Lewis Hamilton was robbed of an eighth Formula 1 world championship last year. We don’t think that’s a controversial statement. He had the all-important season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the palm of his hand. He was cruising to victory until the last lap, where a terrible call from former race director Michael Masi eliminated his lead and effectively handed the championship to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Had that not happened, Hamilton would have secured the record-breaking title and may well have driven off into the sunset after a peerless career. Masi paid for the error with his job, which is as close as the FIA is ever going to get to admitting that Hamilton suffered an injustice.
There was a lot of conjecture before the season that a despondent Hamilton would quit the sport. He was said to be devastated by the loss of the championship and furious about the way the final race of the season was handled. It wasn’t until Masi was fired, with just a handful of weeks to go before the 2022 season began, that he committed himself to another season of driving for Mercedes. The press got behind the idea that this season would be about Hamilton’s redemption. He would climb back behind the wheel of his Mercedes, reclaim his crown, and teach Verstappen and Red Bull a few lessons while he did it. If you’ve been following Formula 1 this season, you’ll know that isn’t how things have turned out. Hamilton might well wish that he’d decided to retire after all.
The 2022 Formula 1 season is one that fans, pundits, and the smaller teams on the grid have been looking forward to for a very long time. That’s because of the new rules that were introduced at the beginning of the season. The rules theoretically reduce the differences between the cars in terms of performance and also make overtaking easier. Every team involved in Formula 1 had to make major adjustments to their 2021 cars to comply with the new rules, and some of those teams have done better than others. Ferrari’s race engineers, for example, are seeing their cars flying around the track after three years in the wilderness. Mercedes, by contrast, have had a disaster. The car isn’t competitive. According to Hamilton, the 2022 Mercedes Formula 1 car is a strong contender for being the worst he’s driven in his long career.
The fact that both Hamilton and his new teammate George Russell have secured a single podium finish each so far this season speaks volumes about how far from the front row Mercedes has fallen. Those podiums were an overachievement, delivered by brilliant drivers fighting terrible cars. There is a myriad of reasons why the Mercedes is struggling, but the biggest culprit is “porpoising.” A fault with the aerodynamic design of the underside of the cars means that the cars bounce, reducing straight-line speed. The cars perform better on tracks with multiple corners, but on straights, they become almost impossible to keep under control. Neither Russell nor Hamilton is enjoying the experience, and team boss Toto Wolff has admitted that his engineers are struggling to solve the issue. This season might already be a write-off.
Every team that made major changes to its cars for 2022 took a gamble. Nobody knew how the cars would perform because nobody had ever built or driven Formula 1 cars like this before. Until the first practice session, Mercedes genuinely thought they had a good car. It was only when they saw the speeds and times posted by their rivals that they realised they had an issue. That’s the issue with gambling. You can’t go to a casino website and expect to win a poker game unless you know who you’re playing against. Even then, people who visit casino sister sites can at least check a casino comparison site to see statistics about features, bonuses, and payouts before they spend their money. There was no equivalent to a casino review website for anybody in Formula 1 this season. The teams worked almost blind, and by the time they saw who they were up against, it was too late to make additional changes.
We’ll probably never know why the Mercedes car is so uncompetitive this year. Mercedes is unlikely to make such things public. However, we can speculate. It’s no secret that a lot of Mercedes engineers and support staff have defected to Red Bull in the past two years. Red Bull has headhunted them and is proud of having done so. Losing all of that expertise must have come at a cost to Mercedes, and this might be how the cost has manifested itself. There are only so many people in the world who know how to create and manage a Formula 1 car, and if Red Bull has lured away the greatest minds available to Mercedes, then a decline in performance is inevitable. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how Mercedes will solve the problem not just this season but possibly ever.
Toto Wolff and the Mercedes team will be telling Lewis Hamilton that things will improve and the car will be better next year. The issue for Hamilton is that there might not be a next year. He’s too competitive to settle for driving around further down the field like Kimi Raikkonen did before he retired and Fernando Alonso does today. If Hamilton can’t go for wins, he won’t want to go at all. The biggest problem with waiting for next year is that he’ll be 38. He keeps himself fit and looks after himself, but even in elite athletes, there’s an age-related dropoff. As he approaches forty, Hamilton’s reactions will begin to slow. The split-second decisions he needs to make in order to gain an edge on his competition will take a thousandth of a second longer. The risk calculations he needs to make will take a little longer to process, and, through a combination of all of those things, a point will come where he can no longer keep up with the younger drivers. The 2022 season could easily be the last one Lewis Hamilton spends as a Formula 1 driver, and it looks like it’s going to be an inauspicious way for a champion of his calibre to go out.