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Lewis Hamilton at the Mercedes GP F1 W04 launch in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, in February. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton at the Mercedes GP F1 W04 launch in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, in February. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton | Year of reckoning

Lewis Hamilton's first season with Mercedes is just a precursor to what could be his defining year in 2014

At the 2013 Singapore Grand Prix weekend in September, when Lewis Hamilton first walked into the Marina Bay circuit’s paddock, he was wearing a black cap, with all the logos of Mercedes AMG Petronas, his Formula One (F1) team. This was the first time in 2013, after 12 races, that Hamilton was spotted with his head covered. The silver cap, part of the official Mercedes team-gear (which teammate Nico Rosberg wears), wasn’t to his liking and Hamilton refused to wear it. He designed his own headgear, the kind that is a rage with rappers.

His critics will confirm this behavioural pattern as the image the 28-year-old Hamilton has built since his F1 debut season in 2007—a fast-racer, skilful at overtaking, and fussy about little things. Hamilton would probably tell you it signifies freedom.

“Freedom" pretty much describes Hamilton’s move to Mercedes from McLaren at the end of the 2012 season. It was a surprise for most. After six seasons with the team that made him a World Champion in 2008, Hamilton wanted to test new heights.

So he moved, away from Woking (McLaren’s base in the UK) and towards Brackley (Mercedes’ base, also in the UK). He gained independence from incessant promotional work for sponsors and also control of the drivers’ trophies (McLaren retain all original driver trophies as a rule, awarding replicas to the drivers).

“Hamilton was groomed by McLaren to race for them in Formula One," says F1 commentator James Allen. “It paid dividends all these years, with a Championship win thrown in. Hamilton has impressed with his racing ability and he has almost always had the better of his teammates at McLaren. But six years is a long time and of late, McLaren were dropping the ball in terms of performance. After (McLaren’s non-executive chairman) Ron Dennis left charge of the F1 team (in 2009, before the start of the season), they were a team in transition, so, this partnership had run its course."

At the age of 10, as a young boy who was first making his moves in karting, Hamilton approached Dennis for an autograph, with a now-well-known line: “Hi. I am Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship (karting) and one day I want to be racing your cars." Dennis signed him for the McLaren junior programme that helped fast-track him into F1 eventually.

“Lewis never had a silver spoon as some like to believe," said Anthony Hamilton, his father and manager in his formative years, in 2011. “In the beginning, we never really had any money. It was all about my credit card and how much money I could loan from the bank, and what karts we could buy with that. Just like that one day, Ron Dennis came along and said, ‘I like that kid (Hamilton).’ We were given a golden ticket, and at the end of the golden ticket, was a lottery win. That lottery win was a Formula One drive."

In 2007, 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton finished on the podium in the first nine races, winning twice—in Canada and the US—and becoming the youngest driver to lead the Championship after team founder Bruce McLaren (with Cooper in 1960). Then his intra-team battle with Fernando Alonso became the season highlight, and they lost the title to Kimi Räikkönen by one point. Ironically, he won his maiden title next season by the same margin, beating Felipe Massa (Ferrari) on points in a closely-fought finale at the Brazilian GP.

In 2009, the rules changed. Red Bull Racing’s chief technical officer Adrian Newey came to the fore with his bag of aerodynamic tricks and together they rose to power. It was also the year when Sebastian Vettel graduated to the senior team from Toro Rosso. Since then, he has won three back-to-back titles and is well on his way to a fourth successive Championship in 2013. It has been hard for Hamilton—and Alonso—to watch, as can be confirmed by his comments post the 2013 Korean GP weekend (4-6 October).

“It’s strange, you know?" Hamilton said. “Me and Fernando in fifth and sixth at the end having our own little race, yet, we are of a higher calibre than that. We should be further ahead, fighting...with Sebastian."

Another beginning

Their best chance to challenge this Vettel-Red Bull domination will be in 2014, when the rules change again. Ferrari and Mercedes are two of the three prominent engine manufacturers, along with Renault who supply Red Bull. The Scuderia recently signed Räikkönen to pair with Alonso.

Mercedes invested into next season last year when they took Hamilton away from McLaren, to replace the retiring Michael Schumacher. The fact that engines will play a huge role going ahead was a deciding factor, as confirmed by Hamilton himself. “Fighting for the Championship in 2013 is out of the question," he had said, in the build-up to the 2012 Indian GP. “But...I will admit...the rule changes that will come in 2014 did have an influence on my decision."

If 2014 is really the F1 season to be kept an eye on, why is 2013 important, in reference to Hamilton particularly? “In the last two decades, the two most dominant Championship-winning streaks have come when the driver-car combination is unbeatable," says Allen. “Nigel Mansell did it with Williams in 1992 before Schumacher and Ferrari took over. Today, Vettel and Red Bull are doing the same. To beat them, you need a driver who has contributed to the development of the car and Hamilton pairing up with Mercedes in advance could really help that next year."

Mercedes have had their share of problems since entering F1 again in 2010. Despite (team principal) Ross Brawn’s presence and Schumacher coming out of his 2006 retirement, success has been elusive. Their first win didn’t come until 2012, in China, which was a turning point. The team has garnered eight pole positions this year in 13 races until the Korean GP. Hamilton has scored five of those, Rosberg taking pole three times (Vettel alone accounts for the remaining five). Rosberg won at Monaco and in the British GP when his teammate, who started from pole, failed to finish.

Hamilton won his first race in Hungary in July in what was a dominant weekend for the team. Red Bull then upped the ante and came out unbeatable over the summer break, even as Mercedes directed their resources towards 2014.

It caused some disappointment for Hamilton, who, with three other podium places (until the Korean GP) and a string of consistent points’ finishes, was still in the Championship fight, despite recurring brake problems. “Brakes have been the real weak area for me on this year’s car, but we have worked on it and the team has helped me find some solutions. It should work out fine with time and especially for next year," said Hamilton, at the Singapore GP. “It is interesting when you see that though the rules and regulations are same for everyone, different cars have different souls. McLaren and Mercedes even share the same engine, yet the cars react differently, say when cornering or when going over bumps."

“In comparison to McLaren, Mercedes is rising at the moment," says Allen. “It is an excellent pairing and it has reflected in the results this year, which is only an incubation period, and although closely matched, he has out-scored his teammate. Next year, I expect Hamilton to completely dominate Rosberg."

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