When Lewis Hamilton finally recommitted to Mercedes in the days leading up to the Italian Grand Prix, he did so with an explicit mission: “unfinished business”.
The subtext — even if driver and team deny it — is the controversial ending to the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi. For what other unfinished business is there for a driver who already dominates the record books?
The 2021 season colours the post-championship chapter of Mercedes and Hamilton’s history.
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The personal nature of that year’s title battle left scars. Red Bull Racing’s injuries were allowed to heal with Max Verstappen’s coronation as champion and the rise to total dominance in the seasons since.
Mercedes’s wounds have been left to fester.
How else can you explain the commentary from both Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff at a history-making weekend in Monza?
“It’s for Wikipedia,” Wolff said, dismissing Verstappen’s new record for 10 race wins in a row. “Nobody reads that anyway.”
Hamilton was similarly unimpressed about the prospect of the Dutchman’s feat when speaking ahead of the weekend.
“In my personal opinion … all my teammates have been stronger than the teammates that Max has had,” he told Sky Sports.
“Jenson [Button], Fernando [Alonso], George [Russell], Valtteri [Bottas], Nico [Rosberg] … all these guys have all been very strong, very consistent, and Max is not racing against anyone like that.”
The implication being that of course Verstappen has seen his way clear to setting new records with no-one to challenge him.
The gibe follows assessments earlier this year to the effect that no driver has ever had a car as dominant as the RB19 with which to break decades-old F1 records.
While Hamilton is far from an apolitical racer, he’s not incapable of being magnanimous either, particularly in his older, more established years.
So where does this claim fall — is it another dig at his former title rival, or is there truth to his claim?
‘Hamilton makes contact!: Piastri struck | 02:30
HAMILTON TEAMMATE ANALYSIS
Hamilton has lined up alongside six teammates in his 17 seasons in Formula 1. Max Verstappen has competed against five in nine years.
Hamilton has raced against three world champions — Alonso, Button and Rosberg — while Verstappen has raced against none. Hamilton has also been beaten by a teammate to the championship. Verstappen is yet to be challenged internally in a title-contending year, albeit he’s had far fewer seasons in a dominant car.
But not all champions are created equal. For example, you could argue that Daniel Ricciardo — not a champion but easily Verstappen’s most competitive teammate — performed more highly during their years together than, say, Rosberg did against Hamilton in 2014 and 2015.
There is no objective measure that accounts for all variables, but the closest we can get is measuring each driver’s total point score against their respective teammates.
For the sake of comparison, let’s assume Hamilton and Verstappen are as good as each other — their only season in direct competition split them by only eight points, after all.
The below list shows how heavily they scored against each teammate expressed as a percentage.
Fernando Alonso: 100 per cent
Heikki Kovalainen: 203.82 per cent
Jenson Button: 99.1 per cent
Nico Rosberg: 112.17 per cent
Valtteri Bottas: 147.59 per cent
George Russell: 118.87 per cent*
Average: 131.13 per cent
Carlos Sainz: 298.61 per cent
Daniel Ricciardo: 105.76 per cent
Pierre Gasly: 287.3 per cent
Alex Albon: 165.72 per cent
Sergio Pérez: 174.41 per cent*
Average: 186.95 per cent
Russell and Pérez’s results include this season’s current points tallies.
Again, assuming Hamilton and Verstappen are of a similar calibre, the numbers above suggest that Lewis has generally had to contend with more difficult teammates than Verstappen, who’s had things more his own way internally.
That includes their championship runs. Hamilton won the bulk of his titles against Valtteri Bottas, who he beat by close to 150 per cent over their five campaigns together. Verstappen has a 175 per cent advantage over Pérez in terms of points scored.
Even if you were to exclude Carlos Sainz, against whom Verstappen’s numbers are inflated given points were harder to come by with Toro Rosso at the back, his average percentage score would be 162.14 per cent, still larger that Hamilton’s figure.
