This time last year Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen were engaged in one of the most intense, closely-fought and fascinating title battles in Formula One history. Skip forward 12 months and Verstappen is on the verge of a second world drivers’ championship while his British rival sits down in sixth in the standings with a points total almost exactly half of his Red Bull counterpart.
In Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix, both men had messy and difficult afternoons. Hamilton finished ninth after running wide at the start and later crashing into the barriers and damaging his front wing. He lost two places – to Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel – in one corner on the penultimate lap after misjudging the conditions under braking.
In contrast to his usual serene progress through the pack when starting out of position – see Belgium and Italy – Verstappen finished only seventh after starting eighth following a critical error of his own.
The difference this year is that Verstappen’s woes were in stark contrast to his season as a whole, whereas Hamilton’s troubles are more symptomatic of a difficult year. Hamilton is a driver who often finds his best form after the summer break. In 2022, there has been a reversal of that trend – since F1’s return at the end of August he failed to finish in Belgium, finished fourth at Zandvoort having led the race, fifth at Monza and now ninth at Marina Bay.
Hamilton said after the race that he would not “punish himself” for his mistake in “tricky conditions”, saying the W13 is particularly problematic in the wet. It too was a poor return for team-mate George Russell, who finished 14th and last on the road, two laps down.
Hamilton’s record of winning a race in every F1 season he has competed in is under serious threat, and now looks seriously unlikely to be maintained with just five rounds to go. Earlier last week he described that particular statistic as “irrelevant” and he is correct there. Nobody will think any worse of him as a driver if he fails to win a grand prix this year – but there are other issues that might.
Losing third place to Sainz at the first corner and running wide was a typical first-lap incident with little blame on Hamilton’s part. However, his crash and botched move on Vettel added to a growing list of errors that we are unaccustomed to seeing at this frequency from the seven-time champion. It is difficult to think of a Hamilton season with this many mistakes and with so many public apologies to his team.
Hamilton’s catalogue of errors this season
Let us remind ourselves of his 2022 errors. In Belgium he retired on the first lap after damaging his car in a crash with Fernando Alonso which was entirely his own fault. At the restart at the Dutch Grand Prix, when he was in contention, he was accidentally in the wrong engine mode, which allowed Verstappen to take the lead before the start/finish line.
There was the qualifying crash in Austria, when both he and Russell careered into the tyre barrier with a potentially race-winning car. At Imola he apologised again after arguably his worst weekend in years, finishing 13th as Russell finished fourth.
Why has this happened? Earlier in the year when Mercedes’ problems with the W13’s stiffness and ride quality were at its worst, the team and particularly Hamilton were trying to unlock that in big chunks with unusual set-ups in Friday practice. It rarely worked for Hamilton. Russell is used to worse cars and seemed happier just to try and unlock the potential in the car as it was at the time.
With a better understanding of their car, things have now evened up – Hamilton has out-qualified Russell in the last four races – though Hamilton still trails by 32 points in the championship. Hamilton has not been able to completely reel his team-mate in because he too is an excellent driver performing at a high level. Some of Hamilton’s riskier moves may have come from frustration or were made because, realistically, there is little of significance on the line for a man with 103 race wins and seven titles.
The Mercedes rivalry
The Russell rivalry is a fascinating one. As well as facing the prospect of a first ever winless season, Hamilton also looks likely to lose to his team-mate over a season for the third time in 16 years. It only happened before in 2012 against Jenson Button at McLaren and in 2016 in his title battle against Nico Rosberg at Mercedes.
On Sunday, with Russell starting from the pit lane and Hamilton third, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Hamilton to reduce the 35-point deficit. Yet he only ate into that by two points.
Losing to Russell this year would hardly tank – and nor should it – Hamilton’s reputation, but it would give fuel to those who would say it is the first time he has had a serious competitor alongside him at Mercedes since 2016 and he comes out second best. Reverse the drivers’ results and performances and one might be tempted to say it would have been a good year for Russell, but with still a bit to learn. Yet Russell deserves enormous credit for an outstanding season alongside one of the all-time greats.
This has certainly been a disappointing year for Hamilton. The 32 points he needs to make up on Carlos Sainz and 33 on Russell makes it difficult for him to avoid finishing sixth, the lowest position of any driver from the top three teams. The “worst of the best” spot, if you will, ahead of the “best of the rest” place occupied by Lando Norris. It would be his lowest-ranked season in F1.
A career-changing moment?
There are caveats, though and the points table does not tell us everything. His poor run of form since the summer break came on the back of five podiums in a row when his performances were at a level close to, if not at, his peak. Ill-timed safety cars skewed some of his results downward earlier in the season and he may well have won without its intervention in Holland. He now leads George Russell 10-7 in qualifying and, realistically, the pair have been evenly matched throughout the year.
Still, even if Russell were to finish more than 50 points ahead of Hamilton this year, Mercedes will, rightly, still give their drivers equal treatment in 2023. Although Hamilton recently said he still has “plenty of fuel in the tank” when talking about his own F1 future, Russell is Mercedes’ future and is quickly becoming its present.
Yet, for the first time in his decade at Mercedes, Hamilton will not be the clear favourite Mercedes driver to finish ahead in the championship, and that feels like a significant moment for both men.