Lewis Hamilton: What's Going on with Formula 1 Ace?

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2011

YEONGAM-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 16:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren reacts on the podium after finishing second during the Korean Formula One Grand Prix at the Korea International Circuit on October 16, 2011 in Yeongam-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton burst onto the scene in 2007, going toe-to-toe with the man many considered the best driver at the time—his teammate, Fernando Alonso.

His performances in the wet were nothing short of outstanding, and after missing out by a single point in his debut season, Hamilton made amends by overtaking Timo Glock at the final corner on the last lap at the season finale in 2008 to earn the four points he needed to beat Felipe Massa to the crown.

Since then, at least one car has always been sufficiently far ahead of his McLaren to foil any hopes of a second world championship.  But despite the inadequacies of the machinery, Hamilton produced some exceptional drives to claim victories in both 2009 and 2010.

When it came to overtaking, Hamilton had built up a reputation as second to none and was widely regarded as one of the top three talents in the sport.  Many placed him first—few, if any, drivers could wring a lap out of an under-performing car like Hamilton could.

And then came 2011.

The tone for Hamilton's year was set in Malaysia—Hamilton was classified eighth after receiving a penalty for making one move too many trying to defend his position from Alonso.

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The decision was marginal at best, as was the penalty awarded to Alonso for colliding with Hamilton later in the lap.  Two further penalties at Monaco led to Hamilton stating—albeit jokingly—that he was perhaps being targeted by the stewards because he was black. 

MONTE CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Ferrari leads from Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at the Monte Carlo Circuit on May 29, 2011 in Monte Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Ge
Vladimir Rys/Getty Images

Though made in jest, the statement was grounded in truth—Lewis believed he was being victimised and was showing signs of disillusionment with the sport he loved so much.

As the season continued, mistakes began to creep into Hamilton's driving—in Canada and Belgium, errors cost him the chance to challenge for the win. In Hungary, a mistake followed by a penalty dropped Lewis to fourth, and in Singapore a somewhat harsh penalty only compounded a poor weekend.

Hamilton was at rock bottom 14 days later at the Japanese Grand Prix, after what he described as the worst race of his career.  Usually quick around the Suzuka circuit, Lewis was off the pace and again collided with Felipe Massa on the way to a disappointing fifth.

Criticism of his aggressive driving style has been an ever-present thorn in Lewis's side.  Like Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, Hamilton will always go for a gap. Such a style has not proved universally popular with his rivals—over the years Mark Webber, Alonso and (particularly in 2011) Massa have never been afraid to hold back when it came to slamming Hamilton's on-track attitude.

Additional criticism has come from former drivers, such as three-time title winner Niki Lauda.  Another triple champion, Sir Jackie Stewart, has stated Hamilton needs to improve his mental management while in the car. 

MONTREAL, CANADA - JUNE 12:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren suffers damage to his rear left wheel after driving too close to team mate Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren in the early stage of the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at the
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

While excellent at defending on the track, Lewis doesn't—at the moment, anyway—appear to respond well to criticism off it.  Perhaps the sheer volume is getting to him, or the persistency—either way, words are no longer water off the duck's back.  The pressure is getting to him, and it's showing.

Hamilton's romance with Pussycat Dolls' star Nicole Scherzinger is over, according to multiple sources.  The match has thrown him into a worldwide celebrity lifestyle which he probably never anticipated and perhaps isn't comfortable with.

It's unclear whether the relationship between Lewis and his father Anthony has ever fully healed after the son decided to end their professional ties.

And to top it off, Hamilton's generally less-regarded teammate, Jenson Button, seems to be having the time of his life.

All is not well with the mindset of the 2008 world champion.  And we've seen before what happens when a driver's focus is not directed towards his on-track activities.  It has happened three times in recent years, and each time a title-winner was affected.

In 1999, Damon Hill had clearly lost his passion for racing.  Eclipsed by his teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Damon barely went through the motions during his final season and was a shadow of his former self.

Mika Hakkinen likewise had started to look to retirement in 2001, perhaps after a high-speed crash in the season-opening race.  Just two seasons after his second championship, Hakkinen seemed unmotivated and had lost his edge.  He decided to take a sabbatical at the end of the year, but few believed he would return—and he never did.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 14:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren Mercedes and his girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls are seen on the grid before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Many would say Kimi Raikkonen never really cared too much even at his peak, but his decline after finally claiming a deserved world crown in 2007 was spectacular.  Clearly disinterested and allowing his off-track life to interfere, he seemed content to make up the numbers, only waking up to set the fastest lap throughout 2008, and trundling around in an uncompetitive car in 2009 before leaving the sport.

What happened to those men is happening to Lewis Hamilton—the loss of focus, not the winding down to retirement.  A healthy mental state and passion for driving is as important, if not more, than natural talent. 

For much of the current season, a weight has sat on the shoulders of the young Brit, and even the combined talent of Senna, Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio would be insufficient to raise him back to his best.

We can only see the facade Hamilton wears as he battles his demons, but it's a facade that is slipping. 

The Korean Grand Prix was difficult to watch for someone who has followed Lewis's career since he was a 13-year-old kart driver.  A first pole of the year didn't even raise a smile from the usually jovial Englishman, and Hamilton's comments about his poor mental state only confirmed what many suspected.

But such a public admission could be a sign of better things to come.  Maybe by admitting to and confronting the problems, Hamilton can move forward and vanquish them.  He needs time to mend his personal life and get his focus back onto what he loves best—racing.

And hopefully, we'll have the old Lewis back full-time in 2012.

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