Lewis Hamilton stands ready to prove that his rivals have searched in vain for any weaknesses to exploit at this weekend’s US Grand Prix. This season he has been under pressure as never before but has come through it; he is champion-elect and Austin will likely see him crowned. If so he will rightly collect the approbation a five-times world champion deserves; only two other drivers have managed it in the history of the sport.
Yet he knows it will be an honour truly shared. He is an exceptional driver but more than aware of how hard his Mercedes team have worked to make it happen. Much of the focus this season has been on Ferrari’s failures yet this will be a championship won by Mercedes as much as lost by the Scuderia.
Hamilton will equal Juan Manuel Fangio’s five championships and be only two behind Michael Schumacher’s record of seven if he takes the title at the Circuit of the Americas. He will do so if he wins and his Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel finishes below second, or if he finishes eight points clear of Vettel.
Hamilton, still only 33, has spoken of the intensity of the fight he, Vettel and Ferrari have engaged in this year. It was a mighty struggle from the off and, while Hamilton has been magnificent, his team have demonstrated they remain the pre-eminent force in F1.
What has stood out about Mercedes’ performance is that it has been far removed from the almost flawless runs that have secured their past four drivers’ and constructors’ championships. There have been slips, errors and obstacles – far from plain sailing in the teeth of a gale presented by a resurgent Ferrari.
With the cars closely matched the two teams traded punches across the first half of the season. Mercedes had begun on the ropes. A strategy error in Australia cost Hamilton a likely win. At the next race in Bahrain he took a grid penalty because of a gearbox change and with Vettel victorious the German held a 17-point lead. The pendulum swung between them, notably with Vettel’s victory in Canada where Hamilton had won the previous three meetings. Then in Austria Mercedes once again called Hamilton’s strategy wrongly before further woe when he was forced to retire with a fuel problem.
With Ferrari stronger than ever, there was a palpable sense that the fearsome Mercedes machine was being tested to breaking point. Worse was to follow as upgrades the Scuderia brought to Silverstone gave them a pace advantage and Vettel romped home joyously.
However his costly error in crashing at Hockenheim and Hamilton’s mighty qualifying lap in Hungary ensured the Briton took wins at the next two rounds. Yet Ferrari’s riposte in Belgium was ferocious. Spa was a Mercedes track but the Scuderia took their car and engine advantage to a new level with Vettel’s comprehensive win, leaving their rivals reeling.
It was Mercedes’ “most difficult moment”, explained their team principal, Toto Wolff, “realising before the summer and at Spa that Ferrari had a better development in performance”.
The setback was a call to arms. “It is the mindset of seeking perfection,” Wolff said. “The days we lose are the ones our competitors should fear because it is when we learn the most – this happened at Spa.”
They had already proved resilient on track, matching poor pitwall calls with some superb decisions in Baku, Hockenheim and Hungary. Off-track after Belgium they had to find answers to their problems – tyres blistering and poor traction out of slow corners. Wolff explained that far from panicking or condemnation he sent a message of encouragement to his staff the next day. “In this email, I said: ‘We are not giving up, this is not a championship we are going to lose. We need to understand why we have been outperformed.’ So it was development, research, analysis, mindset, work ethic and fun.”
Wolff believes this was fundamental to the success that followed. “It is important when under immense pressure to be kind in your analysis of your weaknesses,” he said. “The best warriors are the ones that are kind in times of great conflict. How you behave under pressure, how you are able to stick to your values and your mindset that were written in times of peace. This is when the true ability of people is going to be proven.” The approach proved hugely successful. With Hamilton hitting his best and Mercedes having worked through and solved their issues, they won the following four races and all but secured the title, in a remarkable turnaround.
Ferrari and Vettel’s mistakes would have proved costly against any opponent but when they needed to step up they were faced with a team and driver who had found an entire new level. They were made to look almost amateurish in the face of Mercedes’ slick professionalism.
That the atmosphere at Mercedes is wholly constructive had been demonstrated earlier in the season when the chief strategist, James Vowles, apologised over the radio to Hamilton for their poor call in Austria. It demonstrated just how comfortable the team are in admitting errors and learning from them rather than finger pointing. It stood in stark contrast to Ferrari’s principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, launching a scathing attack on his own team after their qualifying blunder in Japan.
There was calm then, even at the heart of the maelstrom at Mercedes. “In those difficult moments the trust remains,” Wolff said. “Lewis does not question the ability of the team but he relies on what he has seen in the past the team has done. That deep relationship of trust is fundamental between the driver and the team.”
If Hamilton should take the title on Sunday there is no doubt the first thing he will do is thank his team. Nor should this be seen as PR platitudes merely for public consumption. “We win and lose together” has long been his mantra. This season they have done both and Mercedes have emerged stronger than ever. They are the benchmark against which all others must be measured.