Dealing with defeat: Why Lewis Hamilton is far from finished with F1

Formula 1

In the Hollywood version of his year, 2022 would have been his shot at redemption. Fuelled by his feelings of injustice following last December’s title decider in Abu Dhabi — in which a controversial decision by race control resulted in him losing the championship to Max Verstappen on the final lap — he would have reclaimed the crown this season.

No doubt, there would have been some setbacks along the way, perhaps more controversy at the final race, but the end result would have been a record-breaking eighth world championship tied neatly in a bow.

But Formula One doesn’t follow a Hollywood script. Far from it.

Unlike the movies where the main character invariably overcomes the odds, an F1 driver’s chances of success are almost entirely reliant on the performance of their car. And the stark reality in 2022 is that, despite a run of eight consecutive years fighting for titles, Hamilton’s Mercedes car simply isn’t fast enough to challenge Verstappen’s Red Bull.

Mercedes’ drop in performance from one year to the next can be traced to a major change in the technical regulations over the winter, which shuffled the team down the order. As a result, Hamilton currently sits sixth in the drivers’ standings and with six races remaining this year is already mathematically ruled out of the championship. The prospect of an eighth world title feels distant, and for the first time in his F1 career there is a real danger he will go an entire season without a race win.

Mercedes’ lack of performance was evident as soon as the car hit the track during pre-season testing in February, and by the fourth race of the year at Imola, Hamilton had already dismissed his chances of fighting for the title. It didn’t take long for his comments to ignite speculation over his future, with several onlookers suggesting he might use the lack of performance as an easy excuse to retire.

Hamilton’s response came via an Instagram post soon after Imola, with an image caption that read: “Working on my masterpiece, I’ll be the one to decide when it’s finished.”

But as determined as Hamilton has been to carry on, he has undoubtedly had to shift his expectations this year. After eight consecutive seasons of turning up at race tracks expecting to win, victories have almost always been out of reach this year.

So how has the seven-time world champion dealt with such a big change in mindset?

“With great difficulty,” he responds candidly. “But I think it’s really just about taking time to sit back, reflect and figure out what you can do better.

“As athletes, we’re super determined, we don’t like to lose, we don’t like to fail — failure is not an option. But sometimes you do, and that’s part of the process.

“It’s then about how you then don’t beat yourself up, it’s how you take it on, put it on your back and use it as experience to power forward.

“But it’s not easy. It could take you one day, it could take you five minutes, it could take you multiple days.”

Hamilton says he has drawn inspiration from fellow sporting megastars in the past year. He cites his friendships with Serena Williams and Tom Brady as sources of motivation and, as athletes of similar ages that are in similar stage of their careers, he has found common ground in his conversations with them.

“I take a lot of inspiration from other athletes, like watching Serena,” he says. “Seeing everything she’s gone through and the challenges, and in conversations just the way she’s gone through it and pulled herself back up and the great performances — she is just such a warrior and she’s my inspiration right now.

“I remember being at home with my dad watching her destroy it in like 1999. Definitely at that time I never thought we would be so close as we are now.

“And with Tom, I’ve been to the Super Bowl and seen him come from having his head in his hands as they’re losing and then pulling back with incredible mental strength. Also, he’s an older athlete and he’s killing it right now, so I’m like, I want whatever you’re having! There’s lots to learn from everybody.

“I always hoped one day we’d be able to relate to each other, so it’s very surreal to sit with Tom and to be able talk to each other on a similar wavelength — it’s very, very, very surreal, very cool.”

But for Hamilton to return to winning ways he must largely rely on his team to improve his car. Regardless of how hard he trains or how perfectly he drives, he won’t challenge for titles without a car that is at least half a second per lap faster. It’s a fact he can’t escape, but also one that he is using to guide and motivate his own interactions with his engineers.

“We would love to be in that battle fighting [for the title], and I wish that all the cars were a lot closer and we were all having a much better battle closer to the front,” he says. “I wish there was only tenths of a second between all of us, you know?

“But that’s not the way our sport is. So I don’t worry about that — it’s not something I can control at the moment. I just focus on what I can and that is trying to do a better job with what we have got.

“My worry, what is keeping me up at night is: what have I left out? Who do I need to speak to at the track? How can I support my engineers? In the aero department, how can I support them to make better choices for the next car?

“When I damage the car, I take money away from the budget and I’m like, ‘Oh, God! Don’t’ do that!’ And so that’s really what I’ve been focusing on and I’m hoping when we come back in February next year, the car touches the ground and it does what we hope it does.”

Not having full control over when his next win will come may sound frustrating, but Hamilton says the teamwork is part of the appeal. What’s more, Mercedes has delivered him to six of his seven world titles during his career and he is confident they will do so again.

“I do watch other sports and I wish that it was just the pure ability that I have that makes all the difference, but in F1 there’s so many people’s ability coming together,” he says. “The communication, the amount of work, the processes decide the direction you will go.

“It’s like we’re all rowing the boat and whilst we’ve got Toto [Wolff, team principal] above the steering mechanism, we as drivers are also the part of the rod that’s steering it in the right direction.

“It’s definitely tough, but that should never be an excuse, it takes work and I wouldn’t really want it any other way. To be honest, if it was easy and every day was easy and you’re just getting through it, it just wouldn’t be a challenge.

“I love the challenge of working with everybody and challenging the people and them challenging me. All acknowledging this year that we haven’t done a great job, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do a great job in the future. We have done it in the past.”

Yet the big question remains: how long will it take for Mercedes to return to winning ways?

Hamilton’s current contract expires at the end of next season and there is already speculation over who will replace him if he retires. But he says the challenge of returning Mercedes to the front of the grid could keep him in F1 even longer than he originally planned.

“Definitely, because it’s going to take longer than one year [to get back to the front of the grid],” he says. “I think if we had just won the title last year and then we would win again this year, definitely life would be in a different place and I’d be on a different course.

“I love that it’s gone through an even harder phase and we’ve got to pull through that thick slog and get to the point where we are a little bit lighter and we’re floating a little bit more. So yeah, I would say that it’s encouraged me to stay longer.

“Plus I’m feeling fit, I’m finding ways of feeling better physically. The mental challenge is a consistent thing and that will always be the case because that’s how it is for us athletes, because we’re on the edge.

“But right now, where I am in life, I’m really grateful for the opportunity I have here. I like to think I still deserve a place here. And yeah, there’s lots of work to do.”

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