You should have watched the look on Lewis Hamilton’s face during the post-race press conference at Melbourne. He looked distraught. After starting on pole with a beautiful qualifying lap 0.3 seconds faster than his McLaren teammate Jenson Button, Ham finished behind Jense and two-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. Button started second, passed Ham straightaway, and never looked back. Vettel started sixth after a problematic qualifying session, drove smart, and took advantage of a safety car period to put Hamilton behind him. The result was not exactly what Lewis had expected. He had the fastest car in the field during qualifying, but finished only third in the final standings.
Lewis entered Formula 1 in 2007, won four races and finished one point shy of the world championship. He tied his teammate, two-time Champion Fernando Alonso.
This was unprecedented for a rookie, and he was only 22 years old. In 2008 he won the championship by one point over Ferrari’s Filipe Massa to become the youngest world champion ever. Fernando Alonso had been the youngest champion prior to Lewis’ championship.
Lewis was favored to take a second world championship in 2009, but that was derailed by Jenson Button and the Brawn team. Ross Brawn had won world championships as team principal with Benetton and Ferrari, but he quit the sport in 2006 after his Ferrari team and driver Michael Schumacher had won five world championships. He needed a break and took a year off and sailed the globe.
Meanwhile, Honda had decided to quit F1 at the end of 2008 and Brawn, who had been hired by Honda in 2007 after his sabbatical, bought the team for $1.00 USD and renamed it after himself. He employed a loophole in the technical rules to implement a unique aerodynamic solution to the new car: the double diffuser. He also hired the two Honda drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. Button won the championship in 2009, Red Bulls’ young phenom Vettel was second, Barrichello was third, Red Bull’s Mark Weber was fourth, and Hamilton was fifth. Hamilton’s plans had gone awry.
I know that this is difficult to follow, but to sum it up: Hamilton won in 2008 to become the youngest World Champion in F1 history. He saw a bright future ahead with many championships to be claimed. However, Button and Vettel emerged from nowhere and positioned themselves ahead of him. Button won the World Driving Championship (WDC) in 2009 to everyone’s surprise, and Vettel won in 2010 and 2011. To add insult to injury, Vettel became the youngest WDC in history in 2010, taking that record from Lewis Hamilton, just as Hamilton had taken that distinction from his former teammate Alonso.
After Sunday’s race in Melbourne, Hamilton found himself in that position again, behind Button and Vettel. The look on his face said it all.
One other interesting fact contributes to Lewis' unhappiness, Jenson Button became his teammate in 2010. Hamilton outpaced Button in 2010, but lost to Vettel, Alonso, and Weber with Button right behind him. In 2011, Button comprehensively outpaced Hamilton and he dominated Hamilton at the opening 2012 race at Melbourne. Button controlled the race from the start, and the results prompted questions about Hamilton’s pace, especially in the European press: “Has Ham lost it?” “Has Lewis gone off the boil?”
Embarrassing indeed, and there is one more fact to consider: Jenson is 32-years-old, he is now in his 13th year in F1, he didn’t win his first race until his seventh year, and he didn’t win his second race until his tenth year, which was also the year he won his only championship. Many in F1 had written him off years ago. By contrast, Hamilton won four races in his first season and his WDC in his second year. He seemed to have a much brighter future than Button.
This weekend Formula 1 goes to Malaysia. Hamilton has shrugged off the results from Australia and hopes to prove himself a driver to be reckoned with. At the very least he must beat his teammate.
The Sepang circuit is very different from Melbourne. In many ways the McLaren team figures to be better suited for the fast corners in Malaysia than it was for the slower technical corners found at Melborne. If true, the race may come down to a duel between Hamilton and Button. Ham has a lot to prove, so it could be a very interesting contest.
However, never count out the Red Bull duo of Vettel and Weber, or the improving Mercedes team of former WDC Schumacher and Rosberg, or the Lotus team of former WDC Räikkönen and rookie teammate Grosjean. Of course one should never underestimate the potential of Ferrari, even though former WDC Alonso and teammate Massa have not yet proven to be quick enough to run at the front.