Thursday, February 2

‘Aggressive’ Lewis Hamilton ready to compete for eighth world title | Lewis Hamilton

The sporting greats operate on a different plane, not only of performance but of personality. Lewis Hamilton has never been more demonstrably of this pantheon. As suitably ominous winds swept across the desert surrounding the Bahrain International Circuit on Friday before Formula One’s season-opening race, Hamilton was preternaturally calm before the storm.

Buffeted by the blows of disappointment from last year’s finale and now about to begin the season on the back foot, Hamilton cut a remarkably relaxed, composed figure in the paddock. Yet there is a very singular resolution to his character of which his rivals should be very concerned. Hamilton is at his absolute best when coming back from adversity.

“I will be a more aggressive driver this year, you’ll see,” he said here. “I want to be the best I can be and to somehow raise my game. I’m not sitting here with any grudge and I don’t have any baggage. It is important to let go and all I do is try to shape what is ahead of me.”

The driver competing for a record eighth F1 title is far from the youth who made his debut in 2007. Now 37 and in his 16th season, the young man who made such a mark in his early years with his raw talent has honed it with mental strength and fine judgment. His remarkable success of him has not merely been a factor of superior machinery, he has been the differentiator.

This season might yet be the hardest he has faced; this title would be the crowning moment of a glittering career.

Last year he battled fiercely against Max Verstappen in a Red Bull that was, for large parts of the season, the better car. I have dragged it to the wire, the final race in Abu Dhabi. Leading at the Yas Marina circuit, he was denied only when a controversial decision by race director Michael Masi gave Verstappen the opportunity to take the win and the title on the final lap. Hamilton described the result as manipulated, his Mercedes team protested but it came to nothing.

He has acknowledged that Verstappen was not at fault, having only executed exactly as any driver would have done. He congratulated the Dutchman, remarkably stoic in the face of bitter disappointment, then retreated afterwards, silent on social media amid debate over whether he would retire from the sport. There was, it transpired, no such thing on his mind. I intended to come back. He has a point to make, after all.

Max Verstappen will be in Lewis Hamilton’s sights all season. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

The mercurial talent of Verstappen, buoyed by his first title, confident, aggressive and spoiling for a fight in a car that looks fearsomely quick again, is the first of Hamilton’s obstacles. Were that not enough, entering the new season Mercedes look to be under pressure. They are by no means in real trouble but in what may be a three-way fight with Red Bull and Ferrari they have problems to solve. Their car has a genuine issue with what is known as possession.

An unexpected side effect of the new regulations, it causes the car to heavily jar up and down on a straight. It is caused by the floor being pushed too close to the track by the under-car ground-effect downforce. It stalls the airflow under the floor, resulting in a loss of downforce lifting the car back up on its suspension.

Mercedes have it badly and their resulting lack of pace is not sandbagging. On Thursday, Hamilton’s new teammate, George Russell, confirmed it, noting that he believed it could not be turned around this week. The car has the potential to be very quick, just not yet, in which time Verstappen could grab a significant lead.

Jenson Button, who drove alongside Hamilton at McLaren for three years between 2010 and 2012, believes his mentality will prove key.

The pair enjoyed a very competitive rivalry with Button being one of only two teammates (alongside Nico Rosberg) who have managed to beat Hamilton on points over a season. He recalls Hamilton’s greatest strength from him as one rare among drivers.

“If he had a bad weekend it hit him hard but he always came back stronger than he was before,” Button says. “It was unusual because a lot of people it would have affected in a negative way but he always came back in the next race and go out and either win or beat me, he was very unusual like that, in that a tough weekend spurred him on at the next one.”

This time Hamilton is coming back from more than just a bad weekend, rather, what any driver would consider their worst nightmare. But Button, a world champion himself for Brawn in 2009 and now ambassador for the Williams team, instinctively identifies Hamilton as appearing to be wholly on top of it.

“Everyone thinks F1 is a physical game, it’s not, it’s a mental game,” he says. “So many drivers have amazing ability but if their head’s not in the right place it just doesn’t work, it does not click.”

Hamilton has clearly been clicking like a metronome. Nor should he be expected to open the season with anything but absolute commitment as his words from him in Bahrain make clear. Last year, playing the long game, he was circumspect around the aggressive Verstappen, discretion the better part of valor. Points over point-making. This year there will be no early pass. If the pair go wheel-to-wheel Hamilton can be expected to push back from the off. Youth may have its head but not without consequences. “From the word go, Lewis now understands the beast Max Verstappen,” as Button noted.

At Mercedes there is without doubt no shortage of determination to come back after what they felt was an injustice rather than a straight defeat.

Hamilton will be leading their charge. “It’s like a new lease of life for Lewis,” adds Button. “He comes to this season so excited about the fight again because he has finally found someone who can push him to the limit.”

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