There were times recently when, despite a dominant car and two Formula One world championships, it appeared Lewis Hamilton was not taking much pleasure in climbing behind the wheel. The battle with his former friend Nico Rosberg was marked by ill-temper and the dynamic between him and his team was strained. The lack of competition from the rest of the grid had made the title fight a personal and internal battle at Mercedes for three years. Not anymore. Ferrari’s resurgence has re-energised the fight, united the team and has Hamilton raring to go again.
The enthusiasm for a proper inter-team battle is more than shared by Hamilton. In China, having started the season solidly beaten into second place by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in Australia, the overwhelming impression from the three-times world champion was one of pleasure at the challenge presented by defeat.
“When you get out of the starting blocks first time and you win a grand prix it is nice but to have a bit of adversity in front of us, that is when we unite the most and I am relishing that,” he says. “Hours after the race it was still just as painful as it ever is to lose but we share that in the company, between each other and we use it to move us forward. I also have great belief that we can overcome it.”
Formula One has new regulations and new cars for 2017 and Hamilton appears to reflect the sport’s intended reinvigoration. Certainly he is hungry. “I want to keep winning. I just want to win,” he says. “I still love racing. I still love the challenge of going out and having to better myself, better myself as a driver and putting the car on the edge. That is what I have loved doing since I was a kid. I am still very much the same as I was when I was eight years old.”
Last year, as defeat to Rosberg loomed he was driving as well as ever to claim wins in the final four races but, knowing the numbers were against him, he appeared to take little pleasure in it. Now he seems more comfortable with himself and he gleefully threw signed caps to fans who had seen few cars on track on Friday after poor weather prevented running in both practice sessions.
Over the winter, there was a rapprochement between driver and team after Rosberg’s retirement and acknowledgement from Mercedes of how important Hamilton is to them. “You cannot, on one side, expect to have the most ambitious driver in the car that will score the result that you are trying to achieve, and on the other side expect them to be corporate robots,” said the team principal, Toto Wolff.
A comfortable accommodation then but made more urgent for both sides by the threat from Ferrari. Not too much should be read into their win at Albert Park – the circuit is not typical – but their car has pace and Mercedes are feeling the pressure. It has proved galvanising for Hamilton. He and Vettel have exchanged compliments already and for Hamilton battling someone who is not in the same garage and sharing the same data is a motivational factor missing from the past three years.
“When you are competing against your team-mate your cards are always in view. When you are racing against another team you are just trying to be at your best all the time up against an unknown,” he says. “It is like doing a maths test; if you have the cheat list already you are not learning and not challenging yourself. But if you are trying to learn it and really figure out a way to make it work for yourself that is how you can discover how far you can go and how good you can get with it. And that is why I love the challenge of racing against another team.”
How long the two drivers’ relationship remains harmonious and whether repeated defeats will continue to be taken so well have the potential to make a fascinating story. “I think it’s great, the sport needs more of it,” Hamilton says. “We need Williams back there, we need McLaren back there, then we would have Ferrari, Mercedes, Williams and McLaren all in the fight – classic teams. The fight would be awesome.”
Only a handful of laps were completed in the first practice session and none in the second owing to poor visibility preventing the medical helicopter from landing at the designated hospital and Hamilton did not complete any timed laps. The conditions were wet but not undriveable but in the event of any accident it would have been impossible to reach the hospital by road within the FIA’s maximum time limit of 20 minutes.
Similar conditions are forecast for Saturday and Sunday but reports the race would be run a day earlier after qualifying to ensure it went ahead were denied by the FIA race director, Charlie Whiting.