Jolyon Palmer column: Lewis Hamilton's defeats provide best season yet

By Jolyon PalmerFormer Renault driver on BBC Radio 5 Live
Jolyon Palmer

Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors.

Lewis Hamilton secured his sixth Formula 1 drivers' championship title with a typically strong, gutsy drive to second, just missing out on the win in Austin.

Many have said that this title hasn't been as good as some others - notably his last two, or his first one back in 2008 - but actually, looking deeper at the season, this might just have been the best of the lot.

There are different types of races in Formula 1 - boring ones; Grands Prix with intrigue until the end; and absolute belters where you just don't know who is going to win. There have been all three this season.

The races most would class as "boring" - which this year would be China, Barcelona and France - Hamilton held the lead out of the first corner.

Dominant Hamilton

This is one of the key, underlying aspects of F1 this year. When Hamilton is in the lead at the start, we know he will win. On the one hand it's not that exciting, but on the other, it goes to show just how high a level he's operating at.

He won those three races at a canter, never under any pressure. Underlining his dominance in those events, he took fastest lap in Barcelona, and just missed out in China and France, despite not taking the pit stop that has become the norm to secure the fastest lap, late on with new tyres.

The only other races Hamilton led out of the first corner all season were Monaco and Germany.

Monaco he won, and that too would have been equally as comfortable, had it not been for his team pitting him onto an inferior race tyre.

Germany was heading that way too, in spite of difficult conditions, until an uncharacteristic error saw him go off from that comfortable lead, in his anomalous race - the only one with any notable errors this year.

Battling Hamilton

As much as he has dominated some races, Hamilton has also had to fight this season - such as in Austin on Sunday.

Starting fifth on the grid, he tore his way past both Ferraris on the opening lap, into third. And by the end of the race, he was just a few laps from winning, despite being on an inferior strategy to Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen, by putting in a marathon stint on a set of hard tyres.

The stats say that Hamilton has won 10 of the 19 races this year, and that goes some way to showing how good he has been.

Many of his other victories have come from gritty, steely, determined drives, in more exciting races.

Examples are Bahrain and Canada, where he pressured Vettel into errors on weekends when Ferrari looked quicker, and Budapest, where he mounted serious, race-long pressure on Verstappen and Red Bull, before strategically snookering them and passing for the win in the closing stages.

Hamilton's best ever win tally in a season is 11, so with two races to go in Brazil and Abu Dhabi, matching that or even beating it is do-able.

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Always a factor

But the reason I believe this could be Hamilton's best ever season, isn't because of his win record, it's because he's been in serious win contention in nearly every single race.

The real way to see how exceptional Hamilton has been this season is by looking at the races he hasn't won.

Broadly speaking, when Hamilton leads out of Turn One, it's boring. When anyone else leads out of Turn One, you know the race isn't over until Hamilton is out of contention, and that almost always produces a good Grand Prix.

The only races Hamilton hasn't been in winning contention have been Australia and Austria, in both of which he picked up damage.

In Melbourne, he started on pole, but with damage picked up early he could never take the fight to Bottas, in arguably another of the year's less exciting races.

In Austria he was actually in a strong position when he damaged his front wing on a kerb. He was running well, on the same strategy and actually ahead of eventual race winner Verstappen.

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton finished the Austrian Grand Prix in fifth place

Every other race Hamilton hasn't won, he's been at some point breathing down the neck of the eventual winner, making the race much more of a spectacle.

In Baku, Bottas won under big pressure from Hamilton in the closing stages. In Belgium and Italy, Hamilton put even bigger pressure on Ferrari's Charles Leclerc. At Spa, another lap or two and Hamilton could have been through; and in Monza it took questionable driving ethics from Leclerc to force him off the road and keep him at bay.

Singapore was one of three races Hamilton didn't end on the podium, but running second early on Mercedes could and should have pitted him when eventual winner Vettel stopped, which would have undercut race leader Leclerc to win the race

In Japan, Hamilton finished third. But had it not been for a late pit stop that Mercedes seemed to take partly to keep the peace between drivers and ensure Bottas kept the lead, it's not unfeasible Hamilton could have beaten his team-mate with a one-stop strategy. It would have been similar to Sunday's US Grand Prix.

That only leaves Germany, where he went off from a comfortable race lead and Austin, where his worst qualifying performance in two years put him on the back foot. But even then he nearly held on despite shod tyres, to win the Grand Prix from the most unlikely of positions.

So while Hamilton has won 10 races, he has been so close to winning even more. When you look through each event, his consistency and level of performance has been superb. Other drivers have had their moments in the sun, but they've also had too many weekends of anonymity.

Is it all about the car?

There are the standard criticisms of Hamilton's 2019 season that should be addressed.

Firstly he has taken only four pole positions. Only two seasons in his entire career has he achieved fewer. And with Bottas taking pole in Austin, he actually has more pole positions than Hamilton, with five.

But over the season Hamilton is still 12-7 up in the qualifying head-to-head between the Mercedes drivers, showing that he has still had a considerable advantage over his Finnish team-mate on one-lap pace.

And actually that is very comparable to this time last year, when he was 11-6 up on Bottas in qualifying, even though Bottas was deemed to be having a poor season.

In truth, Bottas can be exceptionally quick when it comes to one-lap pace - he dominated Felipe Massa in qualifying when they were together at Williams, which is what earned him the call up to Mercedes in the first place.

So ultimately, while Hamilton's headline qualifying performances haven't been there this year, and just four pole positions is testament to that, and he also hasn't put in any of his trademark lap of the Gods laps, such as Singapore or Melbourne last year, his qualifying has still been very strong on the whole. In fact, the only time he has qualified outside the top three has been in the last three Grands Prix.

Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas
Hamilton and Bottas secured five one-two finishes at the start of the season

Does this show that Mercedes have the dominant car though? And does this explain Hamilton's unbelievable performance this year? Having the best car is usually an easy jab that critics will throw at Hamilton, and in truth it's often hard to deny.

The Hamilton/Mercedes partnership is up there with the Michael Schumacher/Ferrari partnership of the early 2000s in terms of domination. And Mercedes have now usurped a lot of Ferrari's old records as well.

While last year it could be argued that Ferrari actually had the better car, this year that simply isn't the case. Hamilton has won it in the best car over the season.

And really Hamilton had this championship sewn up by the time the F1 circus left France in June.

Mercedes claiming five one-two finishes on the bounce at the start of the season, combined with Ferrari's capitulation early on, meant this was a championship that was only ever going to be between Hamilton and Bottas.

But while Bottas' early-season form gave some hope that there might be an intra-team battle, similar to the days when Nico Rosberg was Hamilton's team-mate at Mercedes, Hamilton's run of four straight wins up to France nipped that one in the bud fairly quickly.

But only four pole positions shows that he hasn't always had the outright fastest car, and he's won a staggering seven races from outside of pole.

For me, the main thing detracting from Hamilton's year has been his lack of any real rival. The absolute greats, and the greatest seasons have all come from big rivalries - Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen and more recently even Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

Hamilton's last two titles might be seen as more impressive because he had to see off a decent Vettel/Ferrari combination, and this year he hasn't had to. But largely that is because he's beaten off the competition in such a commanding manner.

If Hamilton is going to have a serious rival next year, someone is going to have to up their game, because the truth is, whatever the car, there is nobody out there at the moment at his level.

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