Formula 1 Midseason Report: Lewis Hamilton
Before the start of the season, I highlighted six drivers who had a lot to prove going into 2012. The article can be found here.
The midseason break is as good a time as any to revisit those men—to see how they're progressing.
This time, it's Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton had a truly rotten 2011.
In what was usually the second-best car, the 2008 World Champion managed only three wins and a total of six visits to the podium.
It was without question his worst season in the sport.
To make things worse, his less-regarded teammate, Jenson Button, had what was probably his best.
Problems in his very public personal life were blamed for most of Hamilton's on-track issues, and that was the area he needed to work on over the winter break.
His raw talent hadn't gone anywhere.
But many observers were wondering if the Englishman still had the mental resolve to compete at the very highest level.
2012 so far
The season began with pole at the first race in Australia, but Hamilton was beaten to the first corner—and the race win—by teammate Button. Lewis eventually finished third.
It can't have been what he wanted, but it was points on the board. With the McLaren quicker in qualifying than it was in the races, he followed it up with two more third places in Malaysia and China.
He led the championship at this stage.
One of the most spectacular, gung-ho drivers on the grid leading the championship through consistency and solid finishing isn't what anyone would have expected, especially after the up-and-down year he had in 2011.
But that's exactly what had happened. This, along with a more relaxed attitude exhibited in interviews, showed Hamilton had developed another side to his racing character.
A more mature, thinking side.
The relative pace of the McLaren has ebbed and flowed throughout the season, but Hamilton has (when left to his own devices) steered clear of trouble and made none of the mistakes which blighted him last year.
A pair of great drives in Canada and Hungary were rewarded with race wins, and had his team not made a schoolboy error in qualifying, he looked nailed-on for victory in Spain.
On the occasions when the McLaren was curiously uncompetitive—for example in Bahrain, Monaco and Britain—he's simply hung on and done the best damage limitation he could.
And after Sebastian Vettel's near-lockout last year, Hamilton has been the qualifying king of 2012. He's the only man who has reached Q3 at every race this year, and in the dry, his worst qualifying result (pre-penalties) has been third.
Has he proved a point?
Hamilton is currently fourth in the championship—only one place higher than he finished in 2011.
But the change in the standard of his driving and in his demeanour are clear for all to see. The relaxed, carefree driver we saw in his early career is back, and he has added some much-needed maturity to his ability to see the bigger picture.
Hamilton's received a grand total of zero driving penalties, and his two retirements have come about through no fault of his own.
When McLaren seemed intent on ending his title hopes early with a series of pit stop and other blunders, Hamilton didn't allow it to chip away at his confidence. He just put his head down and got on with it.
Is Lewis Hamilton back to his best?
And perhaps the most important observation of the season so far—especially after the way the balance within McLaren shifted in 2011—is that he's comprehensively out-qualifed and outraced Button.
As mentioned above, his Saturday performances in particular have stood out; on pure pace (that is, not counting penalties), the qualifying score is 10-1 in Hamilton's favour.
Last year he spent much of the season driving (by his standards) badly. In 2012, only Fernando Alonso has performed at a higher level.
I think the point is certainly proved.
You can read my take on Felipe Massa here.
Follow me on Twitter if you wish, @JamesNeilsen
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