Six victories in the past seven races, four on the bounce and a sixth world championship his for the taking… Right now, Lewis Hamilton is as close to unstoppable as you get in Formula 1.
Now with 79 grand prix victories to his name, the Briton still needs a dozen more to equal Michael Schumacher’s win record of 91 – once thought to be an unmatchable mark – but the talk of GOAT is already increasing as the races tick by.
Greatest Of All Time? It’s an impossible debate, given that comparisons from era to era are a waste of time. All we can judge Hamilton on is his own time, right now – and in harness with the phenomenal team that is Mercedes-AMG F1, he might as well be in a different class, as the French Grand Prix on Sunday highlighted only too plainly.
The answer to that question is probably no – but that’s more a reflection on Hamilton’s pre-eminence than a judgement on the poor Finn.
You have to feel sorry for Bottas. He turned up this year with a new, angry, fired up attitude to match his new Viking beard, and promptly blew Hamilton away in Australia. He built a slender lead in the points in the early races – but the momentum quietly shifted. Hamilton worked away with a car he needed time to gel with, just as he had in the past. No one can say Lewis doesn’t graft, and now he’s hitting his full stride. Like Usain Bolt in his pomp, no one can live with Hamilton once he is in full flight.
The fact is Bottas hasn’t done much wrong, aside from an off-weekend in Canada. In France, he actually had the edge on pace through practice (not for the first time this year) – only to see Lewis pull out what he needed in qualifying to take pole position. From that point on, it might as well have been game over. Bottas, in equal machinery, couldn’t live with his team-mate on Sunday.
“Ultimately, I have to admit Lewis was quicker today,” he said – and this time, he didn’t even look that disappointed. It’s only June, but you get the sense even the new, harder Bottas has already been worn down by the relentlessness of Hamilton’s attack.
So will Esteban Ocon, Merc’s highly rated reserve who sits on the sidelines, replace him for 2020? Unless Bottas can turn things around and beat Hamilton fair and square in a grand prix soon, such a possibility can’t be ruled out – as unfair as that might seem.
Right now, Bottas deserves to be safe for another year because he’s driving really well. But when you’re up against Lewis Hamilton, good is just not good enough.
Driving penalties: F1 is tying itself in knots
Two weeks after the controversy of Canada and the arguments over Sebastian Vettel’s five-second penalty for chicane cutting and Hamilton blocking, here we were again with more punishments at Paul Ricard. F1 is making everyone, including its most committed die-hard fans, groan with despair right now.
On the last lap in Paul Ricard a fantastic four-way fight played out as Lando Norris’s McLaren, hobbled by a hydraulics problem, valiantly defended from Daniel Ricciardo’s charging Renault, as Kimi Räikkönen’s Alfa Romeo and Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault brought themselves into the mix. It was the best of F1 in a few corners.
As we know, it ended badly for Ricciardo. A signature late-braking move pushed him over the track’s white line at the Mistral chicane, although he scrabbled back to keep within the kerb on the second part of the complex.
Norris was now out of the picture having run wide on the exit, but Räikkönen got a run and was through to seventh. Typically, Ricciardo wasn’t done and scythed past on the outside, the Renault’s four wheels clearly over the white line and over the track’s limits. It had been a brilliant moment of pure motor racing.
But he knew he was bang to rights and had a penalty coming. To his credit, Daniel didn’t whinge about it as others might – because it had been “fun”. In the Australian’s mind, he’d gone for it as racing drivers must, and to hell with the rules.
The penalty for both infractions pushed him not only out of seventh, but out of the points, down to 11th. The stewards, just as they had in Canada, felt compelled by the regulations to punish him.
But it’s throttling the life out of the racing. Sporting regs have now become so regimented, following years of discussions with drivers on track limits at circuits no longer verged by grass, that there is no room for discretion of individual, case-by-case judgement. To hell with track limits – this had been why we watch F1 in the first place.
A solution is tough, because the rules have been written to create a code of ethics that is not only fair, but promotes safe racing. But F1 has backed itself into a corner on this one over recent years. Now a root-and-branch independent review of the system must be commissioned, with the aim of creating a new framework of regulations that have room for flexibility, discretion and human judgement.
Otherwise, as David Coulthard raged on Channel 4’s coverage, we might as well all go home.
Lando Norris: has this kid got the Hamilton factor?
This was another bad weekend for Sebastian Vettel, for Romain Grosjean and for Pierre Gasly, who is surely driving himself out of his Red Bull seat right now – but let’s focus on the positives.
Teenage Brit Lando Norris is doing so much right in his rookie season, in a McLaren team going through a quiet rejuvenation under impressive new boss Andreas Siedl. The pair of orange cars qualified fifth and sixth, McLaren’s best team showing for five years, with Norris narrowly ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr.
Okay, the Spaniard made the better start and briefly challenged Max Verstappen for fourth. But Norris got his head down and shadowed his experienced team-mate all the way, even (politely) complaining he was being held up.
The hydraulics trouble screwed his race, but even then he won plaudits for the way he managed it. The race was a lap too long for him in the end, but up until that last time around his defence of seventh had been quite magnificent.
The kid’s rise through the junior ranks has been compared to Hamilton’s, and right now he’s doing his best to keep that parallel going. There are plenty of tests to come, of course – it’s all ahead of him. But at this stage, just as Hamilton did in 2007, he looks like the real deal.