Lewis Hamilton has one main target this year – to win back the Formula 1 title he felt was unfairly stolen from him in 2016.
Not unjustifiably, in Hamilton’s view his former team-mate Nico Rosberg managed to win the championship only because of a reliability record at Mercedes skewed in his favour. As such, in Hamilton’s mind, he might have lost, but he was not beaten.
Rosberg has gone this year, replaced by the former Williams driver Valtteri Bottas, but that is a detail that does not change Hamilton’s primary focus.
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“I definitely don’t want to finish second,” the three-time champion says. “Every year you generally set the same goals but you might add more. All drivers want to win but not everyone has the ability or the opportunity.
“I am looking for that fourth world championship. It’s there for the taking again. I am up against another great driver in Valtteri and hopefully Red Bull and Ferrari will be up there as well.”
A winter reset for Hamilton
Losing out to Rosberg in 2016 clearly hurt. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, Hamilton has been distinctly prickly when asked about how he was affected by it.
“Nowhere near as much as you think,” he said at the launch of the Mercedes car. “It doesn’t change my life. You just move onwards and hopefully upwards.” And that was your lot.
Hamilton turned 32 in February, is heading into his 11th season in F1, and has described himself as “the same old” Lewis this year. But Mercedes people detect a subtle shift.
Rosberg’s decision to retire was always going to shift the dynamic in the team.
He and Hamilton were the same age and their rivalry went back to their teens, when they were karting contemporaries, team-mates and friends.
The friendship died, killed by the intensity of being each other’s only rival for the biggest prize in motorsport. But there was always an inherent balance between the two.
Hamilton’s talent and fundamental superiority on the track meant he was always the dominant figure in the team. But the German had been at Mercedes for three years longer and, a much less demanding character, had a more stable relationship with the team and the company.
He was Mr Corporate and Dependable, whereas Hamilton, for all his greater status and appeal, was harder to manage.
In one sense, little will change with Bottas’ arrival. Hamilton is who he is, and he will be just as determined to win again. He will remain the superstar in the team; the low-wattage Bottas likely an even more hassle-free employee than was Rosberg. The two will have equal status and they will compete for wins in the same way as Rosberg and Hamilton did.
Hamilton has made clear some things will not change for him personally. The restless lifestyle, the frequent trips to New York and Los Angeles to pursue his wider interests are still very much on the agenda.
“Self-motivation is difficult for the human race to find each year and each day,” Hamilton says. “I am very lucky I have fans, family and friends who motivate me to grow and be better every day. I will always do the things I do and explore the world and meet new people and new cultures.”
Some in F1 see this as a negative, as a reflection that Hamilton is not fully focused on the job in hand if he is flying back and forwards across the Atlantic so often. For Hamilton, it is a way of keeping boredom at bay and using a creative outlet to stimulate him and keep him centred.
In another way, though, there has been a reset for Hamilton this year.
The baggage and residual complications of Hamilton’s rivalry with Rosberg have gone and been replaced with a more fundamentally straightforward team-mate relationship. And removing that tension has simplified matters within Mercedes.
Inevitably, Mercedes will lean on Hamilton more – because of his record, his length of time with the team, and because Bottas is inevitably still learning the ropes and does not yet carry the gravitas that repeated success brings.
That gives Hamilton an opportunity to strengthen his position, which he is already doing by exploiting the influence and motivational possibilities his status gives him.
Hamilton, it is said, has if anything working been harder and better than ever during preparations for the season – and so far has stepped up to the leadership opportunity that Rosberg’s departure presents.
There were plenty of frictions between driver and team last year – Hamilton’s controversial comments about engine failures; his behaviour at the Japanese Grand Prix when he walked out of a news conference; the team’s attempt to interfere in his battle with Rosberg at the final race of the season.
But these were sorted out in a clear-the-air meeting in the kitchen at team boss Toto Wolff’s pristine Oxford home before Christmas.
The result of all these factors, insiders say, is that they are seeing a more mature and reflective Hamilton so far this year.
Wolff said at the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday: “There was a point towards the end of the year where we sat down and it felt like a reset of the relationship and so many things came out which needed to be discussed. And since then I have perceived him as being in a really good place. He is happy, he is motivated and I have seen the strongest Lewis that I have seen so far consistently over the weekend.”
How the pressures of the on-track battle affect all this will be clear only as the season unfolds.
A point to prove, even now
Pre-season testing had suggested Mercedes would face some genuine opposition from Ferrari this season, and the opening grand prix weekend in Australia has confirmed it.
Hamilton took pole, and looked superb all weekend, but this is a track on which he has usually excelled and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari was only 0.268 seconds behind him.
And the 32-year-old is now expecting a close fight with Ferrari, not just in Melbourne on Sunday, but over the whole season.
“They are obviously very close and that is great for the fans,” Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t say there is relief. I truly believe in all the work they have done but in testing I really couldn’t have done the lap he had done.
“But coming here I felt even if we were behind, it doesn’t matter because I have the strongest team. The fact we have come here and we are still ahead is a beautiful thing but they are very close I have to keep applying the pressure and that is what I am here to do.”
The fact Bottas was within 0.3secs of him in his first qualifying session with Mercedes will have made Hamilton sit up and take notice – he praised the Finn for doing a “great job” afterwards. And the prospect of a battle with Vettel is just another reason for Hamilton to be on top of his game this year.
It is no secret that Hamilton regards McLaren’s Fernando Alonso as his only true rival out on track in terms of outright ability – each has expressed their admiration for the other’s talent often enough – and the fact Vettel has won more titles than them burns both Hamilton and the Spaniard.
This season is Hamilton’s chance to put the record straight, equal Vettel’s tally of four titles and beat him in a straight fight doing it.
“Ferrari have done such a great job so we have to stay on our toes,” Hamilton said. “I am down for the battle with anyone. He is a four-time world champion so of course I want to be racing with him because if I finish ahead it makes me look good, it makes me look better.”
It was a theme Hamilton had already addressed over the winter.
“I’ve never wished to go out and dominate,” he says. “Of course I want to have a car I can fight for a title with, but for the fans it’s best when there’s multiple teams fighting.”
For the first time since the start of Mercedes’ domination in 2014, it looks like Hamilton will get his wish.
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