Why Hamilton is still the only driver who can challenge Verstappen

Lewis Hamilton is still one of the best drivers in F1 at 38 years old

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Lewis Hamilton drove a stunning race at the 2023 Mexico City Grand Prix to take just his third second place of the Formula 1 season and it showed the seven-time world champion is not going away anytime soon.

It was one of Hamilton‘s most underrated drives as he used sweet finesse to get 36 laps out of a scrubbed set of mediums on a track which is very difficult to get the tyres into the optimal working window.

Hamilton has not won for nearly two years in F1, with his last victory coming at the 2021 Saudi Arabian GP, and he’s seen Max Verstappen set new records and take win after win.

That must hurt him, and Mercedes, but there’s still that fire and intensity about Hamilton which no other driver has to match or beat Verstappen.

Leclerc overtake reminded fans about Hamilton

One area where you could criticise Hamilton is his racecraft. But, he’s shown real aggression and got his elbows out in recent events – first against his teammate George Russell at Suzuka, outfoxed Lando Norris in Austin and bravely outmanoeuvred Charles Leclerc in Mexico City.

Hamilton knew he needed to get by Leclerc quickly on Sunday before his medium tyres started overheating and was moving the car around to try and get out of the dirty air from the Ferrari.

Lewis Hamilton in action during the 2023 Mexico City GP | Mercedes

The 2023 Mercedes car is draggy and Ferrari have strong straight line speed, so Hamilton needed to use up all his ERS (energy recovery system), DRS and a slipstream just to get alongside on the run to Turn 1.

He was left a car’s width to the right and dipped two wheels onto the grass, keeping his foot pinned down on the throttle and made the move stick.

“In general, we’ve were quite draggy on the straights more often than not but this weekend,” said Hamilton.

“We were losing like two-and-a-half tenths just into Turn 1 before we even start braking. So, these guys were very slippery on the straights so, trying to follow closely through Turns 16 and 17 was, was really the only way that I could get close enough and have an opportunity to make the DRS impactful.

“I pressed every button on the steering wheel, maximum power. And I didn’t know how far across he was going to go. But split second decision, I decided to go to the right. There’s just enough space there but Charles was really fair. Great racing.”

That racing instinct is still there and it’s almost as if Hamilton is re-building that aggression after perhaps losing out far too often to some of the younger drivers in wheel to wheel combat.

Hamilton knows he needs to be the driver on the attack when racing Verstappen, rather than getting bullied like he arguably did in parts of 2021.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in action with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen during the 2021 Italian GP | REUTERS/Massimo Pinca

Hamilton still a master on the tyres

You can’t believe every radio message Hamilton makes about his tyres but you know damn well that the 38-year-old will manage them to perfection more often than not.

Setting the fastest lap of the race on 36-lap old mediums on the final lap of the Mexico City GP was a reminder to everyone about how good Hamilton is at extracting the maximum potential from the Pirelli rubber.

“It’s about how much you’re sliding the tyre, it’s about the balance that you have,” explained Hamilton. “If you have too much wing in, too much front end in the car, then the car is…imagine it a bit like a seesaw.

“You want to start a long stint – or a stint – with the car understeering, because as the rears go off, the seesaw tips, and then it goes to oversteer. When it goes to oversteer, that’s when you’re lost most often.

“Unless it’s the other way around, where the front tyres are the issue, for example. And, just finding that balance is very, very difficult. You go out and do your laps of the grid, for example, on a soft tyre, it requires a different setting for the medium tyre.

“Just really then, just focusing on all of the three sections and figuring out where you can and can’t push. Mexico was just a really great balance of lift and coast and tyre saving and it’s a technique. I mean, all the drivers know about it.”

Lewis Hamilton in action during the 2023 Mexico City GP | Mercedes

All drivers might know about it, but executing it is a different story. Having that feeling is something you can’t really teach unless you are one of the top F1 drivers who have that instinct.

Verstappen and Hamilton are the masters of tyre management in modern F1, hence why they were able to romp away from everyone else in 2021.

Hamilton ready for 2024

In 2022, many argued Russell outshone Hamilton in his first season with Mercedes. However, you can’t forget that Hamilton was testing extreme setups in a bid to find performance, which put him on the backfoot.

He hasn’t done that in 2023 and the results show that he has been the better driver at Mercedes and is targeting a championship battle in 2024.

“I’m praying every day that we will close the gap and we will hit the ground running,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1. “I want to be fighting Max, I believe I’m one of the only drivers that can do so.”

He added: “Mexico definitely gives us a lot of confidence. I mean, last year, at the same time, we were doing the same thing, but last year, I think we were three-tenths behind Max in qualifying – or something like that, and I came second again but he walked off with it. So, we’re really just mirroring what we did last year.

“We have to make some real big changes for next year. In Bahrain earlier this year, they’re 1.5 seconds a lap faster than us at least. So the key is to make sure that’s not the case in Bahrain, but I think hopefully these next couple of races will be close. But I’d probably put money on it that he will get to 18, 19 wins, with that car. “

John Smith
John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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