In fact excluding Ricciardo, the most competitive of Verstappen’s teammates have been thumped by more than Hamilton’s least competitive teammates bar Heikki Kovalainen.
McLaren crackdown after Piastri clash | 01:08
But to use numbers like these or even a subjective assessment of their respective teammates to devalue Verstappen’s achievements would be wrong.
Thinking about the record of 10 races in a row in particular, it takes more than just having a compliant teammate to achieve it. The endurance required to perform at a race-dominating level for this long is an achievement all in itself.
Pérez has had six podiums during this streak, and Pérez, Hamilton and Carlos Sainz have all taken poles. There have been opportunities for Verstappen to trip up, yet his rhythm has been completely unaffected.
“He’s driving at an unbelievable level,” Christian Horner said, per ESPN. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the world right now there could beat Max Verstappen in this car, that’s for sure.
“You have to recognise and applaud what Max is doing at the moment. It’s very special to have achieved what he’s achieved.
“We shouldn’t detract from that in any way. In sport things like this happen very rarely.
“It’s a golden moment for him and a golden moment for the team.”
MERCEDES BITES BACK
But it’s clear Mercedes isn’t interested in acknowledging the meaning of Verstappen’s unprecedented achievement.
“It’s not something that would be important for me, any of those numbers,” Wolff said. “It’s for Wikipedia. Nobody reads that anyway.”
His response went down poorly in the paddock.
“It sounded a bit churlish and not very gracious — and unlike Toto, because he’s usually very sporting,” Damon Hill told Sky Sports.
“I think he’s hurting a bit now. They know what it’s like to be dominated.
“[Verstappen] has achieved something no-one else has ever done, and the Red Bull team has won 24 out of 25 grands prix.
“They’ve won 14 races this year and it’s an incredible record, but you can’t just put it down to the car. This guy is special.”
Justifying his dig, Wolff insisted winning streaks weren’t something he was counting during his extended time at the top of the championship.
He also invoked a similar argument to Hamilton — that he’s tried to field two drivers of similar ability, which naturally made it more difficult for one driver to dominate in the same way during Mercedes’s golden days.
“Our situation was maybe a little bit different because we had two guys fighting against each other within the team,” he said.
“For me, these kinds of records are completely irrelevant. They were irrelevant in our good days in Mercedes.
“I don’t know how many races we’ve won or in a row. I didn’t even know that there was a count on how many races in a row you win … it never played a role in my own life.”
PIT TALK: Ferrari couldn‘t stop Max Verstappen to winning a record-breaking 10th consecutive grand prix on what was an entertaining afternoon in Monza — so long as you weren’t McLaren principal Andrea Stella, who had to watch Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris engage in friendly fire partway through the race.
But there is one pending record of which even Wolff stands in awe.
“They are on track to win every race this season — and that, by the way, is a record that I would think is a good one, because that is perfection,” he said, per Autosport.
“We didn’t make it [in 2016] because our two drivers pushed each other out in Barcelona and then we had an engine failure in Malaysia.”
The 2016 season was an especially difficult one for Mercedes, having come perilously close to losing control of its drivers in one of the most fraught intrateam title battles in years.
But it was also the closest the team came to perfection. It was defeated only twice — to friendly fire in Spain, when Verstappen won his first race, and in Malaysia, where Rosberg was wiped out by Sebastian Vettel on the first lap, leaving him too far back to clean up after Hamilton’s engine expired from the lead.
Having come so close to the fabled season clean sweep, Wolff knows what it’ll take for Red Bull to do the previously unthinkable.
While you can mount arguments — genuine or not — about the meaning of winning streaks, there’ll be no getting around the significance of F1’s first perfect season.
“If a team dominates in the way Max has done with Red Bull, then fair dues,” he said. “This is a meritocracy.
“As long as you comply with the regulations — technical, sporting and financial — we just need to say, ‘Well done’.”
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