Tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, 22 F1 cars will start their engines for the first time in nearly a month. It’s the Belgium Grand prix, the first of the nine remaining races in this year’s world championship. They promise to be some of the most exciting we have seen in a long time, and the reason is the team we have very deliberately left until last in our half term review: Mercedes AMG, home since January of Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton MBE.
Mercedes and Lewis are the story of 2013. This weekend marks the start of what could be a real bid for a second world title for Hamilton and that — whether you are a fan or not — would be remarkable.
Twelve months ago it wasn’t just Lewis in meltdown (remember some of those tweets?). Mercedes was at the beginning of its mid-season decline, neither Michael Schumacher nor Nico Rosberg making it to Q3, and grinding out a seventh and 11th largely out of the gaze of the cameras. It wasn’t long after that the rumours started that Lewis and Mercedes were planning to get it on in 2013. On paper it didn’t look like it would be any less tempestuous than Lewis’ other major relationship (and we’re not talking about Roscoe the dog here, though Lewis let us know Roscoe was poorly this week, so ‘Get Well Soon Pooch’ from all of us here).
Nobody, Hamilton included, thought this year would be any different. The team needed to regroup around Hamilton and new boss Toto Wolff, and think about 2014. Although winter testing was promising, and Hamilton qualified third in Australia, it was obvious the W04 was no easier on its rear tyres than any of its predecessors. By the time the team arrived in Spain, it was expected that the two Mercs would go backwards in the race, even though they had locked out the front row of the grid alongside their third pole of the season. And it seemed like Rosberg had the edge on Hamilton, a feeling reinforced by Rosberg’s dominant win in Monaco. Hamilton admitted he was struggling.
Worse, the team was in trouble, having privately tested with Pirelli after the Spanish race, apparently a significant breach of the ban on in-season testing. Mercedes maintained there was no advantage to be had, but the test did seem to mark a change in the W04′s performance; Rosberg won in Monaco and at Silverstone, Hamilton secured pole in Britain, Germany and Hungary and converted the last with a drive many believe showed he is now back at the very height of his powers. What a difference a year makes. Mercedes is now second in the constructors’ championship.
The W04 hasn’t quite lost its appetite for tyres, but its pace and drivability appear for now to compensate. Best of all, the win in Hungary suggests the latest iteration of rubber suits the Mercedes. And don’t forget the reason why new rubber was needed in the first place: it cost Hamilton an almost certain win at Silverstone, which would have narrowed the gap to Vettel by 13 points.
As it stands it’s 48 points. Hamilton is only fourth behind both Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso, but the momentum is with Hamilton and you’d have to favour his chances, certainly over Alonso, and probably Räikkönen too.
We could be in for nine amazing races. Hamilton, if not the very best, is certainly one of the three best drivers in F1 right now, but McLaren never gave him a car and/or the support he needed to challenge Vettel these last three years. Who would ever have imagined Mercedes would do so quite so soon?
Luckily for the 99 per cent, all of us can watch this weekend’s action as it’s all on the BBC; practice tomorrow (at 0900 and 1300), qualifying on Saturday (1300) and the race on Sunday (again at 1300).
See you then.
Half term grades
Mercedes: A minus