Lewis Hamilton has rarely had a season without the odd controversial collision and a few trips to see the stewards.
But this year there have been too many gaffes and too few of the top-drawer drives he is usually remembered for.
What’s gone wrong for the McLaren driver this year?
Hamilton’s father and former manager Anthony expressed a clear view about the root of his son’s problems in the aftermath of the Singapore race:
“You look up and down the pit lane and every driver, except for Lewis [Hamilton], has a driver-manager in his life, not people from a company.
“I am sure his management are very good ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ I don?óÔé¼Ôäót know ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ but Formula 1 drivers need people personally involved in the driver?óÔé¼Ôäós life because it is a big pressure. They have got to be here and I don?óÔé¼Ôäót think you can do the job by sending someone else.”
The elder Hamilton obviously has a vested interest in making such remarks. But we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss them – Hamilton enjoyed his greatest successes in Formula 1 under his father’s management.
And his father’s new young charge, Paul di Resta, is clearly thriving, finished one place behind Hamilton in Singapore.
Hamilton is not the only driver without a conventional F1 management team. Sebastian Vettel doesn’t have one at all, and it clearly isn’t holding him back.
But you have to wonder why Hamilton specifically chose an entertainment company to represent him.
Hamilton has defended his right to pursue interests outside of Formula 1. Even so, it seems they are a more consuming part of his life than they are for his rivals at the sharp end of the grid.
Nor can it be said that his closest advisors have helped him handle his recent problems well: recall his notorious outburst at Monaco and his vanishing act last Sunday having failed to given an account of his latest blunder.
When Jenson Button joined McLaren at the beginning of last year, the widely-held view was that he was risking his reputation by joining ‘Hamilton’s team’.
Hamilton has never finished behind a team mate in the world championship. But Button has beaten him in all of the last four races. With five rounds to go he is 17 points ahead – a gap that would be far greater without his car problems in Britain and Germany.
Of course, Hamilton is no stranger to having a top-line driver in the other car. His F1 reputation was built on that stunning debut season alongside Fernando Alonso.
As was expected before the season began, Button has usually been able to coax more life out of Pirelli’s soft rubber than Hamilton. This has clearly helped him in some races this year.
But there’s more to it than that. Like Hamilton, Button has had to make his way through the field at times this year, and has done so without falling into the traps his team mate has.
Whatever problem Hamilton is having, the result is a growing number of costly mistakes that have ruined his season.
While Button’s two retirements this year were caused by car problems, Hamilton’s were the result of crashes.
In Canada, a race he could have won, he had two collisions in the space of four laps – one with Mark Webber followed by terminal contact with his team mate. He was also in the hunt for victory at Spa before colliding with Kamui Kobayashi.
On top of that are the detail mistakes: the wrong tyres and the spin in Hungary, not putting a banker lap in during qualifying in Monaco and so on.
The result has been five race penalties, more than any other driver. He’s been punished for weaving in Malaysia (having been warned over exactly the same thing last year), two collisions in Monaco and another in Singapore, and that hasty spin-turn on the racing line in Hungary.
Some have chosen to see this as evidence of the stewards being unduly harsh on Hamilton. I don’t buy that.
Yes, the decision three years ago to strip him of his deserved victory at Spa-Francorchamps was plain wrong and I said as much at the time. But in almost every other instance he’s deserved a penalty.
These kind of mistakes are not a new feature in Hamilton’s driving. Even in his championship year he had that notorious collision with Kimi R?â?ñikk?â?Ânen in the Montreal pit lane, and copped another penalty in the following race by going off the track while passing Sebastian Vettel.
Completing this study of Hamilton’s F1 career in microcosm, the next race was the washout in Silverstone where he pole-axed the opposition, crossing the finishing line a minute before anyone else.
But of late the costly mistakes have far outweighed the command performances. Both his wins this year – in China and Germany – were from the top drawer. Those aside, there’s been little for Hamilton to cherish in 2011.
A single answer?
When trying to work out what’s going wrong between a driver’s brain and the steering wheel, it’s tempting to fall for single-line explanations: ‘his team mate’s rattled his cage’, ‘he can’t make the tyres work’.
The heart of the matter is rarely that simple or convenient. And there’s always much more going on beneath the surface than the glimpses on show at a race weekend.
At the end of last year Hamilton spoke of looking forward to a better season having put problems in his personal life behind him. Whatever he’s changed it doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect.
There are enough worrying signs around Hamilton to conclude that something fundamental is amiss here. Are we looking at a driver whose team mate is putting him under pressure, who can’t make his racing car behave the way he wants it to – and perhaps doesn’t care about it quite as much as he should?
Whatever the root of the problem is, it threatens to turn the career of a driver who produced one of the greatest rookie performances ever seen, into a case study in squandered potential.
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Images ?é?® McLaren, Force India/Sutton, McLaren, Red Bull/Getty images, Singapore GP/Sutton