Monday, November 19, 2012 12:35 pm
Column: All downhill from here for Lewis Hamilton?
By JOHN LEICESTERAP Sports Columnist
Winning in Texas on Sunday put the million-dollar grin back on Hamilton's face, to match the sparkle from his diamond ear studs. It wasn't mere fatherly pride speaking when Anthony Hamilton called this "probably one of Lewis' greatest races ever."
Hamilton's emphatic overtake of Sebastian Vettel for the race lead on Lap 42 of 56, missing the Red Bull's right rear tire by inches as he swept past, came during his next-to-last Grand Prix for McLaren.
"It was real dangerous, if I'm honest," Hamilton said. But utterly thrilling to watch.
All of which only served to accentuate the sobering thought that Hamilton and F1 could be very sorry next season, when he no longer has a throaty McLaren to give voice to his driving talent.
Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable in a sport so changeable and so reliant on the coming together of men and complex machinery. Still, it was impossible not to think that for a glimpse of Hamilton's future, all one needed to do was to look behind him, a long, long way behind him, on the new Circuit of the Americas, an instant contender as the most exciting track on the F1 calendar.
There, more than a lap back, was Schumacher, limping around to yet another nowhere finish in his Mercedes, the same team Hamilton has signed to drive for next year. The yawning gap between the two former world champions highlighted the risk Hamilton is taking in moving from a team of proven winners at McLaren to Mercedes, a team of yet largely unfulfilled ambition.
Schumacher called his race "a disaster," a description that could be applied to the bulk of his season. He went backward Sunday from fifth on the grid to finish 16th. Unlike nearly everyone else, he was forced to change tires twice because his car so lacked grip. Teammate Nico Rosberg finished 13th.
That makes five successive races in which neither Mercedes scored points. All the positive vibes generated by Schumacher's return to F1 in 2009 have been sucked dry by three seasons in Mercedes cars that failed to give him anything close to a fighting chance of winning an eighth world title.
As alarming as all this looks for Hamilton's prospects next year, things happening behind the scenes may reassure him. Mercedes feels it's making progress in its process of becoming a team that can consistently challenge the likes of Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. Rosberg's win in China in April proves it can produce a competitive car. Before his 15th place at the British Grand Prix in July, eight races into the 20-race season, Rosberg was just 10 points behind Vettel, who should secure his third world driver's title at the final Grand Prix in Sao Paolo, Brazil, next Sunday.
The spin from Mercedes is that this summer the team worked on improving the wind tunnel it uses to design and test new parts for its cars. Specifically, engineers scaled up the size of the models they use in that tunnel. But that diverted minds and manpower from working on this year's car. So while other teams got faster, Mercedes treaded water, the result being that despite Rosberg's encouraging early part of the season, the team now looks all at sea.
The expectation, however, is that the wind-tunnel upgrade will pay off in the development of next year's car. In short, the team thinks it took a step back this season that may enable it to take two steps forward next season. Whether that is true will become apparent in winter testing and when Hamilton arrives in his Mercedes at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix next March.
Anthony Hamilton painted the switch to Mercedes as just another step in the adventure that saw his son drive his way from humble beginnings to become F1's first black world champion in 2008, even as he acknowledged the wrench of saying goodbye to McLaren, the team that got them this far.
"The Hamiltons are synonymous with McLaren and vice versa," he told broadcaster Sky Sports. "I think we're all going to miss each other."
He added: "Now, we're almost rebuilding, if you want, the challenge of `Let's see what you can do with something new.'"
Again, F1 predictions are dangerous. But if Hamilton isn't competitive, that will remove a big obstacle to Vettel adding a fourth world title in 2013 to the one that seems promised to him this Sunday.
Hamilton is thrilling to watch because he's so fast and aggressive. F1 will be a poorer spectacle next season if he becomes lost in the no-man's land of mechanical failures and mediocre race performances that swallowed up Schumacher's final year.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester