Formula One: It’s Lewis Hamilton, who else!

Three races into the 2020 season, Lewis Hamilton has added two wins to his tally, and the likelihood of Hamilton equalling the two most significant F1 records this year looks that much greater.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain celebrates after winning the Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring racetrack in Mogyorod.   -  AP

“Hi. I’m Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship and one day I want to be racing your cars,” the British youngster, then just nine years old and still in his early karting days, told McLaren team principal Ron Dennis in 1994. “Phone me in nine years, we’ll sort something out then,” Dennis wrote in his autograph book in response.

Dennis didn’t wait for nine years for that call. McLaren had signed Hamilton to its driver development programme by 1998.

Nine years after that, Hamilton made his Formula One debut for McLaren, finishing on the podium in his very first race and nearly winning the title that season — heading into the final race of 2007, he led teammate Fernando Alonso, the two-time reigning world champion, by four points, but an average race in Sao Paulo saw Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen leapfrog both to win the World Drivers’ Championship.

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After Hamilton became champion for the first time in the next year, Michael Schumacher, then the holder of nearly every notable record in F1, told BBC Sport that the British driver could win seven titles, as the German legend had. “I would say, absolutely, yes,” said Schumacher, adding: “Nobody thought, even me, that I could beat (Juan Manuel) Fangio. Then I did. Records are there to be beaten.”

Continuing the theme of “when, not if” that has defined his career, Hamilton entered the coronavirus-delayed 2020 F1 season with the chance of matching Schumacher’s seven drivers’ titles. With 84 race wins, he was also within striking distance of the German’s 91. But with a provisional eight-race calendar, it seemed unlikely Hamilton would take that record this year.

Now, three races into the 2020 season, Hamilton has added two wins to his tally, and F1 has added two races to the calendar and is in discussions for more, making the likelihood of Hamilton equalling the two most significant F1 records this year that much greater.

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Hamilton underlined that drive — nay, surge — towards greatness with an unchallenged win from pole at the Hungarian Grand Prix and took the lead in the Drivers’ Championship from Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. At the end of the second triple-header — three races in as many weekends — in F1 history, Hamilton leads the standings with 63 points, five ahead of Bottas and a massive 30 ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. (To put that in perspective, a race win gets a driver 25 points.)

But the weekend at the Hungaroring was as much about the power of the Mercedes engines as it was about Hamilton. The two Mercedes were first and second in two of the three practice sessions as well as in qualifying, while the two Mercedes-powered Racing Point cars were right behind them in each.

Hamilton had such a lead over the rest of the field — he lapped every other car up to Red Bull’s Alexander Albon in fifth place — that he pitted for fresh tyres towards the end of the race just so he could set the fastest lap and take the additional point that comes with it.

Red Bull’s Alexander Albon, who could only qualify 13th, overtook Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the later stages of the race to take fifth place in both the race and the drivers’ standings.   -  Getty Images

 

Poor start costs Bottas dearly

Valtteri Bottas, who finished runner-up in the Drivers’ Championship to Hamilton in 2019, has started this season as he did the last: win the first race, take second place in the second, lose the championship lead to Hamilton at the third.

Bottas is fighting not just the odds, but history in the making. The Finn is the only driver able to come close to or match Hamilton’s blistering speed at the moment — a doff of the hat to Mercedes’ power. Nico Rosberg was able to beat Hamilton to the 2016 title 385 points to 380, but he’d needed some serendipitous results — Hamilton retiring from the lead in Malaysia being the best example — to achieve that.

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The luck that Bottas needed wasn’t there at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix as he dropped behind Max Verstappen’s surging Red Bull as well as the Racing Point cars. By the second round of pit stops, Bottas was back up to third and was nearing striking distance of Verstappen with less than 20 laps to go. Mercedes then gambled by pitting Bottas for a third time, hoping his outright speed advantage — the fresh tyres made him well over a second faster per lap than Verstappen — would get him to second place. The gamble didn’t pay off, and neither did it get him the extra point for the fastest lap.

Verstappen almost misses the start

“Max redeemed himself,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the Hungarian GP, summing up his lead driver’s performance.

The Milton Keynes team had a troubled weekend at the Hungaroring, where Verstappen took his first pole position in F1 last year and finished second. The Dutch prodigy again finished second at the track, but he nearly didn’t start the race — he crashed into the wall at Turn 12 on his way to the grid! It took a masterful performance by his pit crew to get the damaged car ready with less than 30 seconds in hand, a performance both Horner and Verstappen explicitly acknowledged after the race.

READ| Hamilton wins 8th Hungarian GP to equal Schumacher F1 record

Verstappen’s own performance can be described as dogged. He had a blistering start to jump from seventh to third and he later took second place from Racing Point’s Lance Stroll during the first round of pit stops. From then on, it was a matter of holding on to the spot — in a nutshell, holding off Bottas.

In the second Red Bull, Albon had a redemptive race at the end of a difficult weekend where he could only qualify 13th. He, too, had a brilliant start, and the Thai-British driver overtook Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the later stages of the race to take fifth place in both the race and the drivers’ standings.

A surprise, and then a disappointment

The two Ferrari cars took the third row on the grid in the team’s best qualifying session of the three races so far this season. But the difference between their speed and that of Mercedes — and even Red Bull, Racing Point and McLaren at this point — is so great that Vettel acknowledged post-race that he wasn’t surprised at being lapped by Hamilton.

In Hungary, Vettel started fifth and finished sixth to add eight points to the one he scored with his 10th place in Austria two weekends prior (and zero from his retirement after colliding with teammate Charles Leclerc at the Styrian Grand Prix).

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Vettel cuts a sorry figure — tragic, to some — these days as Hamilton, a year and a half his senior, basks in the limelight. It was Vettel who broke Hamilton’s record by becoming the youngest F1 world champion in 2010, and the German went on to take the drivers’ title three more times in the next three seasons. At 26, Vettel was a four-time world champion. Most wins in a season, most pole positions in a season, most points scored in a season, et cetera, et cetera.

Come 2020, Vettel, at age 33, is without a drive at the end of the season after failing to extend his contract with Ferrari, a team with which he was expected to be the true successor to compatriot Schumacher. Six seasons with the Italian marque have seen two runner-up finishes in the Drivers’ Championship for Vettel, in 2017 and ’18. But the frequent racing mistakes in 2019 that ended in fifth place in the standings seem to have compounded the German’s decline — juxtaposed against the stellar rise of his Ferrari teammate, Leclerc, who had a miserable race in Hungary and finished 11th.

Formula One fans watch the race from a hill outside the circuit during the Hungarian Grand Prix.   -  Reuters

 

The rise of the rest

The midfield teams are faster and stronger than they have been in the last few seasons of F1, though they are still a bit off the pace of the frontrunners, who have been pared down to two (Mercedes and Red Bull) this year from three (with Ferrari dropping down).

McLaren took the fastest lap in the first two races, Lando Norris doing so in the first on his way to third place in Austria, and Carlos Sainz Jr taking the extra point at the Styrian Grand Prix. Norris, the breakout driver this season, sits in fourth place in the standings, seven points behind Verstappen.

Racing Point has shown time and again, in the short period that F1 has been on this season, that its raw speed is second only to Mercedes, whose engines power their cars. But that power has not translated into a podium yet. Nonetheless, it is just a point behind its fellow British competitor McLaren.