OPINION: Despite the travails of 2022, there's still plenty to come from Hamilton

OPINION: Despite the travails of 2022, there's still plenty to come from Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton is on target to be outscored by his Formula 1 teammate for only the third time in 16 seasons. It’s not a foregone conclusion, with George Russell 37 points ahead with four races (and a sprint at Interlagos) remaining, but with a maximum of 112 points to play for and the Mercedes not strong enough to allow heavy scoring, it’s likely that their relative positions will remain the same.

Given Russell is the newly-promoted rising star, the narrative that old-stager Hamilton is being usurped has been pushed since the early stages of the season. Even as great a driver as Hamilton isn’t immune to the effects of ageing, so some have taken this as proof his time has passed, with Russell establishing himself as the future of Mercedes. But while Russell might well be the long-term future of the team given he’s 13 years Hamilton’s junior, the idea that the changeover has already happened isn’t supported by the facts of what has been a difficult campaign for Mercedes.

While some teammate battles are clear-cut with the points table an accurate reflection of the balance of power between two drivers, it’s not always that simple. What’s more, the tendency to view such comparisons as a zero-sum game, whereby one driver wins and the other loses, can be reductive. So before we get onto Hamilton, it is worth stressing how impressive Russell has been this year.

There is a big difference between giant-killing in limited machinery at the back of the grid, as Russell did with Williams, and being in a front-running team. While a little of the sting has been taken out of that challenge by the fact the Mercedes W13 has not been a championship-challenging, or so far even race-winning, car, 2022 has still been the toughest test of Russell’s career. To be in a position to outscore Hamilton is meaningful, especially when you take into account the two other drivers to do this – Jenson Button at McLaren in 2011 and Nico Rosberg in 2016 – are world championship winners. Russell looks completely at home at the front in F1.

He has been consistent, finishing in the top five in 16 out of 18 races, and claimed his first pole position at the Hungaroring – a race where he also led the majority of the first 30 laps. His two blanks were at Silverstone, where his move to the left off the line led to contact with Pierre Gasly and fired his Mercedes into Zhou Guanyu, and in Singapore, where he made a couple of significant errors. He’s also distinguished himself off-track with his hard work and technical input, firmly establishing himself as a key part of the Mercedes team. Most drivers would be at risk of sinking without trace up against a driver of Hamilton’s caliber, but Russell has thrived.

But just because Russell has made a very successful start to his Mercedes career doesn’t make Hamilton a defeated victim of that. In fact, over the balance of the season Hamilton has been the marginally stronger driver, even more so if you exclude the difficult early stages of the season when the two cars often diverged on set-ups.

Hamilton shouldered the team’s experimental set-ups earlier in the season when Mercedes was scrambling to tame its car, which often translated into an advantage for Russell. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

As the more experienced hand, it was often Hamilton who went in a more extreme direction as Mercedes battled to get working a car that needed to run at an impractically low ride height to produce the expected downforce. That might sound like a convenient excuse, but it’s simply reality. As Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said in Baku after Hamilton had been outqualified by Russell for the third consecutive race “the last three races these experiments have gone wrong with Lewis and not with George”.

Since Mercedes has moved into what has been characterized as “normal development”, Hamilton’s performances have been more consistent. It’s been very close at times but he has generally been the faster of the two of late, although there have also been weekends where the gap is exaggerated – for example at Zandvoort, where Russell lifted for yellows after Sergio Perez’s off in Q3, and in Singapore where he had what was eventually diagnosed as a front brake problem. However, there have also been times when it’s gone against Hamilton, such as in Hungary where he was the faster Mercedes driver but had a DRS problem in Q3 that left the way clear for Russell to take pole position.

In races, the picture is a little more muddy. When both have been classified finishers, Russell has been the lead Mercedes driver 10 times out of 17 – although seven of those instances were in the first eight races. Again, that points to a Hamilton who has been able to produce more representative form once through the difficulties of the first part of the season. There have been a few difficult races for Hamilton, Saudi Arabia for example, but also some where misfortune denied him a better result, for example Spain where Kevin Magnussen hit him at Turn 4 on the opening lap.

It would have been easy for Hamilton to lose interest, whether that’s just in the season or F1 altogether. It will only be possible say with certainty that Hamilton still has that razor-sharp edge if and when he gets back into a title-challenging car, but the indications are that it’s still there. Ironically, while there was a suspicion that Hamilton might be happy to head off into the sunset after ticking off the record-setting eighth world championship, the difficulties of this season appear to have reinvigorated him for the long-term.

There have been moments, particularly early in the season, where Hamilton’s spirit seemed crushed by the lack of progress. But generally, these instances have not extended into his head permanently dropping. All the evidence point to a driver who is determined to help Mercedes hit back with a vengeance in 2023 rather than one either coasting or lacking the drive to make a contribution. Although he’s out of contract at the end of next year, making that an obvious time to retire, the hints so far are that he’s looking at an even longer-term future in F1.

Having once dismissed the idea at racing on in F1 into his 40s, Hamilton’s position appears to have softened. Age can change the perspective, as what once seemed an intangible point in the future seems very different when you get close to it. And he has more recently stressed that there’s no physical reason why he couldn’t race on in F1 into his fifth decade.

Hamilton insists that his motivation remains as strong as ever, and has indicated that he’s looking to remain in F1 beyond the end of his current contract in 2023. Steve Etherington/Motorsport Images

It is rare in these times for drivers to race in F1 in their 40s. Fernando Alonso is now 41, but last year he became only the eighth driver in the previous three-and-a-half decades to start a race having hit the landmark – the others being Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher, Pedro de la Rosa, Nigel Mansell, Philippe Alliot, Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite. But generally, the deciding factor in drivers dropping out before hitting 40 is either the lack of opportunity to continue or the lack of desire. Given Mercedes will likely want Hamilton to continue in 2024, it will therefore come down to Hamilton’s willingness to agree to a new deal and take on F1’s ever-expanding workload.

Until there is a new contract, it would be foolish to assume that retirement is off the table. After all, talk is cheap and it makes no sense for either Hamilton or Wolff to jump-start the retirement rumor-mill with their public statements. But combined with Hamilton’s performance, level, it seems perfectly realistic that he might continue. A quick-as-ever, fully-motivated Hamilton remains an outstanding driver.

The key question is, how strong will Mercedes be in 2023? Given it was clear relatively early in the campaign that the Mercedes W13 had fallen too far behind to salvage a title bid, the team will have channeled plenty of resources into next year’s car. It’s still the team that won 15 out of 16 titles from 2014-2021, albeit reconfigured to function under the cost cap, and there’s every chance it will be back in the game next year. Then, the previous suspicion that Hamilton might tick off title number eight then head off into the sunset could apply.

But then it could all come down to how much he relishes the fight. Of course, even if the Mercedes is a title contender next year, it’s no forgone conclusion Hamilton would be crowned given he’d likely be up against Max Verstappen on top of the possible challenge from Russell and the Ferrari drivers. But it might be that this is the kind of fight he’s been waiting for, one that, even at this late stage, could perhaps even be career-defining.

That’s all entirely speculative. But what 2022 has shown is that Hamilton is far from washed-up, or nothing more than a fair-weather driver who racks up the wins and titles when it’s easy. He’s been willing to get his head down and work for the cause of getting Mercedes back to the front. In doing so, he’s proved he still has more to offer in F1. Most tantalizingly, a rematch of the 2021 championship fight with Verstappen that was one of the most intense, and fractious, in history could lie in the future.

So forget about what the points table might suggest. Yes, he faces some tough competition from Russell, but there’s still life in both Hamilton and his hopes of an eighth title.