Why it's unfair to say Hamilton is winning only because of the car
It's days like Sunday that the rest of the Formula One field must realise what they are up against. It's easy to pretend Lewis Hamilton's success is simply the result of having the fastest car on the grid, but if you take the time to analyse his Spanish Grand Prix victory, you find an athlete working at the very highest level.
One of the core reasons for Hamilton's success is his desire to strive for perfection. Even in a season where he has the best car, he is challenging himself every week to extract more performance from it. In a sport measured to a thousandth of a second, it's almost impossible to attain true perfection, but on Sunday he came as close as is humanly possible.
"We all try for perfection and it's not always easy to deliver like that, but today, for me in the car, I was ecstatic when I came across the line," he said. "I didn't realise it was the last lap, I was still going. In my mind, I was like a horse with those blinkers on, I didn't realise, I was going to keep going.
"But for me, it was up there. In terms of how I drove, really delivering, I think today is right up there with some of the best that I've personally felt I've done so for me it's super exciting."
The fact that Hamilton is still finding new levels of performance on the day of his 88th grand prix victory is what marks him out as one of the greatest athletes alive. But trying to convey that to the watching world when he appears to be on nothing more than a Sunday drive is hard. With Formula One there is always a level of detachment between those watching and those taking part, Because of the nature of the sport, it's impossible to truly appreciate the skill involved.
Pushing the limits
Very few people on Earth have experienced what it's like to drive a Formula One car, let alone operate on the limit of their ability in one. The sensation of having five-times the force of gravity acting on your body at 180mph is unimaginable for the majority of us, yet Hamilton did it 66 times through the Circuit de Catalunya's Turn 3 on Sunday. What's more, he did it while monitoring the four volatile chemical reactions occurring on the surface of each tyre, managing the performance of an engine spinning at 12,000 revolutions per minute and maintaining a gap to one of his most aggressive rivals on the grid, Max Verstappen.
He did all that to perfection, dictating his own race-winning strategy from a cockpit that would have been reaching temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius in the height of a particularly hot Spanish summer. By the finish line he was 24 seconds clear of Vertsappen's Red Bull, which Mercedes' data from Friday practice had predicted would be the fastest car over the 66 lap race.
Meanwhile, the only man with the same equipment as Hamilton, his teammate Valtteri Bottas, made a slow start, never recovered and finished 44 seconds adrift -- albeit a gap made bigger by a late pit stop to ensure he had fresh enough tyres to take the point on offer for fastest lap from Hamilton.
In order to pull it off, Hamilton said he reached a "perfect zone" -- seemingly echoing the quotes of his hero Ayrton Senna, who occasionally spoke about out-of-body experiences in the car. Hamilton played down the comparisons with Senna's more spiritual experience, but still struggled to describe exactly what he felt in the press conference after the race.
"For whatever reason today, I don't know, I can't quite pinpoint why, but today I felt like I was in the most... it was like a clear zone, the clarity that I had today whilst I was driving," he said. "I'm sure I've had it before but it's not always... I don't even know how to really get into that zone.
"It's hard to say what helps you get into that space, but of course I will evaluate this weekend and the feeling today but honestly I felt fantastic in the car. It was physically challenging but in terms of not making any mistakes, delivering lap upon lap upon lap, I was in a perfect zone and that's the zone that I dream of being in."
Asked to elaborate on the experience at a later news conference once he had finished his briefing with his engineers, Hamilton added: "It's not an out-of-body experience. I was just in my highest form, I would say. I always like to talk about trying to be our highest selves and each of us have an unlimited capacity and it just felt like I was at a higher level.
"The zone that I was able to get into and stay in, I've just got to evaluate how I got there because it was evident in the gap that I had [over Verstappen] and how I managed the tyres. I'm always talking about perfect races and that was one of them."
The tangible result of being in that "perfect zone" was Hamilton's ability to extend his lead over Verstappen in the race at will. In the opening 11 laps, he kept it at 1.5s knowing he would pit around Lap 20 and wanting to make sure the tyres would last the distance. But once he started to get a feel for the tyres and the performance of the car, he extended his lead over Verstappen on each lap and left the Red Bull in his dust.
By the time Verstappen pitted on Lap 20, Hamilton's gap was already over 8.1s, giving him a buffer in which he could extend his own stint and use it as currency to buy himself a shorter second and third stint. That essentially put the result of the race beyond doubt as it would mean Hamilton would always be running on fresher tyres than Verstappen, adding to his already sizable advantage.
So in control was Hamilton that at one point Verstappen had to remind his pit wall to focus on his own race rather than that of the lead Mercedes. When Hamilton emerged from his final pit stop, the gap over Verstappen was 10 seconds, but Hamilton had spent his currency wisely and the tyres that would take him to the end of the race, a fresh set of the medium compound, were nine laps younger than Verstappen's.
