Why Hamilton is under more pressure in 2020 than any other recent season
Internally, Lewis Hamilton will be feeling pretty confident about his chances of winning a record-equalling seventh Formula 1 World Championship this year.
As defending champion, and winner of five of the last six titles, the Mercedes driver will know he has a target on his back – but that won’t bother him one bit. In fact, it’ll only serve to motivate and re-energise him for yet another mentally exhausting tilt at the title.
A lot of factors are in his favour. He has the best car on the grid, an advantage that’s been enhanced with the news Ferrari have been forced into a “significant” change of development direction with their SF1000 car. He believes he is the best on the grid – and on recent form – it’s hard to argue with that.
And when the chips are down, and he needs to get stuck in to get more out of the car, he’s arguably at his best – a useful skill given we enter this season not knowing how long it will be, with an ultra-quick succession of races never before seen in the championship.
But it’s also the unpredictable nature of this campaign that could prove to be the thorn in his side, and open the door for a rival to seize the advantage. And the driver best placed to do that, for a plethora of reasons, is Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
The Dutchman has been a force of nature since arriving on the grid in 2015. He has all the characteristics of a champion: he’s bold and he’s brave – but with the racing nous and outright speed to back up that unbelievable self-belief when going wheel to wheel on track.
The opening three Grands Prix are tailor-made for the Dutchman. He’s won the Austrian Grand Prix in each of the last two years, and finished second in 2016. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, not only does he get to start his campaign there, but he has the opportunity to race there twice in quick succession.
If the Red Bull-Honda is once again king of cooling at high altitude in Austria, versus the Mercedes package, the opportunity of a sensational double to open the year is on the cards for Verstappen.
Throw in a victory – or strong result – in Hungary in the final race of the first triple header (and there’s a good chance of that given the tight and twisty nature of the Hungaroring suits the inherent characteristics of a Red Bull down to the ground) and he could be leading the championship comfortably after the first three rounds with title favourite Hamilton trailing.
Admittedly, the next three races – two at Silverstone and one at Barcelona – should send the pendulum swinging back to Mercedes – but the key difference on the approach to those races is that for one of the few times in the hybrid turbo era, the Silver Arrows could well be chasing – rather than running away at the front – and that puts the pressure firmly on them and Hamilton to deliver.
Confidence plays a huge part in Formula 1, as does momentum, and Verstappen is capable of transforming those factors into marginal gains on track, if given the opportunity. He says he’s not focusing on a hat-trick of wins at the Red Bull Ring, but rather generating a title fight – and becoming the youngest world champion ever. That speaks volumes about his mindset.
There is, however, one key thing that lies out of his control – the quality of this year’s car.
Fortunately for him, Red Bull looked good at testing – arguably their strongest performance during pre-season in recent memory. And to counter the “chunk” of updates Mercedes are bringing to Austria, Red Bull have a flurry of their own to bolt onto the car – along with a new spec Honda engine, a useful string to their bow on a track which is power sensitive.
Honda have been making gains consistently with every update they have brought to the track since pairing up with Red Bull, both in terms of performance and reliability.
If Red Bull’s updates work as expected, they could make a real step, emerging not only as a better proposition than Ferrari – but also a worthy and season-long rival to Mercedes’ all-conquering team.
So while Hamilton remains the favourite for title number seven, to pull him level with the great Michael Schumacher, he could well face the biggest fight to achieve that feat in years – in the shape of a hungry Verstappen who is experienced enough (this will be his sixth season) to deliver on huge expectation should he have the car, the momentum and the fortune.