What Lewis Hamilton must do to win eighth F1 world title

If there is one factor history tells us not to take as gospel it is Lewis Hamilton’s until-death-us-do-part vow to remain wedded to Mercedes.

We all know this because he left McLaren, where the prodigy had been richly lavished with money and opportunity, to join the Silver Arrows more than a decade ago.

Although there were strong bonds with Mercedes as engine partners at McLaren, Ross Brawn and Niki Lauda were cold callers then, two men offering him essentially a clean break and a new start.

Part of that entailed freedom of self-expression beyond the control of his old mentor and sponsor Ron Dennis, who, citing My Fair Lady, once cast himself as Professor Henry Higgins to Hamilton’s Eliza Doolittle.

Yet at Hamilton’s leaving party, in November 2012, on the pool terrace of the Hilton Hotel in Austin, Texas, there was one noticeable absentee: the McLaren chairman, a hurt Mr Dennis.

Lewis Hamilton has so far shown a reluctance to ink a deal beyond this season at Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton has so far shown a reluctance to ink a deal beyond this season at Mercedes

Hamilton wants to win a record eighth world title but the gulf to Red Bull now is significant

Hamilton wants to win a record eighth world title but the gulf to Red Bull now is significant

All of which history informs us that when a hard decision is required, if push comes to shove, Hamilton is prepared to blow a hole in sentimentality. His reward was unprecedented success.

This brings us to the here and now, and the bind Lewis finds himself in. 

Obviously, he wants the eighth title he missed out on so painfully in Abu Dhabi at the end of the 2021 season, but he is no nearer achieving his ambition now than at any stage since that controversial night in the desert.

In Azerbaijan last week, he finished 46 seconds adrift of winner Sergio Perez, and that was a reasonably true reflection of the gulf between Mercedes and Red Bull.

Another part of the fix is that he is an avowed fighter being caged in by the passing of time, at the age of 38. 

‘People who think I’ll give up, don’t know me,’ he insists. To quit would be to surrender his pride and instincts.

So how to escape from the tight spot? One possibility is to stick at Mercedes and bring as much leadership to the team as a driver can, and hope the engineering might of the staff can devise a solution to their shortcomings.

Hamilton knows that loyalty has its limits and while he wants to win it at Mercedes, it is tough

Hamilton knows that loyalty has its limits and while he wants to win it at Mercedes, it is tough

Time is not on the 38-year-old driver's side and he has a decision to make where he can win

Time is not on the 38-year-old driver’s side and he has a decision to make where he can win

An upgrade is planned for the Imola race a fortnight on Sunday. A new floor is included in the revamped package. This is the crucial area in which Red Bull are thought to be excelling, mastering the vortices created, and millimetre-by-millimetre refining their magic carpet.

They will take some catching, though the restriction on their wind-tunnel allocation for breaching the budget cap last year offers a glimmer of hope to the rest.

The fact Hamilton has not yet signed a new deal despite his current contract due to expire at the end of the year suggests he is not yet convinced enough by progress to cast the remainder of his career away to Mercedes.

His reluctance is a clear hint he is open to a move elsewhere. Yes, he would love to sign off one day at Mercedes with an eighth world title – the perfect scenario of completeness – but loyalty, as we were saying, has its limits.

This then brings into the equation Red Bull and Ferrari. The former would obviously furnish him with the best tools to finish the job, but they already have Max Verstappen.

In current form, the Dutchman is the best driver in the world, and has been since winning his first title. We may yet point to that last lap in Abu Dhabi as the moment a baton was passed, never mind what the race director did.

Would Lewis want to go to Max’s lair to take him on? You would like to think so, if he still considers himself more than a match for anyone. There is a lot of reputational damage to risk in the attempt but, on the other hand, a certain shot at the title is an unmissable inducement.

Hamilton and Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur were spotted chatting in Baku

Hamilton and Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur were spotted chatting in Baku

There is the option to continue with Mercedes and try to bring more leadership into the team

There is the option to continue with Mercedes and try to bring more leadership into the team

Partnering with Max Verstappen (right) at Red Bull seems a remote possibility given the rivalry

Partnering with Max Verstappen (right) at Red Bull seems a remote possibility given the rivalry

Another scenario, albeit possibly a far-fetched one. Verstappen has spoken of his dismay at modern Formula One’s incessant demands across 23/24-race seasons and the new sprint format wrecking the DNA of the sport. He has talked seriously in public about quitting.

What if he followed through on that threat at the end of the season? Would this open up a place for Hamilton?

Well, I am not sure it would. Why would Christian Horner wish to burnish the legacy of a driver who won six of his world championships in the car of his bitterest rivals?

As for Ferrari, could they be relied upon to deliver any more than Mercedes? And do they want a driver on a swansong mission rather than look to develop younger talent?

It is impossible to be sure how the rest of Hamilton’s career will unfold. Will it be a final flourishing of title glory? Or will Lewis hang on too long in a desperate search that ends pitifully?

Experience cautions us against ever writing him off. But he certainly needs something to fall in place soon if he is to have any serious chance of taking his leave in the triumphant manner of his choosing.

PIT-LANE PANIC WAS A HIGHWAY CODE COCK-UP

Sir Jackie Stewart jokes that he competed in an era when racing was dangerous and sex was safe.

Since then modifications to circuits and in-car aids have transformed Formula One into about as protected an environment as any open-wheel enterprise can be at 215mph. 

This transformative work made it all the more incongruous that a few dozen F1 personnel were crossing the pit lane to prepare the post-race celebrations during last weekend’s race in Baku as Esteban Ocon drove his Alpine in for a last-lap change of tyres. He braked, they scrambled, and disaster was averted.

Esteban Ocon arrived into his pitstop only to find F1 personnel and photographers blocking the pitlane as they prepared for the podium ceremony before the race was even over

Esteban Ocon arrived into his pitstop only to find F1 personnel and photographers blocking the pitlane as they prepared for the podium ceremony before the race was even over

How could the FIA ever have thought this was a safe procedure? 

They should have known Ocon would pit, given he was required under the regulations to switch tyres from hards to mediums.

And why allow the group to cross at the end of the pit lane nearer to any approaching traffic?

If there was nowhere safer to cross, don’t cross. After so many remarkable advances of science, the FIA flunked it at the Highway Code part.

REGULATIONS ROBBED US

Toto Wolff bemoaned a ‘boring’ Baku race. The Mercedes boss wasn’t far wrong, though his reference to Red Bull’s dominance hardly requires an irony warning. 

What I regret is the introduction of the new regulations in 2022, just as the two teams were so evenly matched. 

Whatever else the reset achieved, or didn’t, it robbed us of a Hamilton-Verstappen rematch, a rivalry which could now be in its third season. 

That would have been juicier than a thousand hours of Netflix. 

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