What’s gone wrong with Mercedes and can they recover?
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For Lewis Hamilton, this season was meant to be about overtaking Michael Schumacher as the most successful Formula One driver in history with an eighth world championship. Instead, it is being spent in a bouncy purgatory in Mercedes’ redesigned rodeo car. As if trailing in 13th last Sunday at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was not bad enough, Hamilton was forced to suffer the ignominy of being lapped by Max Verstappen in Italy.
Almost inseparable as title rivals last season, they are operating in parallel racing universes this time around. Hamilton is so used to being at the front of the grid with the best car that to be in among the also-rans must feel like a low-rent existence in comparison.
His response to his predicament will tell us a lot about him.
For all he has delivered down the years in F1, this may be the biggest test of the man, as opposed to the driver, in his professional career.
At 37, after 103 grand prix victories, he does not need the hassle of a season in the slow lane. He could throw in the towel and write it off. Languishing seventh in the standings, it is tempting to suspect he has already done so.
After the kick in the teeth that was losing the title in Abu Dhabi at the end of last season, the temptation to go all Eeyore over the downturn in his fortunes is all too easy, and his admission after Imola that he is already out of the 2022 title battle sounded forlorn.
But that appraisal was honest. Unless Mercedes pull a rabbit out of the hat, it looks as if the season will be a run-off between Ferrari and Red Bull which, while good for the sport, is not good for Hamilton.
The sacrifices are all very well when you are chasing a world title, but it is harder to drag yourself out of bed for an early-morning gym session when you know in your heart of hearts that whatever you do will not be enough for victory.
The question for Hamilton is whether, after dining on caviar for so much of his career, he has the stomach to fight for the scraps.
The Goliaths of sport – the uber-champions – do not have an off-switch whatever the circumstances.
Take Tiger Woods. At the 2020 Masters, defending champion Woods splashed down three times into the water at the short 12th in the final round to record a 10, his worst score on a hole in his professional career.
Out of contention for the Green Jacket, his remaining six holes were wallpaper as far as the tournament was concerned and he could easily have gone through the motions.
Instead, Woods regathered himself and in the last six holes produced five birdies. He tied for 38th but broke par for the tournament by one stroke.
That stretch of golf will not even represent a paragraph in the footnotes of the Woods story when it comes to be told in its entirety, but it encapsulates what he is about.
Like him or loathe him, you have to respect Woods as a sportsman. There is simply no quit in him. Will we be able to say the same of Hamilton at the end of this season? We are about to find out.
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