilton that climbs behind the wheel in Albert Park is the best he has seen.
Hamilton knows this may prove to be his toughest title fight yet. “Lewis was at the Super Bowl,” Wolff says. “I texted him and said: ‘I guess we have to do the sixth one now Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have made it six.’ He said: ‘Absolutely. Now it’s on.’”