The measure of a man, it is said, may be judged by his handling of adversity. The greats dig deep, weather the slings and arrows and emerge, beaten or victorious, with head held high. For Lewis Hamilton facing perhaps the greatest challenge of his Formula One career, the test has come with the world champion better suited than ever to prove that he is not only a great competitor but a true sportsman.
Hamilton goes into this weekend’s British Grand Prix having taken a pummelling from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for five consecutive races. He was once more beaten by Verstappen in Saturday’s sprint race that decided the grid for the grand prix and now trails the Dutchman by 33 points in the world championship.
Hamilton has been toppled from the perch he and Mercedes have occupied since 2014 as the dominant force in F1. They were challenged by Ferrari in 2017 and 2018 but in neither year did the Scuderia enjoy such a lead, nor did they have such a comprehensive pace advantage over their rivals. Mercedes began the season on a par with Red Bull and the opening four rounds were intense, closely fought affairs. But since Hamilton’s victory at the Spanish Grand Prix in May, Red Bull have taken victory in every race, with Verstappen winning four of the five. They have done so with a definitive edge over Mercedes, reaping the dividends of aggressively developing their car while Mercedes focused on building the new model for the 2022 regulation changes.
Yet Hamilton, on the back foot, battered, bruised and battle-scarred, is riding out this storm with composure and grace. He has accepted his team’s rationale for limiting development and thrown himself into simulator work to try and eke out every tiny advantage from this year’s car. He has been magnanimous and good-humoured, praising Verstappen’s challenge and insisting that it only motivates him to work harder. He held his hands up about the two uncharacteristic errors he made at Imola and Baku.
His words do not have the air of empty platitudes. At 36 years old and in his 15th season in F1, he is mature and experienced enough now to deal with the challenge without turning on his team or his rivals. This, it seems he appreciates, would be energy wasted – pointless petulance that would only reinforce negativity and ultimately be but a distraction.
His recent decision to race on with Mercedes in F1 for at least another two seasons is indicative of how seriously he still takes the sport and of the confidence he has reaffirmed at Silverstone.
“No one is sidetracking me,” he said. “I am not the driver I was when I started, I am better, and I know myself way more than I ever did.”
Equally, he made it clear that while he approaches every race with attention to detail he also sees the bigger picture. “I found myself just waking up thinking about racing,” he said after announcing his new contract. “So I wanted to continue to race. And now we’re having this battle, it’s brought me closer to the team, it’s brought me closer to the engineers, it’s making me dig deeper and I love that.”
He has clearly also been inspired by his ability to use his position to make a difference. His commitment to racial equality was emphasised again earlier this week when the Hamilton commission he set up released its report and recommendations on how to improve diversity in motorsport. Part of his decision to race on was because of his desire to take part in “a sport that is uniting behind positive change”.
Certainly the strong support Mercedes have given his campaigning has also been a factor. Detractors may decry his efforts but they will, as opponents of the sporting boycott of apartheid did, ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of history. Crucially these have been the actions of a rounded human being, a considerate, thoughtful man – attributes that make coping with competition and indeed defeat all the more manageable.However, it cannot be ignored that if Hamilton is beaten at Silverstone it will be a blow. He is the most successful driver at the circuit, with seven wins, and Mercedes have not been defeated at the British Grand Prix for eight years. They are hoping that upgrades will narrow the gap to Red Bull, yet even if they do not and Verstappen further extends his lead, Hamilton has made it clear his determination is unwavering.
“There’s going to be a point in which I’m going to want to move on to do different things and I guess it just always comes down to how I never would do anything half-arsed,” he said of his motivation to continue in F1. “I’m not going to do it at 80%, 70% and just trundle along. There are people that can do that. I’m only here to win.”
On Saturday the all-female W Series held its first race at Silverstone, and the championship’s advisory board chairman, the former F1 driver David Coulthard, was present to support the women enjoying the biggest stage they have yet performed on. He considered how Hamilton has developed as a driver and as a man and believes he possesses a stronger character now than when he was defeated by his teammate Nico Rosberg in the 2016 championship, a season marked by vitriol.
“Sometimes when he was beaten by Nico when they were teammates, he could be a bit chippy, a bit kind of dummy-in-the-dust, a bit spoiled-child multi-millionaire racing driver,” said Coulthard. “I’ve not seen that this year, what I’ve seen is an elegance, I’ve seen a confidence, I’ve seen a different Lewis in this challenge.
“If he doesn’t win it this year, I don’t think he’ll go off into the winter crying his heart out. I think he’ll say: ‘You know what? As a team we didn’t deliver, how can we do better next year?’.”
Hamilton described taking a record-breaking eighth drivers’ title this season as a “tall order” and indeed it is. He has fought back before after being under the cosh in the opening half of the season but should he succumb to what is an immense and impressive effort by Red Bull and Verstappen this year, it will not be for want of trying.
Win or lose, it seems hard to imagine that the world champion will not emerge even stronger, to take triumph from adversity.