Mercedes had initially wanted to put Hamilton on soft tyres for the 16-lap stint to the finish, but having tried both compounds earlier in the race, Hamilton overruled the pit wall. It proved to be an inspired decision as teammate Bottas, who had switched to the softs two laps earlier, struggled for performance as Hamilton turned that 10 second lead over Verstappen into 24 seconds on his mediums by the chequered flag.
"When we looked at the first stint, the soft tyre performed really well," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff explained. "We could extend the stint, the grip was there, and it was the logical choice to go on the soft for the last remaining 15 or 20-odd laps, nothing really indicated that that tyre wouldn't perform. So that was not a mistake from the team, on the contrary, the soft is the quickest tyre.
"But the call that Lewis made [to use the medium compound] was impressive, because he was adamant to get onto the medium, he felt that the medium was the tyre that he wanted to have, so he made that call.
"What I'm really happy about is the open conversation and transparency that we have between the driver and the team. That is not something that is obvious. There are teams where the drivers call the shots. There are teams where the engineering calls the shots. But within our organization, we're able to listen to each other and come up with the best decision. If the driver wants a tyre that is not really compromising his race, because he had the gap anyway, then he should get the tyre."
It was Hamilton's fourth victory in six races and saw him extend his lead in the drivers' championship to 37 points over Verstappen. Just a week earlier, Red Bull outperformed Mercedes at Silverstone, but the circumstances at that race were unusual and in Spain there was evidence that the world champions have already learned their lessons from the anomalous weekend.
The weaknesses Mercedes experienced on the softer-compound tyres at Silverstone were non-existent in Spain. They were helped by harder compounds, lower minimum tyre pressures and a track surface that helps fight against the blistering of the rubber they experienced at Silverstone, but not only did Mercedes overcome the issues, the performance differential to Red Bull swung dramatically in its favour.
It leads us to the conclusion that if there is still a weakness with the Mercedes, it is so specific that Red Bull cannot expect to rely on it to mount a championship challenge.
"We have, and this is what makes most proud, overcome a problem that seemed to be our Achilles heel, and that was that in hot conditions the Red Bull with Max Verstappen was simply the more competitive car," Wolff said after the race. "Within a week, the guys and girls in our factory on vehicle dynamics and simulation, and aero and all the other engineers that were involved trackside, have overcome this problem.
"So here we go again, track temperature at 50 degrees Celsius, with another asphalt, but nevertheless the same ambient, same conditions for the tyres, we were able to win the race in a controlled way. That shows the strength and depth in the organization."
"Clearly we were not in the race," he said. "I don't pay too much attention to them, we just have to focus on ourselves.
"Like I said in the race as well, we have to just focus on ourselves and not try to look too much at the others, what they say or what they do because at the end of the day you cannot control that anyway so we just have to focus on ourselves, try to improve, try to be a bit more competitive and not just rely on softer compounds or whatever, with blistering.
"We just have to find a bit more performance in the car and the engine to be more competitive."
Even if Verstappen had the faster car, overhauling a 37-point lead in the championship against a competitor like Hamilton would be a big ask. But as F1 goes to a series of circuits that should play to the strengths of the Mercedes, it's starting become a matter of when, not if, Hamilton secures his seventh world title and matches Michael Schumacher's record.
A championship with extra meaning
As he climbed out of his car under the podium, Hamilton pointed to the Black Lives Matter symbol that he has carried on top of his helmet at every round this year. He has been the leading voice in Formula One's anti-racism messaging and has underlined the importance of using the sport's platform to continue to have conversations about the issue.
With the pre-race anti-racism message now part of F1's race weekend routine -- something Hamilton had to push for after a series of embarrassing efforts -- the world champion is determined to use his success to keep the matter at the front of everyone's minds.
"It continues to be an issue," he said after the race. "There are so many issues around the world, but right now that is something I'm very focused on to continue to push for diversity.
"We are taking a stance when we start the race, but it is almost a formality now. It is important to continue to push.
"There are still many companies, many companies here, that have not held themselves accountable. And out there in the world, there are a lot of people who haven't, so we have to continue to push.
"In America, for example, there are still plenty of those policemen just living a normal life even though they killed someone, an innocent individual. So many of them have not been brought to justice and we have to continue to fight for that."
It's a message that has deeply impressed those who work closely with him. Ahead of each race, Mercedes' mechanics are among the few pit crews that take a knee along with the 13 drivers, showing unity with Hamilton on an issue that the team has also chosen to put front and centre this year by changing the colour of its cars from silver to black.
Wolff, who has a particularly close relationship with Hamilton, praised his driver's determination both on and off the track.
"Lewis has always been at his best when he fought adversity," Wolff said after Sunday's race. "I think the Black Lives Matter movement is close to his heart, and it certainly helps in terms of motivation.
"But I think, you know what I've always said, I'm impressed how he develops, every season, he's better in terms of his personality and as a driver, and that is really inspiring in a way that as a mid-30-year-old, he is able to show us how you can develop as a personality.
"How you can improve your game, how you can have interests outside of motor racing that actually make you stronger. A really, really good person."
The week-to-week improvement was not lost on Verstappen, either.