In the aftermath of Lewis Hamilton’s win over Max Verstappen at the Qatar Grand Prix, one word was tossed around more than any other – momentum. And yet, how much can we really glean from the idea of momentum in a season with as many twists and turns as we’ve already seen?
This is especially true with a new, completely unknown Jeddah Corniche street circuit next up for the two title protagonists – one in which the slightest of errors, or overcorrections could put an end to your world championship aspirations.
Just after the championship leaders rather solemnly, yet respectfully clinked champagne bottles on the podium in Losail, Mercedes chief Toto Wolff was brought onto Sky Sports F1 to give his immediate reaction to Hamilton’s faultless drive.
He offered up two especially interesting titbits that were soon filling news columns everywhere. After revealing that the team would put their “spicy” engine back into Hamilton’s car for the power-sensitive Jeddah Corniche Circuit, he also stated that the 36-year-old’s disqualification from the Brazilian Grand Prix had “woke the lion” within the driver.
Some might argue that the lion should have already been pretty switched on, in what is Hamilton’s first significant title fight since 2018. And yet, it was a telling warning to Red Bull and Verstappen, that they were dealing with an entirely different animal from here on in.
Hamilton’s previous F1 title battles
When reflecting on the occasions in which the F1 driver’s title has gone down to the wire, and Hamilton has been involved, we almost always see the Brit transform himself.
In 2014, up against his great Mercedes foe, Nico Rosberg, Hamilton won seven of the last eight races, overcoming a mid-season deficit in the process. Two years later, when Rosberg finally got the better of his former go-karting teammate, he did so having fought tooth and nail. Following a dramatic engine failure in Malaysia that season, Hamilton would go on to win the final four races, driving flawlessly.
By the time of the season finale in Abu Dhabi, he needed to win the race with Rosberg finishing lower than third. As is often to case in such clutch moments, Hamilton showed his ruthless side, backing the pack up to an alarming extent in the hope that one of the Ferrari’s might pass Rosberg.
Underneath Hamilton’s soft-spoken nature is a born winner, and whenever his back is against the wall, sparks tend to fly – for better or worse.
That same relentless pursuit of the title was seen in 2018, when the seven-time world champion romped home to that year’s driver’s title, pushing Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to an eventual breaking point. Three years on, that genie looks to be firmly out of the bottle once again, as a razor sharp, supremely focused Hamilton gets ready for possibly his greatest ever challenge as a Mercedes driver.
Don’t underestimate Hamilton
Simply put, you’d be a fool to write off this version of Hamilton. Unlike Bottas 2.0, Raikkonen 2.0 or any other driver renaissance you can think of, this Hamilton never left. He’s been there all along, locked away until both he and his team were dragged into another gruelling title scrap.
We saw a glimpse of his uncompromising nature at Silverstone back in June, with the title slipping away from his grasp. That very same fighting spirit reappeared three weeks ago in Brazil, following a remarkable storm through the field that his great hero, Ayrton Senna, would have been proud of.
And yet, in the garage just next door this weekend will be a man with just the same mentality, a driver who doesn’t bare the same war wounds and scars from previous title deciders. Verstappen has barely put a single foot wrong this season, having only scored first and second place finishes when he has managed to make the chequered flag.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the final stretch of a title fight, we haven’t seen what the Dutchman is made of. There’s every reason to think that he can handle the pressure, as he isn’t exactly prone to lapses in judgement. The Verstappen of 2021 is mature, measured and exceptionally poised behind the wheel.
But pressure can do funny things to athletes, and up against a 14-year veteran like Hamilton, who was involved in a final race title decider in his very first F1 season, you simply can’t rule out a wobble or two. Far more decorated racers than the 24-year-old have gone into the trenches with Hamilton – and returned with very little to show for it.
Given the season we’ve witnessed so far, one can only hope we get an equally fitting finale in Abu Dhabi. Verstappen has the arithmetic on his side, but Hamilton carries the ‘momentum’ as well as a general familiarly with the big occasion. Few F1 drivers ever have the luxury of being involved in a title decider. And yet, far from being a once in a lifetime event, like the birth of a child or a wedding, this is an almost cyclical occurrence for Hamilton.
After all of the drama surrounding Hamilton’s rear-wing in Brazil, the punishment dished out that weekend might end up making his season, rather than breaking it. Could it yet prove to be the catalyst for a history-making eighth F1 driver’s world title? We’ll find out in just over a week’s time.