When Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in December 2021 after one of the most action-packed and demanding races of his career, the Briton was proud to be on the podium. Rebellious even.
With the awe of a competitor on the brink of history, he jumped from first place and pointed to his team below. A 103ed victory was sealed; No. 104 a week later would seal a record-breaking eighth crown. Max Verstappen, meanwhile, abruptly left the podium.
That was then. This is now. In the 18 months since that victory in Jeddah – a win that put him level with Verstappen in the 2021 title race over the ages – Hamilton has finished on the podium 12 times. Number 12 was impressively secured from fourth on the grid in Spain on Sunday.
Eight ‘second place’ finishes; four ‘third place’ results. But zero wins.
Of course, the first of those 12 is talked about until the cows come home. It seems almost inscrutable that Hamilton could then be so close to an eighth world championship and still be chasing that 104.e Grand Prix win now. Abu Dhabi 2021 was the cruelest near miss.
But even since then, with Red Bull taking over Mercedes’ mantle at the front of the pack, Hamilton’s racing has remained at an ultra-high level. Last year he had five podium finishes in a row midway through the season, with Silverstone his best chance to top again. A mid-race safety car ruined his strategy, with Carlos Sainz emerging victorious for the first time in F1.
Still, it was Austin in October, with Verstappen’s second title already clinched, that was harder to digest. Hamilton led with five laps to go, but was ultimately unable to prevent Verstappen’s Red Bull from hurtling past him.
This is indeed what will be most excruciating for the 38-year-old. No opportunities have been wasted. In fact, openings are largely self-inflicted, with Hamilton having to make moves on Sunday to make up for a weak qualifying record on Saturday, that’s how volatile the Mercedes car was.
And yet Russell was the one who capitalized in Brazil last November, following a sprint win at Interlagos with his debut Grand Prix win. Hamilton was second. Russell also claimed Mercedes’ only pole position last year, in Hungary, while Hamilton is also the first to qualify since Saudi 2021.
Outwardly, Hamilton’s confidence in Mercedes is unbroken despite an 18-month period of frustration. So much so that a new contract is about to be signed by both parties. But for the fierce competitor within, such a drought will be tormenting. Upcoming races in Montreal and Silverstone represent more glimmers of hope as the new and improved Mercedes car evolves.
But to be honest, Verstappen and Red Bull remain in a league of their own. Russell was mocked after the first race of the season in Bahrain when he claimed Christian Horner’s team could win any race this year. Remarkably, it doesn’t seem so farcical now.
As for Hamilton, that record-breaking eighth title seems further away than ever, with the man himself already talking about 2024. and the traditional European season after that.