‘Will Lewis Hamilton keep it up for a whole season? This is a question that will be raised. The pressure within Formula 1 is huge. Max Verstappen didn’t cave in last year, and now it’s up to Charles Leclerc to show he can handle it too.
In spite of Verstappen’s win, it’s still difficult to say whether Red Bull has really closed the gap now. The difference so far is that Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are making the mistakes; Red Bull has suffered mainly from technical setbacks. Leclerc made a mistake you can’t make when you’re competing for a title – he spun out by himself. The pressure of a home race? He was certainly driving extremely aggressively.
Verstappen doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes anymore. It’s a really long season and, all things considered, it may balance out in the end. Until last year, we were wondering whether Verstappen was capable of fighting for a championship. He could certainly win races, but how would he cope with the stress of a championship? He was perfect, and that was a big step up. Now Leclerc has to show that he too is capable of wielding a champion’s weapon. As a title contender, you need to adopt a different approach than when you’re going for individual victories: you always have something to lose.
At Mercedes, they now in any event need to learn how to lose. For years, they drove everyone into the ground. If someone got closer, they just opened the throttle. This year, they don’t have that advantage anymore. George Russell is doing a good job in the role of underdog. He learned this at Williams, while Hamilton has always had something to fight for. A few columns ago, I was already wondering how they’ll handle this within the team. At Imola, we already saw that Toto Wolff has difficulty controlling himself. His radio message after the race spoke volumes. That wasn’t only aimed at Hamilton, but the whole world. A bad result for Russell doesn’t generate criticism, but for Hamilton it does.
This is the risk of having such a megastar in your team. Hamilton wasn’t in the right rhythm from the off this weekend. He also didn’t look aggressive enough, as if he couldn’t fight. That he ended up getting lapped, can happen. That’s the sum total of all the factors, plus the bad car. He won’t keep having such terrible weekends, and he’ll beat Russell. But it’s not easy being the head of the Mercedes team right now. Do you choose your megastar, your poster boy, the record-breaking champion with the international image, who costs you a mega salary? Or do you develop the car for the promising talent? A big star like this is great if you win – it gets you a lot of exposure. But if he doesn’t win, the backlash is so much bigger. A champion doesn’t have the right to not be competitive.
And will Hamilton still be there in two, three years? Will he even reach the end of this season? You can’t see into someone’s head; you can be down and depressed or you can be unable to deal with no longer winning. Then maybe it’s time to decide that life is better without racing. We’ve been surprised in the past: it’s happened that champions have sometimes just had enough.’