When he signed for Mercedes in September 2012, Lewis Hamilton—for the first time in his Formula One career—was playing the long game.
He was, after all, departing a McLaren team that had provided him with the fastest car on the grid for an outfit that had won only a single grand prix in three years.
For a man as single-minded as Hamilton, someone so used to instant success, it was quite the statement to betray his personal philosophy and place his belief in a project with potential, especially when he had flirted with a transfer to Red Bull, the sport’s dominant team, little over 12 months earlier.
Since the ink dried on Hamilton’s three-year contract, the message coming out of Mercedes has always surrounded the regulation changes of 2014. 2014 will be the year for the Silver Arrows to shine. 2014 will be the year that Hamilton, the epitome of the team’s rise to the top, finally claims his second world title.
2013? That was just the meet-and-greet stage of the relationship—an integration period that still saw Hamilton claim a win, five podiums and five pole positions.
Such was Mercedes’ faith in 2014 that the team ended development on the W04 last summer, despite Hamilton’s emphatic first win for the team in Hungary making him widely considered the biggest threat to Sebastian Vettel for the 2013 crown at the mid-season break stage.
And that faith has been justified after the 12 days of pre-season testing exposed Mercedes as having the fastest and most reliable of the 2014 cars, with Hamilton installed as the favourite for the drivers’ championship.
But in typical Hamilton fashion, any success he enjoys this season will not be achieved via the easy route.
It is unfortunate for Hamilton that his career has coincided with an era of F1 that places a heavy emphasis on car conservation.
If this were a period of flat-out sprints, he and Vettel—the only other driver able to match Hamilton’s outright pace—would disappear into the distance every week. The current state of the sport, however, means the 2008 world champion has been reeled in somewhat by lesser drivers.
But are they lesser? Or just more rounded and mature?
Contrast Hamilton’s team radio messages to those of Nico Rosberg, his Mercedes team-mate, and Vettel over the course of the tyre-based era of 2011 and 2013, and you hear a frustrated, flustered, angry young man.
While Rosberg and Vettel, for instance, appear calm and comfortable with the extra radio communication that the sport’s conservative period demands, Hamilton—who has been known to hum and sing to himself in the cockpit in the past—seems to view it as an annoyance, a disturbance of his equilibrium. His sense of injustice that the sport has taken a direction that disguises his talents is clear.
While Rosberg and Vettel are more than capable of driving the race as well as the car, Hamilton often seems only capable of doing the latter, such is his need for speed.
It is true that Hamilton’s naturally aggressive style means that he will be comfortable with the rear instability that the extra torque of the 1.6 litre turbocharged engines provide, particularly under acceleration and towards the end of a tyre stint.
In addition, Pirelli’s decision to strengthen its tyre compounds should mean a repeat of last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Hamilton hopelessly tumbled down the order from second on the grid, will not occur.
And with fuel efficiency replacing tyre wear as the aim of the game in 2014, Hamilton should again benefit. After all, the question of whether 100kg of fuel can make the chequered flag is one for the number crunchers on the pit wall to answer, while judging tyre degradation was very much dependent on the driver’s senses.
While Pirelli’s tyres were often ticking timebombs, with the cliff—the moment where the rubber suddenly lost the will to live—never more than a lap away, fuel loss will be a gradual process and therefore easier to predict, perhaps giving Hamilton less to think about than in previous years.
The question hanging over Hamilton when he climbs into his Mercedes cockpit on the Albert Park grid will be whether he possesses the intelligence, the versatility and the discipline to make the 2014 regulations work for him.
Hungary 2013, a race that he won convincingly despite telling BBC Sport that he needed a "miracle" 24 hours earlier, proved that he can apply those aspects to his performance on occasion. But can he pace himself over the course of a season—19 races and eight months—to claim the ultimate prize?
Doubts of his ability to do that remain, especially when you consider how vulnerable Hamilton is to external influences. His on-off relationship with Nicole Scherzinger (of pop group the Saturdays or something, apparently) has the potential to undermine his career.
So it was with apprehension that you read a recent report by Katie Hind of the Mirror which claimed Scherzinger quit her role as an X Factor judge to, in the words of the source, have a "year of romance on the Formula One circuit" with Hamilton, whose balancing of his professional and personal lives has often been askew.
Balance, though, is the key for Hamilton in 2014. Can he or will he be willing enough to drive carefully enough to manage his fuel—not to mention his life—while retaining the racing instinct that makes Lewis Hamilton a global phenomenon?
As one of the finest drivers on the grid in what is the finest car on the grid, Hamilton holds the key to the season, and the onus may well be on him to establish a comfortable early-season points lead before his rivals can retaliate.
Shortly after he signed for Mercedes in September 2012, Lewis Hamilton told Malcolm Folley of the Daily Mail that among his reasons for leaving McLaren was to "grow as a driver and as a human being."
How he fares in 2014, the biggest challenge of his career, will decide whether he will be remembered as a multiple world champion or the boy wonder who never grew up.
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