Brought to you by Adam Macdonald (@adamac39)
The very nature of Formula One’s driver rotation means the pilots come and go in waves. We, the fans, are often left to compare drivers of different generations as a way of quantifying their skill and to define their legacy long after their racing overalls gather dust in a wardrobe.
Some such drivers divide opinion over how they should be considered, if perhaps their statistics flatter their relative talents. To my mind, the most recent of these was the 2009 World Drivers Champion, Jenson Button, who is undeniably one of the most intelligent drivers behind a wheel of racing car, although it could be argued lacks the outright pace. There are many who feel that he ‘lucked into’ his Championship win by simply being in the right place at the right time, as the double diffuser from Brawn GP dominated proceedings from the off.
When Button moved onto McLaren there was a direct comparison with another World Champion, Lewis Hamilton, who for all intents and purposes beat the Frome man. The statistics would tell you that Button beat his teammate (Button outscored Hamilton over their 3 seasons together), although arguably it was Hamilton who drove development and was the team leader, until an errant tweet from Hamilton that many will recall.
The discussion of who is the better driver of the pair is something better left for another time. My attention was drawn to a comparison between Lewis Hamilton and the 1997 World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve. The parallels are uncanny and will be sure to raise eyebrows…
Let’s examine the career of the older of the two, the Canadian, Jacques, son of Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve who sprung into Formula One in 1996. He burst onto the scene with Williams, in the FW18, the quickest and most reliable of the season charging to pole position at the season opener in Australia. He was only denied the race victory by an oil leak, but still managed to hold on to second place. A podium on his debut; just like a certain driver from Stevenage managed 11 years later.
Villeneuve fought with Hill for the title that year, eventually losing out, having taken 4 victories. This was a record for a rookie season, something which Lewis Hamilton would equal in 2007. Both drivers were thrust onto the Formula One scene and rose to the challenge of the limelight.
It would be in their second season that both Villeneuve and Hamilton would triumph, again in dominant cars. Heinz-Harald Frentzen had replaced Damon Hill at Williams, as Heikki Kovalianen had done Alonso, with both Villeneuve and Hamilton effectively being made the number one driver in their respective teams. Both drivers fought a Ferrari driver for the title and secured the Championship at the final race of the season.
The parallels are there for all to see, but are not limited to just what happened in their early careers. Both flew the nest in search of building their own Championship winning team to cement their future legacy. The outcome of JV’s career has become part of the fabric of F1 history – having left Williams he failed to ever come close to winning the title again. He would remain a one season wonder after failing to win another race after 1997.
JV moved to the newly founded BAR team, but was unable to repeat his previous successes. He scored a handful of podiums, before Craig Pollock, his team manager and long-time supporter, was fired and replaced by David Richards. As soon as the support from inside the team was removed, he soon became uncomfortable within the confines of the setup. His $15 million a year salary was called into question given his under-par performances on the track. Whilst Villeneuve saw out the remainder of his contract, he drifted further and further out of favour as incoming teammates were better received than the Canadian, who on more than one occasion criticised the team. Ironically, it was Jenson Button who had muscled into the BAR setup and out-scored JV firmly making himself at home within the team.
The alignment of Hamilton’s exit from McLaren and JV’s from BAR is staggering. As soon as their feathers were ruffled and things did not go to plan they packed their bags and left. The big money offer that Lewis Hamilton is chasing at the moment is undoubtedly part of the delay, which means justifying his value is of paramount importance.
So what now for Lewis?
2014 is now arguably a year of make or break for Hamilton. Having left McLaren after so much poor reliability had cost him the chance to win in 2012, if the same were to happen in 2014 – with Mercedes – it would leave him in a difficult position. He beat Nico Rosberg resoundingly last year (although much of this was due to Rosberg’s poor luck – which is demonstrated in the Victims of Circumstance final table for 2013) even though he was still bedding into his new home in Brackley.
Now without the guiding hand of Ross Brawn, he is left much more exposed than the previous year. Given the pre-season expectation that he would not struggle against Nico Rosberg, and should beat him hands down, it would do no end of damage if he were to be outscored by his teammate. JV was forced out of BAR after being beaten by his teammate for the second time in his career; a fate which could soon afflict Lewis Hamilton should he fail this year.
With just a year to go on his contract he finds himself in a precarious position in Formula One. The big question, which currently is purely hypothetical, is where will Lewis go to should he be forced out of the Brackley fold? A return to McLaren is unlikely, racing with Vettel at Ferrari is also unlikely, both of the Red Bull seats will likely already be taken, as well as Bottas firmly making Williams his at the moment. Even with a 17 point lead in the Championship, Hamilton says he is not feeling secure in the title fight.
Should he lose, he may even be forced into taking a sabbatical like JV did as he waits for a top seat to become available, although this would be highly unlikely with Alonso seemingly heading towards that fate. At this point, what would be left of his legacy with his title win a distant memory?
The future is highly uncertain for Hamilton with so much more than just a world title resting on the next 3 races. Should he win, he will almost certainly be offered his new contract, but more importantly he would cement himself as more than just a one season wonder. The next month is the most important of Lewis Hamilton’s career – I for one cannot wait to see how the drama unfolds.