Has Lewis Hamilton lost his talent?
As Formula One entered 2022 with the long-awaited regulation change, there were a lot of storylines to keep on top of. Max Verstappen had become champion, so would his aggressive driving style change? Was the field going to close up as much as fans had hoped? How would Charles Leclerc bounce back from being beaten by his Ferrari teammate? Could Haas survive without the money from the Mazepin family? It’s a long list, but one item I hadn’t anticipated should’ve been on it is being asked now — has Lewis Hamilton lost it?
What a crazy concept such a question would seem only a few months ago, yet here we are, and it seems reasonable for somebody to ask. Concerned Hamilton fans are filling internet forums with some half-hearted defense of their seven-time champion while those ready for a changing of the guard gleefully exclaim it’s the end of Lewis’ reign.
With George Russell joining Mercedes for 2022 and doing so well, the pressure for Hamilton to excel against the sister Mercedes is higher than usual, too. Hamilton has had two teammates since wearing Mercedes overalls, and he bested both in their first years together, somewhat setting the tone for the rest of their partnership.
Valtteri Bottas never outperformed Lewis, and Nico Rosberg only snatched his championship thanks to Hamilton’s engine failure in Malaysia. When one driver beats another within the team, it shifts the mentality inside the garage. They might listen to the ideas of their brightest star more than the other driver or prioritize upgrades and developments to go on one car before the other. Laying the foundation of who the team leader is critical in that first year of a driver pairing — just ask Sebastian Vettel about his 2019 alongside Charles Leclerc.
So, with four rounds down, Hamilton sits in P7 with 28 points while Russell is in P4 with 49. It sets the wrong tone from Lewis’ point of view. The 21-point deficit is enormous when it’s not likely either driver is in a prime position to take victories this season. There are only ten points for a fifth-place finish. When both Red Bulls and Ferraris finish a race, that’s precisely the highest position that Hamilton or Russell can hope for — look at Saudi Arabia, for example.
Mercedes fortuitously took P3 and P4 at the season-opener in Bahrain after Red Bull’s disastrous double-DNF late in the race. Then, after another Verstappen mechanical failure and Sainz’s trip to the gravel, they repeated the feat in Australia. Hamilton’s Bahrain podium surprised even him, but what surprised me most was how close George Russell kept to his new stablemate that day. The youngster was never more than ten seconds away from the experienced Hamilton.
Since Bahrain, Russell has outscored Hamilton at all three races. First, Hamilton dropped out of Q1 in Saudi Arabia while Russell qualified P6. Next, Russell benefited from a safety car in Australia to leapfrog Hamilton to be the lead Mercedes. Finally, Russell advanced through the pack at Emilia Romagna while Hamilton stagnated. They say the teammate is the best benchmark for how a driver is doing, and well, Russell is besting Hamilton right now. If you’re a Lewis fan, this may seem unusual and uncomfortable reading…
However, let’s remove the sensational hot take glasses for a moment. Hamilton was one lap away from taking an eighth world championship less than half a year ago. If not for a safety car, he would have two podiums in 2022, and his low points tally is coming from an inability to get the Mercedes F1 W13 to heat its tires for qualifying — something both Merc drivers have complained about. There weren’t many overtakes at the notoriously difficult-to-pass Imola, and Russell benefited hugely from a decent start and Carlos Sainz’s first corner collision with Daniel Ricciardo’s to advance five places within two corners.
The knee-jerk reactions to Hamilton’s poor start are symptomatic of the fickleness of F1 fans. When his Ferrari slumped from a race-winning machine to a midfield struggler, Charles Leclerc didn’t lose it. Likewise, Michael Schumacher didn’t become a terrible driver because he only scored one win in 2005 after claiming 13 victories one year earlier. This is how the sport works, and never is the expression “it’s a team game” more apt than when a constructor surges forwards or slips back between seasons.
The 2022 Mercedes is not the world-beater its previous eight iterations were, but the team is dealing with new regulations, including much less wind tunnel time than their rivals. They focused on the 2021 car much later into last season than they usually would, thanks to the tight championship fight with Verstappen, too. As a result, their Brackley HQ is undoubtedly dealing with very different morale this year, but that’s how all sport goes.
So no, Lewis Hamilton hasn’t lost it. It’s early in the championship, and the qualifying performances from the sport’s best-ever qualifier haven’t met the ordinarily impeccable standards we’ve grown accustomed to since 2014. This poor start is just a simple wake-up to a truth that long-term fans are well familiar with — the best drivers may end up with the best teams, but if the best teams don’t make the best car, the best drivers don’t win.
Originally published on Fortloc