So, here we are, after an enthralling Chinese Grand Prix, in which Mercedes AMG driver Nico Rosberg took his maiden Formula 1 victory, Lewis Hamilton moves into the lead of the World Drivers’ Championship after a hat-trick of third place finishes in the first three races of the season. Hamilton’s race weekend didn’t get off to the best of starts with the news that his McLaren team needed to change his gearbox, resulting in a five place grid penalty for the Englishman. This meant that despite another strong qualifying performance – Hamilton finished Q3 second only to Nico Rosberg in the timesheets – the 2008 World Champion started the race in seventh position. It could have been far worse, though; Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button only qualified fifth (after Hamilton’s penalty) and Mark Webber started the race in sixth in his Red Bull. Both Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the then Championship leader after his win in Malaysia, and Webber’s team mate, Sebastian Vettel, started behind Hamilton after qualifying 9th and 11th, respectively.
Nevertheless, this was exactly the sort of situation that might have led to a disastrous race result for the Hamilton of 2011 – starting the race among slower cars, eager to make up ground after a penalty (albeit not from the stewards on this occasion) – not so for the Hamilton of 2012. Despite coming up against his 2011 nemesis, Felipe Massa, at a certain point of the race, Hamilton kept his cool and drove with controlled aggression – making a number of passes when he needed to, without ever risking a move that might have resulted in damage to his McLaren. This is a theme that’s developing for Hamilton this term; arguably more muted driving performances that have, thus far, come without the swashbuckling, but at times reckless, style of past seasons. Is 2012 the season that we see a more mature, focused and consistent Lewis Hamilton come to the fore?
Hamilton has himself emphasised the importance of consistent results after a 2011 that saw some great race wins, interspersed by numerous on track clashes, visits to the stewards and penalties. Autosport quoted him as saying, after the opening two rounds of the season “last year taught me the value of consistency: it’s no use chasing a great result if you can’t back it up with another strong finish the following week. So maybe I’m just playing myself in gently: after all, in 2007, I didn’t win a race until the sixth round, and I was in the hunt for the title all through the year”. Hamilton then went on to say “I’m looking at the championship as a whole – although, of course, I’d love to win every race, it’s more important to be in a good points-scoring position at every race…I’ll be heading to China looking to win – but it’s just as important to pick up some good points if, for whatever reason, a win isn’t on the cards.” This sort of attitude shows that Hamilton is maturing both as a person and a driver this season; where in the past he might have gone all out for the win, and told the world that he was going to do so, now he’s prepared to take a good points finish. His words about China proved to be prophetic as his grid penalty robbed him of the chance to compete for the win, but he picked up another podium and with it 15 valuable points.
As a fan I can’t help but yearn for the high risk, high reward style of the Hamilton of old. I’d love to see more of the awe inspiring driving displays that marked him out from the crowd in GP2 and made him a force to be reckoned with in Formula 1. But I, like all Hamilton fans and, indeed, the man himself, need to be pragmatic. Hamilton has learnt the lessons of 2011. He now better understands that there’s little point risking everything in pursuit of an unlikely race win. Getting the balance right is vitally important, though. It’s easy to forget that at this stage of the season in 2011 Hamilton had two more world championship points than he does now, after taking second in Australia and a win in China, sandwiching eighth place in Malaysia. But in 2011, Sebastian Vettel was already beginning to dominate and led the championship with 68 points. Unlike in 2011, no single driver has yet stamped their authority on the 2012 season. If Hamilton manages to maintain his current level of consistency, when the race wins come – as I have no doubt they will – his championship position will be incredibly strong. To sound a note of caution, though, consistent podium finishes won’t be enough if another driver starts to string wins together in a similar fashion to Vettel in 2011 – a completely consistent season of 20 third place finishes would see Hamilton finish the season with 300 points, some way short of the 392 points that Vettel accumulated in 2011 in only 19 races.
So, despite the note of caution, it’s a case of “so far, so good” for Hamilton in 2012. The results of the first three races of the season, and the current championship standings, seem to bear out the mantra that consistency is the key to success. It seems that, contrary to what your mathematics textbooks might tell you, 3 x 3 = 1, at least for Lewis Hamilton.
End Note: I’ve got to sign off by declaring a bias: As might be apparent from this post, I’m a big Lewis Hamilton fan. In fact, I’m surprised that, having written four previous blog posts, I’ve barely mentioned Hamilton, who, in my view, is the most naturally talented driver of his generation.