The Briton has the chance to bounce back and deliver for the ‘family business’, says the former F1 driver David Coulthard
When darkness descended on Albert Park the expressions of elation on the faces of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had changed to ones of pure relief. After two years of Red Bull’s domination of Formula One, McLaren now know that, at the very least, they have a competitive car this season.
For Hamilton, this is even more important than it is for Button. After his career started with a starburst of over-achievement in 2007 and 2008 there has been, mainly, anti-climax, and last year was his worst in Formula One. But here he has been accompanied by his girlfriend, his mother and his agent and, perhaps even more importantly, by a car that his team feel can go all the way.
Hamilton is not just important to McLaren. He is the central figure in the whole circus. The 27-year-old Briton has been the toast of Formula One, its biggest attraction and he has it in him to be so again. He has been described, variously, as spoiled, too celebrity conscious and – on the track – too careless. But David Coulthard, who drove for McLaren and Red Bull in 15 F1 seasons, is more sympathetic and makes an interesting comparison when he considers Hamilton and the reigning world champion, Sebastian Vettel.
“The way they have been brought into Formula One is two completely different models,” he said. “If you look at Sebastian, he came in through the Red Bull machine. He went in to Toro Rosso and the Red Bull system allows the drivers to be themselves. So long as they are delivering behind the wheel, that’s all that is expected of them. Everything they do from when they leave the track until they come back again is pretty much their own time.
“The McLaren system, and I was part of that system for nine years, longer than any other driver, is very different. It is a fantastic success story. But it is a lot more demanding of the drivers off the track.”
Coulthard was talking about the number of appearances McLaren drivers have to make at sponsor events, which eats into their precious time away from the cut and thrust of grand prix racing. Because Hamilton joined McLaren at the age of 13, he has known no other life.
“Most people grow up, finish school, go off to college and fly the nest,” Coulthard said. “They go away and discover themselves before maybe coming back to the family business. Lewis has grown up in the family business. He has never gone away. So one of the strengths of that was that he was able to go on early in his career and win the championship.
“The downside to that is he has not had the chance to spread his wings and come back. He has not had the benefit of growing up time away from the track. He’s gone on this rollercoaster with McLaren several years ago before Formula One and he has not stopped. Lewis was the youngest world champion. He was the first black world champion. There were a number of first-time experience that were unique not just to him but also to Formula One. He is in a small group of one, the focal point. This is a big year for Lewis to see if he is back and can deliver at the level we know he can do.”
Before he went into Sunday morning’s race Hamilton at least suggested strongly that his rehabilitation is underway with a barnstorming qualifying session to grab the 20th pole of his career.
The question now is can McLaren keep pace with his ambitions. Martin Whitmarsh, the team principal, believes they can. “You can sense the feeling of satisfaction in the team,” he said after McLaren snared the top of the grid. “People worked hard in the winter and we deserved the front row. We’ve got two great race drivers here.
“But to win championships you have to improve the car on a race by race basis. Formula One now is such a competitive environment. If we don’t improve at a faster rate than our competitors they will quickly overhaul us. We’ve proved we can improve a lot during he season. Sometimes improvement was easy but when you start with a good car it’s a little trickier. But there’s quite a lot coming through the system at the moment.”
According to Button, however, Australia is not the place to make a solid judgment on the relative strengths of the teams. Better to wait another week. “Australia and Malaysia are very different, completely different circuits. If you’re quick here and quick in Malaysia you’re looking pretty good for the start of the season. That’s got to be our aim and I’m excited about the first few races.”
So is everyone else. Qualifying was the first time we had seen the cars driven in anger. But McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus justified the pre-season buzz about their capabilities. This just might be the classic tussle we hoped for after Vettel put the contest to bed a little too early last year.