The Shanghai International Circuit, the home for the Chinese Grand Prix, has been the venue for some of the most emotional moments of Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One career.
The 2007 event is, of course, the first memory that comes to mind when you think of Hamilton in China. He began that October afternoon expecting to enjoy the evening as F1’s first rookie world champion but a race-ending trip to the gravel trap as his McLaren made its way to the pitlane entry signalled the beginning of the end of his title hopes.
He refused to make the same mistake the following year, claiming a victory that is arguably the most underrated of his career. Hamilton arrived in Shanghai that weekend with memories of the previous year still fresh in his mind and only a matter of days after he had suffered an attack of the yips at Fuji, converting his pole position into a 12th place finish. His victory that day, in the penultimate race of the season, gave him an ultimately decisive seven-point lead over Felipe Massa of Ferrari.
His next win in China, in 2011, saw him come through the stress of a pre-race technical problem to pass Sebastian Vettel for the win with only four laps remaining. The range of emotions he experienced during that afternoon led to him uncharacteristically sobbing during the podium ceremony.
Given his history in Shanghai, you would have expected him to react strongly to his third victory at the circuit.
This, after all, was the weekend in which he broke the long-standing record of pole positions for a British driver, with his 34th pole moving Hamilton ahead of Jim Clark, two-time world champion. This was the weekend in which he moved ahead of five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio and alongside Clark and Mercedes colleague Niki Lauda, in the list of all-time grand prix winners. This was the weekend in which he secured the first hat-trick of race wins in his career and regained his title as the most successful driver in China.
But the overwhelming joy of yesteryear has now been replaced by a satisfaction and self-assurance—a sign of his growth in maturity and relaxation, as well as his renewed sense of focus and dedication for the ultimate prize.
Hamilton is now operating at the level that he was expected to make his own ever since he burst onto the scene seven years ago and that some suggested he would never reach again during the darkest days of 2011.
It is almost as if Hamilton has used the pain (or limited success) of the last five years as fuel to fire his 2014 campaign, the season that was always targeted as the one by both driver and his Mercedes team. And it has certainly felt that way first in Malaysia and then in Shanghai, with Hamilton learning lessons from the Vettel School of Winning by securing a stunning pole position on the Saturday before nestling the win in his back pocket by the end of the first stint on Sunday.
Hamilton had only previously been capable of this type of performance on a once-per-year basis, when he blew the opposition away to such an extent that the result of the race was almost a foregone conclusion even prior to Saturday’s qualification session. That he has embarked upon three consecutive wins, all in such comfortable fashion, is testament to Hamilton’s comfort within Mercedes as well as the team’s stunning W05 car.
Ironically, however, the sheer pace of the W05 could be Hamilton’s biggest hurdle in his quest to claim a second world championship.
After qualifying fourth due to his failure to string a lap together under pressure, colliding with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas at the first corner and driving the entire race without the help of car telemetry, Nico Rosberg—Hamilton’s teammate and closest rival for the title—should have lost his lead of the world championship in Shanghai.
The incompetence of Ferrari and Red Bull, however, turned what should have been a recovery drive for Rosberg—who had dropped to a distant sixth by the end of the opening lap—into a standard 2014 race.
Rosberg, quoted by the official F1 website, bemoaned that it was “not a perfect weekend for me” and how “too many things went wrong,” but the fact that he still claimed second on a “weekend of damage limitation” reflects just how huge Mercedes’ pace advantage is over the rest of the field and how neither Hamilton nor Rosberg can rely on rival teams or drivers to take points away from one another.
And although that will give both drivers the inspiration to know that they stand a chance of claiming a podium from almost any position and any circumstance, it makes the subject of race retirements and no-scores even more crucial than usual. This has already been evident in 2014, with Hamilton still unable to displace Rosberg despite taking 75 points from the last three races after retiring in Australia and will become crucial as the season progresses.
We are safe to assume that a repeat of Sebastian Vettel’s 2010 championship win, which saw the Red Bull driver take the title despite failing to score on four occasions, will not occur.
Prior to the beginning of the season, it was thought that the only thing that could prevent Hamilton from securing the title would be Rosberg’s intellect. Although the former was the faster driver, it was thought, Rosberg’s ability to think outside the box and keep his calm would prove decisive in the inter-team battle.
The bizarre contradiction that took place on Friday at Mercedes, with Rosberg telling Sky Sports that he had held a discussion with Hamilton about the race-long battles they had in the Bahrain Grand Prix before Hamilton denied one had taken place, confirmed that the British driver was winning both on and off track.
Rosberg, despite almost certainly being the one to believe in this situation, was shown to be touchy, vulnerable and in need of assurance, while Hamilton completed the role reversal by appearing unmoved, mature and relaxed—effectively dismissing his teammate’s complaints in a much ado about nothing manner.
With Rosberg rattled and Hamilton currently enjoying the finest run of form of his career, this world championship is now his to lose.