Sport : F1

Lewis Hamilton

6th March 2014, 03:54pm

Having got his Mercedes career off to a positive start, the onus is on Lewis Hamilton to mount a title challenge in 2014 when F1 undergoes its biggest technical shake-up for a generation.

It's long been assumed that the Silver Arrow will be well-poised to prosper as the sport's technology shifts towards turbo engines and a far greater emphasis on energy recovery. But what about Hamilton? If eking out a car's fuel to the end of the race is going to be paramount, how might the man seen by most as the cream of the crop when it comes to producing pure speed manage?

After all, such an approach is emphatically not one normally associated with Hamilton, who in his own way can appear a throwback to an age when 'managing energy' was more associated with a hungover James Hunt pulling his car off the track for a nap during a test session.

Not wishing to overplay comparisons between the English World Champions (although, let's be honest here, Hamilton has a knack of courting the type of publicity Hunt also attracted in the 1970s), the point is that Lewis, more than any of his contemporaries, seems capable of transcending his car's capabilities - the way drivers were better able to in days when the tools of their trade were far more primitive.

They were also far less reliable, a limiting factor Hamilton has not really had to worry about since he arrived on the scene in 2007. That might well change too with next season's shift in emphasis, but the artificial limits F1 chooses to impose on its competitors as they race to the chequered flag appear, on the face of it, to suit him less than most.

Two cases in point from last season: the Malaysian GP, the closing stages of which found Hamilton saving fuel, unable to challenge the Red Bulls and relying on team orders to prevent team-mate Nico Rosberg getting by. Then there was the Spanish GP, in which tyres played havoc and again saw Lewis suffering in particular. "Now I've been overtaken by a Williams," he crackled forlornly over the radio at one stage.

Clearly not in his element driving to a delta time, he will have to do just that in 2014 - all the while juggling three different sources of power. Then again, if Mercedes step up in the requisite manner the pleasure will surely outweigh the pain; after all, it's been a long time since Hamilton has been in genuine title contention and he's keenly aware of the Sebastian Vettel-shaped hole in the record books.

The rise was inexorable before that. Through karting, Formula Renault, F3 and GP2, Hamilton was thrown in at the deep end when McLaren boss Ron Dennis placed him alongside Fernando Alonso eight seasons ago but seemed more bemused than anything by the fuss that greeted the record-breaking start to his career. Almost a title winner in his rookie season, he ultimately fell short but at least Britain had a new (and much-needed) F1 hero - the sort even your granny is aware of.

It didn't take long for Hamilton to become World Champion but the 2008 season did nothing if not demonstrate the quixotic nature of his talent: on the one hand there were the sublime victories in Monaco and at Silverstone (where he finished over a minute clear of the field); on the other, there was that incredible climax in Brazil. Which other driver would have kept everyone guessing until the last corner of the very last lap of the season?

With hindsight, Hamilton can be thankful it turned out the way it did. Although in with a mathematical shot in 2010, he's otherwise never realistically been in contention. His title defence never really got started thanks to McLaren's underperforming MP4-24 while subsequent years have seen the arc of Vettel's career rocket sky-high and stay stellar.

The best chance Lewis had of breaking the spell came in 2012 when Red Bull and Vettel struggled to perfect their car's new blown exhaust early on in the season and McLaren produced a rival that, broadly, had performance to match. Alas, pit errors and reliability did not measure up - yet it was still a genuine shock to hear of his decision to leave for Mercedes.

Although rumours persist of a rift with Dennis, his former protégé insisted the move was simply borne of a desire for a "fresh challenge" having been associated with McLaren since boyhood. There was plenty of head-scratching at the time but given the way the 2013 season turned out, Hamilton's decision proved inspired.

A large part of that is down to McLaren having experienced their worst season for over 30 years. But while they clearly underperformed, the same might also be said of Mercedes, whose car was the only one to rival Red Bull's in terms of pure pace yet also had a tendency to eat its rubber.

The team won three races in all but it was Lewis's lone success in Hungary's summer heat that stood out. Given his car's tyre wear problems, no-one gave him a cat in hell's chance of turning pole position into victory - least of all Hamilton himself. Yet once again he managed to pull something quite special out of the bag.

One does wonder sometimes whether Hamilton is fully aware of his gift and how to control it. Unlike Vettel and Alonso, for example, he doesn't appear to get the most out of his car week in, week out. There are noticeable peaks and troughs and yet 2013's rollercoaster ride still ended with him ahead of Rosberg (the more established team member) in the drivers' standings. One could argue that Lewis's peaks are the highest of all.

All in all, it's an infectious mix that guarantees headlines, divides opinion and can confound expectations. F1's new era might not appear completely to Lewis Hamilton's tastes but experience suggests that if Mercedes deliver then so will he.

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