After a difficult season Lewis Hamilton refuses to get carried away even after claiming pole at the Korean Grand Prix
What should have been a moment of vindication for Lewis Hamilton in Korea, by putting his McLaren on pole for the first time since the Canadian Grand Prix last year, was met with subdued consideration by the British driver. This perhaps should not have come as the surprise it did to so many onlookers here in Yeongam. Despite Saturday’s qualifying for the Korean Grand Prix being the first occasion any team have beaten Red Bull to the top spot this year, an incident-strewn season has left Hamilton under scrutiny, under pressure and understandably wary of offering too much celebratory optimism, especially if he is only to face further examinations should it not be converted into a race win.
“I am very happy,” he said afterwards, while exhibiting few outward indications of actually being so. “It’s been a tough second half of the season and it’s great to get pole. It doesn’t really mean a huge amount because tomorrow’s really what counts.”
This Hamilton is far from the ebullient youngster of his championship year, far even from last year’s model. One seeming to have banished the arc of emotional scale in favour of a steady state, a pre-imposed race-mode of petrol-Prozac and thus better able to cope with setbacks, so frequent have they become. Asked, inevitably, if there was now more pressure after the pole he replied: “No. I feel the same as every race, the same I was in the last race when I was P3.”
He may feel the same but he will want badly to do better than the fifth-placed finish in Suzuka: he will be hoping for a much-needed win. While much has been made of his performances in the last five races (no podiums to team-mate Jenson Button’s five, which include two wins) the driver himself contends the whole season has been difficult and the results bear him out.
Two podiums and a win in China was as good as it got for the first five and from then on he struggled. The on-track collisions, not only with Felipe Massa but with Pastor Maldonado, with Mark Webber, with Kamui Kobayashi and with Button, were amplified by five drive-through penalties and two clashes that led to retirements. Some of which was bad luck and he has certainly suffered from some arbitrary stewarding decisions but the hard facts Hamilton has taken on are that, excepting his win in Germany, he has not been on the podium since the fifth race of the season – Spain, in May.
Then, to add to this shrill cacophony of statistics, came the opinions of former world champions. “I think he needs to think about his mind-management,” Sir Jackie Stewart said. “He has the skills but unfortunately he is having too many incidents.” Emerson Fittipaldi felt similarly but tempered his criticism saying: “Lewis is an exceptional talent, a world champion, but sometimes he is too aggressive when he tries to overtake.” Niki Lauda was, as ever, forthright: “At some point there has to be an end to all the jokes,” he said. “You cannot drive like this – as it will result in someone getting killed.”
Current drivers, too, are a factor. Sebastian Vettel’s dominance coupled with an uncompetitive McLaren would be difficult for any hard-charging driver who wants to win world titles to cope with, but Hamilton also has an energised Button in the garage next door. Button arrived as world champion but also as the new boy at McLaren when Hamilton had already been there for three years and popular opinion had it that the incumbent would lead from the front. By the end of the Japanese Grand Prix last week, however, Button had three wins, was second in the drivers’ championship and leading him by 32 points. Hamilton, it should be noted, has never been beaten by a team-mate over the course of a Formula One season.
All of which must on some level be registering with Hamilton but he insists it will not change him as a driver. “Change what, you know? It’s difficult to know what to change,” he said in Yeongam. “I could decide just to cruise around but I’d rather go out and learn to play golf. I’ll just continue with the route that I’m on and at some stage it will change its course.”
Which is the mantra he, like so many professional sports people looking for a way back to form (and he is far from alone in this but the accessibility to drivers in Formula One makes the scrutiny intense), must repeat to stay on the island until the track comes back to him. “Every week I come in feeling I can have a good race. It just hasn’t been that way for a while,” he said. “It’s going to change. I know it’s going to change. I’m positive it’s going to change.”
“It is about getting the flow. In Formula One it is very easy when you have two wins to carry that momentum. It’s positivity, it’s positive stories, it’s positive fans, it’s standing on the podium smiling. It’s that energy that you get that stays with you until the next race and then you do it again. Your energy just stays at a natural high.”
Which energy might be found in Korea this morning and if so, perhaps he will allow it to break through the mask and show the Hamilton unencumbered by a difficult season and revelling again in his skills on the track. Formula One would be poorer without it, as McLaren’s team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, observed: “You’re always going to run the risk of getting involved in incidents – especially if, like Lewis, you’re a forceful driver who never, ever, gives up. But that’s Lewis. That’s why he’s such a fantastic driver – and that’s why watching him race is so thrilling.