Lewis Hamilton is the new Michael Schumacher.
I don’t necessarily mean he’s as complete an F1 driver – but he’s already as controversial. No other active F1 driver excites such polar opposites of emotions and opinions.
A glance at some of the biggest debates we?óÔé¼Ôäóve had on this site makes that clear (have a look under the ‘all time’ top posts tab at the top right of the page).
Having already written about why so many people don?óÔé¼Ôäót like Hamilton earlier this year, I?óÔé¼Ôäód now like to tackle the question of how good he is at driving a Formula 1 car.
Inevitably that?óÔé¼Ôäós going to lead of cries from some quarters that he only did so well last year because McLaren gave him preferential treatment over Fernando Alonso. I’m not convinced by this point of view, and in the absence of any proof to support it I?óÔé¼Ôäóm going to stick to judging Hamilton on the facts.
Preamble over. So, how good is Hamilton?
One of the most startling things about his rookie season was his astonishing consistency in the first half of the year. McLaren gave him a car that was usually capable of being in the top four, and Hamilton was never out of the top three in the first nine races. No other driver in the same period managed that.
At the Nurburgring he had a messy weekend ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ the likes of which we?óÔé¼Ôäóve seen more of this year. It started with a wheel failure in qualifying that caused a big crash, but a wrong call on tyres during the race made matters worse.
His mistakes in the final two races ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ failing to pit early enough for tyres at Shanghai, and running wide trying to pass Alonso at Interlagos ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ looked like unforced errors borne of championship pressure. But Alonso and Raikkonen made mistakes that were every bit as bad during the season and, even putting his rookie status to one side, I thought Hamilton drove the better championship campaign.
This year did not begin smoothly for Hamilton: at Sepang he picked up a needless grid penalty and at Bahrain he made a series of mistakes.
Canada should have marked a turn-around as he took pole position by a substantial margin and pulled away at the start. But then came the notorious pit lane crash with Kimi Raikkonen and subsequent penalty for the next round ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ where Hamilton ruined his race before the first lap was over.
But there?óÔé¼Ôäós been inspiration as well as desperation. Hamilton has scored the best wins we?óÔé¼Ôäóve this year. At a wet Silverstone, even taking Kimi Raikkonen?óÔé¼Ôäós strategic error into account, his pace on the soaked circuit was stunning. He dominated in Germany and even a tactical blunder by McLaren couldn?óÔé¼Ôäót knock him off course.
If, early in the season, it seemed Hamilton?óÔé¼Ôäós approach had become ?óÔé¼?£win or bust?óÔé¼Ôäó, he now seems to be tempering his approach as the championship end game approaches. As he admitted recently:
Clearly, I want to win all the time, but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s more advantageous to score as many points as possible and live to fight another day.
My aim is still to win the world championship and you don’t do that by ending up in the barriers after making an opportunistic move.
The lessons of 2007 ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ and, perhaps, Bahrain and Magny-Cours this year ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ have been heeded.
Hamilton has shown himself to be an excellent overtaker ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ at least, in the brief windows of opportunity modern F1 offers for drivers to show their race craft. And his Silverstone win, along with the triumphs at Monaco and Fuji in the last 12 months, mark him out as one of F1?óÔé¼Ôäós best wet weather drivers at the moment ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ perhaps the best outright.
At the start of the season many voiced concerns about how McLaren could develop their car quickly enough ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ the feeling being that Alonso had led the team on set-up last year. But Hamilton (and, of course, Heikki Kovalainen) have handled those challenges well.
So just how good is Lewis Hamilton? Ron Dennis reckons that, given Hamilton has only been in F1 a year and a half, he’s the best driver in F1 today:
It amuses me to see these evaluations of drivers because for me you have to take into consideration how long a driver has been in Formula One when you evaluate his performance. For no other reason that puts him top of the heap, he is the best in Formula One at the moment. Take into account how little experience he has had, that’s the bit that gives him the edge.
But putting his lack of experience compared to Raikkonen and Alonso to one side, how well is Hamilton doing?
There is clearly room for improvement in some areas. He has struggled under the kind of pressure drivers like Alonso seem to thrive on and he?óÔé¼Ôäós been caught out by the rules at least once too often this year.
But what I think is most telling about Hamilton is this: there are very rarely, if ever, days when he just doesn’t figure. Yes, he’s had crashes and penalties and the like, but we rarely see him qualifying below the top two rows and then toiling around to fourth or fifth – the kind of rut Raikkonen is in at the moment, for example.
In the final reckoning, Hamilton matched a world champion on points last year and edged him on results overall. This year he?óÔé¼Ôäós usually been well ahead of Kovalainen. I can understand people not liking him, but I think you have to give him his due: he?óÔé¼Ôäós a very good F1 driver. And he?óÔé¼Ôäós getting better.
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