Lewis Hamilton's Formula 1 2012: A Series of Unfortunate Events
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It is a fairly common and entirely harmless amusement for Formula One fans to compile lists such as "The Top 10 Drivers Of All Time."
Indeed, this writer may at times have contributed to such serial folly.
Sadly for his many fans, it seems increasingly unlikely that Lewis Hamilton will join the pantheon of F1 greats populated by Senna, Clark, Schumacher, Prost, etc. Having thus far in his F1 career won only one championship, and that by the skin of his teeth, Lewis does not seem well-positioned to win another.
Britain's best F1 prospect of his generation is waging war with blank ammunition—he is spitting into the wind. In other words, he is driving for McLaren.
McLaren F1 has a design team and factory capable of producing very competitive cars, and they have two drivers, Lewis and his teammate Jensen Button, with proven ability to deliver results. But the McLaren race operation is so inferior to their competitors that the team is falling behind Red Bull and Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton's 2012 So Far
After qualifying on pole in Melbourne, Lewis was caught out by the safety car and finished third.
Again qualifying on pole in Malaysia, Lewis suffered two lengthy pit stops that cost him the lead, and he again finished third.
In China, Lewis qualified second behind Nico Rosberg but needed a new gearbox and had to take a five-place grid penalty. Starting from seventh, he yet again finished third.
Lewis qualified second in Bahrain, but three appallingly long pit stops—two of them featuring wheel nut problems—caused him to finish eighth.
Lewis was fastest qualifier in Spain, but the team failed to provide his car with enough fuel for him to return to the pits, and he was penalised by being demoted to the back of the grid. In one of the best drives of his career, he finished eighth in the race.
After qualifying third in Monaco, excessively long pit stops saw Lewis lose position to Alonso and Vettel, resulting in a fifth place finish.
How Long Is Too Long?
Pit stop times have always been important in F1. In 2012, they are even more crucial because of extremely close competition at the front of the field.
It might seem impressive that the McLaren pit crew can - on a good day - change all four of a car's wheels in 3.8 seconds, but when other teams can shave that time down to 3.3 seconds, it is not impressive enough.
No driver is good enough and no car is superior enough to easily compensate for losing a second or more over the course of race through ragged pit stops. And of course, when those pit stops are further lengthened by buffoonish fumbling with wheel nuts or similar tomfoolery, then the driver's best efforts are completely wasted.
Examination of the cold facts listed above shows that but for failings by his McLaren team Lewis Hamilton would probably now be leading the world championship standings. Only probably, but most certainly his position would be better if the quality of his driving was matched by an outstanding pit operation.
This writer does not assume or even strongly suspect Lewis Hamilton to be the best current F1 driver because competition for that title is very fierce. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, to name but two, are supremely capable and do not have to drag the anchor of McLaren's inept pit operation.
Nobody can be more aware of McLaren's failings than team boss Martin Whitmarsh. It is the crew he has built and the people he has chosen that are keeping Lewis from carving his name in the wall of F1 greats.
Undoubtedly, Whitmarsh has talents.
Nobody does the wryly apologetic smile after every fiasco or the grimly determined statement that things will improve better than Whitmarsh.
But is he capable of looking in a mirror and seeing the problem? Can he recognise that when the orchestra is playing badly the conductor has some self-examination to do?
Time is a finite resource. We are all doomed to run out of it.
At the age of 27, Lewis Hamilton could still have a long F1 career ahead of him. It is, however, far from obvious that he will be able to become a driver of historic stature.
After several seasons in which his unforced errors have caused his fans to shake their heads in despair, Lewis is now driving race after race immaculately.
How sad if when his retirement comes, Lewis Hamilton's vast wealth is tainted by regret for the glories that could have been.
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