As I write this, it’s not yet certain that Sir Lewis Hamilton will be competing in Formula 1 in 2022, although I expect that yesterday’s removal of Michael Masi from the race-director’s chair will have swung the balance firmly towards that happening.
Which is brilliant news: even if the statistics never recall who wasn’t there in any one season, Max Verstappen will be desperate to prove that 2021 was no one-off, aided and abetted by the aforementioned Masi’s highly original interpretation of the race rules in Abu Dhabi.
But for Hamilton, the stakes are high. This year brings the biggest shake-up in the rules in decades, and while I would back Mercedes-AMG to have worked at least as hard and spent at least as much as anyone else in perfecting its new challenger, no one really knows who has best interpreted the new rulebook. And there is of course that other factor: the one called George.
What exactly does Hamilton have to fear from his new hotshot team-mate George Russell? He certainly won’t be able to complain too much about a young gun coming into the team of a multiple world champion, because a decade and half ago (can it really that long?), that young hotshot was Hamilton himself.
The team was McLaren, the double champion Fernando Alonso. And while Hamilton played the dutiful number two for the first four races of that season, he stuck it on pole in Montreal and defended the position so vigorously that Alonso ran off the track, damaging his car and falling out of contention, leaving Hamilton to claim his maiden F1 win. At the next round in Indianapolis, Alonso could once more not beat Hamilton to pole nor could he get past him in the race.
At the end of the season, both drivers were tied on 109 points, relationships irretrievably broken down and Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen champion with just 110 points. You don’t need to be much of a mathematician to realise that had internecine war not broken out between the McLaren drivers, one or other of them would have taken the title.
But despite the apparently attractive similarities between then and now, the situation is actually very different. Most significantly, Alonso was a newbie at McLaren while Hamilton, young as he was, had been under Ron Dennis’s wing since he was a child. By contrast, next year Hamilton will be starting his 10th (yes, 10th) season as a Mercedes driver. The entire team is built around him, and rightly so, for he is the greatest winning machine this sport has ever known.