Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Apprentice to sorceror?

Lewis Hamilton returned to the site of his F1 debut twelve months on in the kind of devastating form that simply must cause his rivals the odd sleepless night. This time last year Lewis arrived in Melbourne with a watching world wondering what he might achieve. This time, as Lewis himself admitted in the run-up to qualifying, the stakes were immensely higher. There were questions hanging in the air: would the benefit of a year's experience see him step up to another level or would he now falter under the pressure of expectation? Could he provide a level of technical leadership that, for all the problems that came with him, Fernando Alonso, as a double world champion, clearly brought to McLaren? Could McLaren provide him with a genuine title-challenger or would the fall-out from the 'Stepneygate' saga and its impact upon their technical development be clearly revealed for all to see? In short, was 2007 simply a flash in the pan?

Lewis' answer to all of those questions was a simply devastating, controlled pace of a like that is only demonstrated by the very greatest of racing drivers at the peak of their powers. For all the paddock certainty that Ferrari would hold the advantage at this racetrack, perhaps with McLaren snapping at their heels, Lewis was on it from the moment first practice began on Friday. In the afternoon session, as the Ferraris began to lose their way with their race set-up and struggle to get the best out of their hard tyres in the sky-high temperatures, Lewis kept his cool and his confidence began to grow. On one of his quickest laps he held the car in a simply breathtaking slide through Turn 13, aggressive but controlled, utterly relaxed at the limit. The precision and suppleness of his steering inputs viewed from the onboard camera were in stark opposition to the visible tension in the shoulders and arms and hence the comparative jerkiness in those of say, Felipe Massa.

In the first part of the race, he simply drove away from the opposition with a ruthless speed that took one's breath away. Sector after sector, lap after lap he turned the timing screens purple as he set yet another fastest time. And yet, afterwards, he reckoned he had not been pushing too hard - that he had time in hand if he'd needed it. You didn't doubt it.

In answer to those other questions that were hanging in the air before Friday practice, it appears that McLaren have built a quick and reliable racing car. It also appears that Hamilton's input into the development process has ensured that he has a car in which he has complete confidence - he knows where he can put it and how it will react on the limit. Very few drivers up and down the pitlane will have the benefit of that right now. Maybe we can start to draw some more conclusions from that

I don't think for a second that Lewis will have too many Sunday afternoons as easy as this over the balance of the season, but it is certainly clear that with a year's experience under his belt, we are now watching him step up his already formidable game to another level.

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