Hamilton's new 'headspace' wins admirers. And races
Lewis Hamilton was almost overcome with emotion after winning the Canadian Grand Prix and taking his first victory of the season at the seventh time of asking. Which is ironic, because one of the most impressive aspects of his performance was its control.
The McLaren driver admitted he too often let his emotions get the better of him in 2011, and he went away for the winter intending to reset his mental state. His performance at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Sunday was the final confirmation that the world is seeing a new, more potent, Hamilton in 2012.
His change of approach has been apparent from the start of the season. He has remained calm in the face of much adversity when last year he might not have and has never once deviated from his determination that consistency is what will win him the title this season.
Until Sunday, there had been questions about whether he could marry that approach with winning races in the same spectacular style that has earned him such a huge following - not least because winning was exactly what he had not done.
Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the Canadian GP with McLaren chairman Ron Dennis (left). Photo:Getty
But he drove a superb, perfectly judged race in Montreal to take the 18th victory of his career and the world championship lead – albeit by only two points from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton talked in Canada about the difference between last year and this.
“I think I’m driving the same,” he said, “but last year, every year, I’m able to drive fast, but to remain in the right headspace and remain focused this year is not an issue.”
This new “headspace”, it seems, finally contains room for a skill he has shown only rarely before.
The headlines – and much of the attention – will focus on the exciting last 20 laps in Montreal, when Hamilton dropped to third following his second pit stop and had to make up 15 seconds on Alonso to win the race.
But more impressive was Hamilton’s coolness and awareness of what was going on around him before that.
There have been times in Hamilton’s career when he seemed to look to the team for answers that other great drivers have tended to be able work out themselves.
Brilliantly skilled as his driving is, planning a race had never seemed to be one of his strongpoints. But on Sunday all that changed.
As he led the race during the second stint, he was told by his engineers that Alonso and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel were on the same two-stop strategy as he was. He questioned it, saying: ‘Are you sure they’re not doing a one-stop?” He was right; they were wrong.
It was the sort of leading from the cockpit that is more usual from Alonso, Hamilton’s great rival. But on Sunday it was the Spaniard and Ferrari who got it badly wrong, and Hamilton and McLaren who called it exactly right.
“When the guys were behind me,” Hamilton said. “I kinda had a feeling that Fernando would be doing a one-stop, so I knew I had to make a gap while looking after the tyres.
“I was able to make a gap and then hold it, even though Fernando started to pick his pace up. It was one of the best stints I’ve had for a long, long time.”
The final, winning, stint was spectacular to watch. But with the tyres on the cars of Alonso and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel fading fast, and Hamilton lapping as much as two seconds faster than them, it was obvious from pretty soon after the McLaren driver’s second stop that he was going to win.
And so, in a moment, the narrative of Hamilton’s season has turned full circle.
Before Canada, the talk was all about how McLaren had taken the fastest car and thrown away their advantage through operational errors – several pit stop problems and the refuelling error in qualifying that cost Hamilton almost certain victory in Spain.
Those criticisms remain valid, and Hamilton did have hiccoughs at both his pit stops in Canada, but the win has finally come – and in a style that suggests strongly it will not be his last.
“I’m definitely not going to change my approach, but I think it’s working reasonably well so far,” Hamilton said.
“I probably definitely had to be more on the limit today to catch the two guys ahead, perhaps a little bit more risky than in the past but it is about consistency this year.
“It’s unbelievable to see just how close it is. We got a win and 25 points and I only have a two-point lead and I think it will stay that close throughout the year. Again, it just highlights how important consistency is.”
On the other side of the McLaren garage, things are not as rosy.
Jenson Button sounded like a broken man after struggling to 16th place, saying he was “confused and very lost” about his lack of pace – which has been a problem since Bahrain four races ago.
“I couldn’t look after tyres, I didn’t have any pace, there was nothing there,” he said, cutting a forlorn figure as Hamilton celebrated.
Why do you think you were so slow, he was asked? “Haven’t a clue,” he replied.
Button started the season with a dominant win in Australia, where he made Hamilton look pretty ordinary, and after a lacklustre race in Malaysia, Button again beat Hamilton in finishing second to Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg in China.
At that point, Button looked like the favourite for the title. But since then he has scored two points in four races.
Clearly something is going very wrong somewhere in the set-up of Button’s car for as he put it himself: “I’m not two seconds slower than Lewis and I don’t know what’s going on.”
He is now 43 points behind Hamilton in a season that looks, for all its unpredictability, as if it is distilling down to a battle between Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel, the three finest drivers in the world.
Unless McLaren find some answers soon, Button will be reduced, like the rest of us, to watching it from afar.