Much has been written about Lewis Hamilton’s 2011 season. Everybody has an opinion and it’s very clear that many of his performances have been disappointing.
A racing driver’s job is to get the maximum out of his car in a Grand Prix. Whatever the circumstances within the race, there is a theoretical optimum finishing position of each car. If the car is capable of finishing second, then the driver has to finish second, otherwise he has underperformed. However, it’s very hard to know for certain where each car should be in the finishing order. This is where a driver’s teammate can be used to provide a performance barometer.
When Jenson Button won the 2009 Drivers World Championship, he didn’t have a drive for 2010. Eventually he got a seat at McLaren, and many were quick to assume the new world champion would be destroyed by Hamilton. McLaren was seen as being Lewis’ team, but further to this, Lewis was simply seen as the faster driver. This set up an intriguing post-script to the 2010 season, which has twisted dramatically in 2011.
Their first Grand Prix weekend together, Bahrain in 2010, seemed to confirm what the majority expected, with Jenson consistently a few tenths behind Lewis in qualifying and finishing 22 seconds behind his teammate in the race.
However, their second Grand Prix together, the 2010 Australian Grand Prix, showed us something that many hadn’t considered. In a race of mixed conditions, Jenson read the race beautifully and drove to a brilliant win. Lewis finished 30 seconds behind in sixth, having had strong words on the pit-to-car radio during the race. Many were surprised that it wasn’t Lewis who won, but a simple analysis of the race highlighted two key differences between the drivers: their temperament when in the car and their intelligence in reading a race.
Throughout 2010 Lewis generally had the upper hand at McLaren. By the end of the season Jenson was 26 points behind, with Lewis ahead in the qualifying battle 14-5. Jenson had done a great job to be so close to his teammate, but the consensus was still that Lewis was the better driver. Importantly, that Australian Grand Prix may have been significant. It could be the first time ever that Lewis has felt well beaten by his teammate. If he didn’t feel that in Australia, he would probably have felt it two races later in China. It could be the backdrop to Lewis’ 2011 season, an underlying fear of what his teammate might be able to do.
2011 has shown us something quite different. If Australia 2010 was a surprising single-race result for the McLaren duo, then 2011 has been a surprising season. While Lewis makes error after error, Jenson drives perfect race after perfect race.
Lewis doesn’t seem to have learnt anything from Jenson. He is now making mistakes with an alarming regularity. This wasn’t the case in his debut season or in his championship winning season, and it wasn’t the case in 2010 either.
So what’s changed? The team around him is different. Perhaps he needed to break free from his dad in 2010, to take his own path. However, primarily, he is now driving a McLaren, which isn’t a natural race winner. The Red Bull is the best car on the grid and to beat it requires a special effort or variable weather conditions.
Jenson also knows what it’s like to fight for 14th place. Lewis had some experience of this in early 2009, but then the McLaren team made some considerable breakthroughs and he was back to winning again. For Jenson the chance of a podium or a healthy haul of points is still a thrill. For Lewis only a win will do. He has known for some time that he couldn’t win this year’s Drivers Championship, and his mindset has been affected as a result. However, when he was fighting for the world championship in 2010, he crashed into Felipe Massa in Italy and Mark Webber in Singapore.
So, rather than crashing frequently out of frustration at not having a car that is able to win the world championship, perhaps he’s just so desperate to win the championship that he’s going to crash whether he’s miles away from it, as this year, or if it’s close to him, as in 2010.
Meanwhile, in the other McLaren is an intelligent driver who is driving beautifully. Jenson is getting the maximum out of the McLaren. Does this year’s car suit his driving style, or is he working well with his engineers, having had 18 months to build up a relationship and an understanding with them? Whatever the precise reason, Jenson has got the maximum from his car over the past four races and has done the same at numerous other races this season. His drives in Italy and Singapore, the two most recent Grands Prix, have been as good as any we have ever seen from Jenson.
Many believe the difference between Lewis and Jenson comes down to experience. Jenson has a decade of F1 racing experience. He knows how to read a race; he can see with greater clarity what he needs to do to get the best out of his McLaren.
The intelligent analysis of an on-going race has been visible in 2011 too, with Jenson winning in Canada and Hungary in mixed conditions. The in-car temperament differences are also still apparent, with Lewis still berating his team during races, in the heat of battle. Surely it is better to have these discussions behind closed doors, face to face and away from the harsh environment that is a Formula 1 cockpit.
We must also remember that Lewis is young. He has made errors this year; he has misjudged his braking and misjudged his car’s position relative to his competitors. However, he was 26 in January. It’s not unfair nor is it an embarrassment for Lewis to put 2011 down as a "learning year." However, will he really improve next year? Will the crashes, incidents and penalties disappear? We don’t know, McLaren don’t know.
The biggest fear is that Lewis doesn’t know.
The conclusion has to be that Lewis will only become stronger. Experience is vital in professional sport. It’s something you cannot buy or simulate, and Lewis is certainly building a wealth of experience in 2011. He will look back at many opportunities lost in 2010 and 2011 and he will never want to repeat his errors again. We hope he is learning from Jenson, we hope the crashes and incidents will be eradicated, and if his car is fast enough to challenge for race wins and to fight for the World Drivers Championship in 2012, he should be simply unstoppable.