Lewis Hamilton cut a disheartened figure throughout the 2023 Formula 1 season, the seven-time world champion knowing that at each race he competed in, the chances of victory were slim.

    He never got angry and he never blamed his team. You could just see that he was sad at the reality: his Mercedes wasn’t quick enough and while he knew they were doing everything they can to find performance, it wasn’t going to get much better before the end of the year.

    READ MORE: Hamilton recalls moment he first drove Mercedes W14 and 'knew it was going to be a long year'

    That is not something Hamilton has been used to for most of his career, having won at least one race every year since his debut in 2007 before his first barren campaign in 2022, and thus 2023 – which was another winless year – has been a struggle on a personal level.

    It was more frustrating because he knew from the first time he drove the car in anger during Bahrain testing that Mercedes had made an error pursuing their divergent car philosophy – and with the cost cap (which limits how much each team can spend each season) in place, catching up quickly was not possible as the required changes were so dramatic.

    But despite all this, Hamilton has driven at a consistently high level with the machinery at his disposal. That he was in the fight for P2 in the drivers’ championship for most of the season shows just how good he was.

    He ended the year third, and while it was with his lowest points tally since 2013, he had more high points – such as his first pole since 2021 in Hungary plus high-quality drives to second in Austin (though he was disqualified for a technical infringement) and Mexico City.

    BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 22: Pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes
    Hamilton took pole position in Hungary

    And after being outperformed by team mate George Russell last season, Hamilton reasserted his authority, dealing better with a trickier machine – that managed less than half the points achieved by world champions Red Bull – to end the year 59 points and five places clear of his fellow Briton.

    Speak to those inside the team and they will tell you that Hamilton is still operating at his peak – and he is only human in having some off weekends when the struggle is so relentless from race to race.

    READ MORE: ‘I’m only human’ – Hamilton admits doubting himself during rollercoaster 2023 season

    His boss Toto Wolff, who handed Hamilton a new two-year deal that will extend the Briton’s stay at the Silver Arrows until at least the end of 2025, thinks his charge will be in the fight for the title once they give him a car worthy of doing so.

    “From Lewis’ perspective he had a bad weekend [in Abu Dhabi],” said Wolff. “That doesn’t do anything on him being the greatest driver in the world, and if we are able to give him a car, he will be fighting for a world championship. I have no doubt.

    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 23: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes-AMG
    Wolff is convinced Hamilton can fight for the title if Mercedes give him the right car

    “It’s clear when you have a Formula 1 car like we have now, you are never at ease with it and you have good weekends and bad weekends. But whenever we have seen that Lewis has someone in his target in front of him and it was about winning the race, then the real Lewis comes alive.”

    For Hamilton’s part, he has admitted he doubted himself at times during the year as he battled to grind out results with unrewarding car. But there were glimmers of hope for him. “Most of my race performances have been really good,” he said. “So that I’m happy with – building back up to the level I should be.”

    READ MORE – END OF YEAR REPORT: Another challenging season for Mercedes as they look to climb ‘Mount Everest’ for 2024

    “Qualifying is still an area that needs to be improved. We struggle as a team getting the performance out of these tyres and you’ll notice there was one weekend where George would be massively off and I’d be ok and then it switched the other way. And those are down to small details with the car.”

    As the season went on, Mercedes started to get more out of a difficult package, aided by their last update of the year in Austin that ultimately made the difference in their battle with Ferrari for P2.

    AUSTIN, TEXAS - OCTOBER 20: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas
    Mercedes brought their last update of the year at Austin

    And it’s that progress that has given Hamilton hope, even if he is remaining super cautious ahead of next season having been burned by having similar hope extinguished early doors with this year’s machine.

    “Just seeing that we are slowly morphing this car into a more competitive machine, and it’s got more and more enjoyable to drive,” says Hamilton.

    READ MORE: ‘I believe we have a North Star now’ – Hamilton hopeful of Mercedes improvement in 2024 despite challenges

    “To be in a position where you’re going forwards rather than backwards is positive. But it’s still fundamentally not a winning car and that is what we have to change for next year. The dream is to make sure when we start in Feb next year, it doesn’t feel exactly the same – but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be the case.”

    While Hamilton wasn’t in the mood to chat after a difficult final race of the year in Abu Dhabi, where he struggled for pace and could only manage ninth – as Russell usurped him to take a podium – you don’t get the feeling that he’s letting it get him down, nor that he’s losing motivation.

    Lewis Hamilton has 'every faith' that Mercedes can challenge Red Bulls next year
    Lewis Hamilton has 'every faith' that Mercedes can challenge Red Bulls next year

    If anything, two winless campaigns – and a run of 45 races without a win – are only serving to push him to work even harder physically, even harder mentally, and even harder with his team to find a way back to the front.

    He knows getting back to a spot where he can fight for the title soon will be hard, but he does believe his team can get him there – and when they do, he has utter belief in himself that he can get the job done.

    READ MORE: Our writers pick their best drivers and favourite stories from 2023 – as well as who needs to up their game in 2024

    Bahrain pre-season testing, then, will take on extra significance – not least because the teams will likely make very few changes to their car from 2024 to 2025 because everything will be thrown at getting new regulations right in 2026 – so the machine you start next year with will essentially go through two campaign with no real option to change concept if you’ve got it wrong.

    So we should get an idea on whether Hamilton can bounce back and take the fight to Red Bull and Verstappen after that first day of running in the desert on February 21. Give him the car to fight at the front and it’s hard to bet against him making the most of it.

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