Gentlemen, start your engines. The crackle of anticipation in Melbourne’s Albert Park was palpable on Friday, and it had nothing to do with the fighter jet screaming overhead or the fact that the Australian Rules football season was about to start. Instead, the fascination was focused squarely upon the 3¼ miles of twisting lakeside circuit where, in all likelihood, Lewis Hamilton stands to start his quest for a fourth world title with a statement of unanswerable dominance.
It might sound a bold claim with 20 races yet to run, but Hamilton looks in his latest guise like an untouchable force of nature. He has arrived in Australia sporting a few more physical adornments, not least a nose piercing and a tattoo on his neck that says ‘God is love’, but behind the wheel he has never seemed so peerless. Brushing aside the notion that he might be troubled by team-mate Valtteri Bottas, he eclipsed the Finn in practice by more than half a second and left nearest challengers Ferrari flailing in his contrails.
There is a dawning possibility that Hamilton this year will be locked only in a battle with himself
In this, the first race of Chase Carey’s Liberty Media era, the hope is that Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel can go head-to-head in the best tradition of F1’s defining duels. The American owners would love nothing more than a confrontation between two mercurial personalities to galvanise interest and controversy. But there is a dawning possibility that Hamilton this year will be locked only in a battle with himself. At his physical peak, and with perhaps the best machine Mercedes have built beneath his feet, Hamilton has a chance in 2017 to cut a swathe through the record books.
Remember 2004? That was the year Michael Schumacher wrapped up the last of his seven titles in Belgium, by the end of August. Few would want to rewind to a period of such one-sidedness, but be in no doubt that Hamilton is capable of marmalising the opposition to the same degree. He already lies second on the all-time list of race wins with 53, two more than Alain Prost, albeit 38 adrift of Schumacher. The German’s astonishing haul of 91 victories still appears out of reach, but if Hamilton scorches all before him this season he might like to re-think.
After all, Mercedes are no mere transient force, to be sacrificed on the altar of rewritten regulations. They are, as their stunning practice times illustrate, a collective of admirable slickness and adaptability, who have weathered a winter of wholesale rule changes to extend their margin of superiority over the rest. The dejection of Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, was evident. “Being realistic, Lewis is the absolute favourite,” he said, having watched both his cars beaten by a second by the runaway Mercedes, a distant speck on the horizon. “He was the favourite coming in and all this has done is underline that.”
Hamilton has done his utmost to ensure that the errors he committed in Australia 12 months ago, when he started on pole but fell away to sixth after the first corner, are not repeated. Then, he was still distracted by the euphoria of becoming a triple world champion. This time, with the agony of losing out by five points in the championship to Nico Rosberg still burnt into his psyche, he is not about to tolerate an action replay. His own confidence was reflected in the tone of Toto Wolff, who said, with some understatement: “It was a fairly decent Friday for us.”
This is supposed to be the beginning of F1’s brave new world. While the blissed-out atmosphere of Melbourne in the late Australian summer does much to create a feeling of renewal, the action on the circuit suggests the F1 hierarchy is not as fluid as Liberty would like. The practice time-sheet, headed by Mercedes and with Ferrari and Red Bull the most plausible challengers, offered a mirror image of the picture in 2016. Certain teams have also been less than obliging in responding to Liberty’s desire to showcase the drivers’ personalities. Ferrari have not put up Kimi Raikkonen, a hugely popular figure here, for a single pre-race interview.
One of the main sources of intrigue is to see how the drivers’ conditioning holds up under the increased pressures imposed by these radically redesigned cars. Paddy Lowe, the Williams technical director who has recently moved from Mercedes, predicted that many would be pushed “beyond their human limit” and that more mistakes were likely to be seen towards the end of races as a result. While Nico Hulkenberg and Max Verstappen have been posting pictures of themselves on Instagram coping with the increased loads in the gym, Hamilton is confident of holding his own in this department. He has been preparing for the experience with disciplines as diverse as Thai boxing and paddle-boarding.
Now, though, comes the moment of reckoning. This is the point when Hamilton has the opportunity to assert his alpha-male status beyond any dispute. It is one that we can expect him to seize. The chastening loss to Rosberg has taught him that his time at the apex of this sport is finite, that there is only so long he can keep such audacious gunslingers as Verstappen at bay. At last, he has acquired the temperament, the experience and the car to demonstrate that he is, as Wolff describes it, the finest driver of his generation.