Conclusions from the 2014 Chinese GP
Considering whether we've ever seen Lewis Hamilton better than this, why Sebastian Vettel is struggling, and more...
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 21/04/14 1:36pm
Hungrier and happier, Hamilton reaches his peak
It could easily be argued that the mistake by the Shanghai official who unfurled the chequered flag for Lewis Hamilton after lap 55 of the 56-lap Chinese GP wasn't that he did his solemn duty prematurely but that he was too slow off the mark. There was, after all, no doubting the identity of the race victor from lap one onwards, with the remainder of proceedings less a contest than a serene procession. The only race Hamilton was in was with himself.
The Mercedes driver, as he remarked in the wake of his first hat-trick of consecutive victories in F1, is driving "the best car with the best engine". Whether Hamilton is also currently the best driver in the field is one of those moot, interminable debates that everyone enjoys but nobody can quite agree upon. Yet it can hardly be in dispute that Hamilton's performance in Shanghai - from being fastest in every session of qualifying to leading every lap in the race -
was worthy of the peerless W05. But for a momentary lapse just before his first pit-stop, Hamilton's weekend-long display of perfection was the nearest thing to that ultimate sporting achievement: The complete performance. We've never seen him better than this.
So what has changed for Hamilton in 2014? Most obviously and importantly, he is currently in possession of the grid's fastest car. Better still, the W05 is a car that not only suits him but one which understands, as demonstrated by the set-up changes he made blindly in the wake of a wet Friday then "working perfectly" on a dry race day. "This car feels like part of my skin."
And then there's the off-the-track considerations, a variable which tends to have a heavy impact on Hamilton's on-track performance. Whereas, for the likes of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen a F1 cockpit is a sealed environment - what happens off track, stays off track - there is no such clear-line divide for Hamilton. Separating the spheres of public and private does not come naturally to a driver who is as temperamental as he is innately gifted.
So while his boast on Sunday night "I'm physically and mentally stronger than ever before" is not without significance, it pales alongside his remark that "I'm in the happiest mood that I can remember. It's where I am in my life, family, girlfriend, all things, where I live, everything, having the right people in place, management, being in the right team." If we're seeing Hamilton better than ever, it's probably mostly because he is in a better place mentally than he's ever been before.
Still, it would surely be wrong, and somewhat fanciful, to dress up Hamilton's on-track brilliance as simply being the derivative of a happy home life. As he contemplated the race ahead on Saturday night, there was another telling insight into Hamilton's mind-set as he brushed off the achievement of breaking the record for pole positions by a Briton in F1. "It's great winning and getting pole positions," he responded, "but I just want to win the World Championship."
That, too, is becoming crystal-clear evident. While there's a myriad of reasons for why Hamilton has suddenly reached the peak of his powers at the start of 2014, one of the least remarked but most welcome is the impression that he has discovered that capacity, available to very few but the very best sportsmen, to suddenly elevate their performance to a new level when presented with the opportunity of rewriting their own legacy. After a six-year title famine, Hamilton is ravenous and driving better than ever because he's never been happier and never been hungrier.
Mercedes' silver lining
Nico Rosberg is beginning to look a bit like the Mark Webber to Lewis Hamilton's Sebastian Vettel. Only once this season has Rosberg truly beaten Hamilton - in qualifying at Bahrain when his advantage lasted one corner - and he owes his lead of the World Championship solely to the 50p-component which failed on his team-mate's car in Australia and the extent to which the W05 transcends all others in the field.
In normal circumstances, an eighteen-second difference between team-mates, as was the case this weekend in a repeat of the Malaysia GP result three weeks ago, would equate to a difference of three or four places in position and Rosberg wouldn't be coming home in second place. The W05, however, isn't normal and the size of its superiority means that the German is still scoring consistently even after being off form in Shanghai and even further off his team-mate's pace.
Hamilton left Shanghai with another rallying cry to his team, pleading for more pace and more performance, but with the rest of the pack so far behind and Rosberg still a tortoise-like threat to his hare, a contraction between Mercedes and the chasing pack better may suit the Englishman's title ambition better. Unlike his faltering team-mate, Hamilton can afford to give away a few extra tenths and still live in comfort.
Vettel's world turns for the worse
Rattled by the pace of Daniel Ricciardo, struggling to understand the complexity of the RB10 - "there's a lot of things in my head", complained Sebastian on Sunday night after an afternoon of complaining on the track - and uncomfortable with the unfamiliar style of his new car, the F1 world has turned upside down for the World Champion.
While Vettel's soundbite-friendly retort of rebellion has been seized upon for post-race scrutiny - did the time lost behind Vettel as the German dallied before yielding cost Ricciardo third place? Probably not given that the Red Bull was so slow in a straight line compared to the Ferrari - it's the fact that the German was beaten to the line by twenty seconds by his team-mate, and was so soundly thrashed despite being faster off the line, that is most telling. His struggles are now official and profound.
What's gone wrong? After excelling with the glue-like downforce of the RB10's predecessors, Vettel's struggles with the RB10 are principally under braking. "I'm pretty much fighting with the car," he conceded on Sunday evening. His inability to make his Pirelli rubber last as long as Ricciardo was the root cause of his intra-team defeat this weekend, with Ricciardo able to run for longer on his critical first stint, suggesting that Vettel's power delivery is not as consistent or efficient as his team-mate's.
Fundamentally, Vettel's problem might well be, as suggested by Martin Brundle during commentary on Sky F1, adjusting to a lesser car whereas Ricciardo is finding it easier to adjust to a new style of driving after piloting average cars beforehand. No wonder, then, there's a lot going on in Sebastian's head. Only a fool would write off a four-times World Champion but, at this stage, as he grapples with a strange car and a fast new team-mate at the start of a new era, those titles are baggage, a brickbat with which to hit his reputation harder, rather than reassurance.
Even if winning a fifth title already looks a near-impossibility, Vettel has plenty still to play for with so much reputational value to lose.
Raikkonen losing out and losing his way
At this rate, Alonso v Raikkonen will go down in history alongside the Millennium Bug as the greatest fuss about nothing much. In plain-speak, the Finn is nowhere in the F14 T - which, barring a mini-recovery in Bahrain, is where he has been since the car's birth three months ago.
At the close of play on Sunday, Raikkonen was almost a minute behind Alonso, his struggles with the aggressive power delivery of the F14 T exacerbated by Shanghai's chilly conditions. Like Jenson Button, Raikkonen's smooth style becomes a weakness in such climes, with both drivers subsequently bemoaning their struggles to warm up their front tyres.
The performance of Alonso - in front of new boss Marco Mattiacci - couldn't have been more contrasting as he wrung every last dreg of pace out of the Ferrari to claim their first podium of the season. Have the team turned the corner or was this Alonso back to his best? Fernando, typically, had the perfect answer in the post-race press conference, combining a cautionary tone with a psychological hit: "Today we are on the podium, seven seconds behind Nico...but Kimi's one minute behind the leaders. Personally, I have had an extremely good weekend, probably at the level of 2012." Message received loud and clear.
The true position of Ferrari is probably somewhere between the wildly diverging performances of their two drivers, which would put the Scuderia in excess of half a minute behind the frontrunning Mercedes. Ferrari are poised to throw the kitchen sink at the F14 T for Barcelona and they need something to stick. Even Alonso can't perform miracles every week - and in the face of such a sustained onslaught of superior pace from the Mercedes, even miracles are only worth third.