In a career of such consistency, brilliance and unrivalled success, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was about as bad as it gets for Lewis Hamilton in Formula One.
Finishing 13th without any real incident to shift the blame on is bad enough. But the gut punch would have been the enormous gap to his team-mate George Russell, who drove another exemplary race to finish fourth. He now leads Hamilton 49 points to 28 after four races, beating him in the last three rounds.
The seven-time champion said sorry for his own performance after the race, writing off his own championship chances with at least 18 rounds still to go. He was lapped by Max Verstappen and spent an eternity stuck behind the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly.
There were apologies all round at Mercedes as team principal Toto Wolff took to the radio to offer words to Hamilton after his chastening result. “Sorry for what you have needed to drive today. I know this is undriveable. This was a terrible race.”
“This guy is the best driver in the world, and he is not having a machine and equipment underneath him to be able to execute and to take that.”
Was there really any need for Wolff to apologise for the problematic W13? Hamilton is too good to make excuses about getting stuck in a DRS train or bad luck in losing places at the start or in the Safety Car period. Nor should any be made for him.
How bad is it really for Hamilton?
It is easy to look at isolated incidents and try to draw a wider conclusion. The season is still young. Yet adding context makes it look worse in some regards and better in others.
Is it too much to say that Russell has outclassed Hamilton this season? Just about. It is not quite as bad as it seems for the 37-year-old. After beating Russell on Saturday (comfortably) and Sunday (just) in Bahrain, Hamilton was unlucky to finish behind him in Australia after running ahead of him in the early stages.
But in both of Hamilton’s ‘better’ weekends, Russell was pretty much on the pace of his team-mate. In Russell’s better weekends, Hamilton has been distant. In Jeddah, he qualified 10 places ahead and finished 40 seconds ahead and he did not even finish on the same lap at Imola. The root cause of the former was a set-up gamble that did not pay off, but the driver must claim responsibility for that.
The performance gaps have not been enormous in every race, but the situation that Hamilton is in now is almost alien. The points gap being as large as it is and being beaten by his team-mate in three consecutive races has not happened since Nico Rosberg was his team-mate in 2016.
There have been a few instances of bad luck, but at Imola – when Esteban Ocon was unsafely released into his path in the pitlane and took the position – and Jeddah it only worsened his situation. It was not the cause of it. That he was so far down and embroiled in a midfield battle is partly on him.
Russell has not been faultless but he has managed to overcome his errors and, importantly, the car’s limitations. The bottom line is that Russell is getting close to the maximum from the W13. Hamilton is not – that is unarguable.
How can Russell already have the beating of an all-time great?
Before his promotion to Mercedes, Russell spent three seasons at a struggling Williams team. In 2021 he managed to catch headlines with some impressive qualifying performances – especially in the wet at Spa and in Sochi – which earned him the nickname Mr Saturday, for being able to wring every last hundredth of a second out of sub-standard machinery over one lap. This year he has translated those skills across the whole weekend.
In 2019 and 2020, though, the Williams was the worst car in the field. Although it would have surely been frustrating to be at the back, he says the experience was useful in developing skills that he would not have been able to do going straight into a front-running team.
Speaking to MotorSport magazine in 2021, Russell commented on how stable regulations from 2020 to 2021 meant it was up to the driver and engineer to unlock performance – and to complement his driving style – and that he had improved in that area.
“At the end of the day man and machine have got to work in harmony together and understanding what I need from my team, what I need from the race car to allow me extract these good performances is the real skill,” he said.
“It’s something I’ve been so grateful for, and in ways having such a difficult race car – especially in 2019 and 2020 – probably forced me to work even hard[er] on that front.”
Although the Mercedes is, just about, the third quickest car (though fourth in raw pace terms) rather than the 10th fastest, it too has significant problems. And Russell is finding a way around them better than his decorated compatriot in the sister car.
For all of Hamilton’s recent success, he has rarely required the skills Russell developed at Williams and never recently. The dominance of Mercedes since 2014 has been near-absolute. No driver has had as dominant a machine at his hands for as long as Hamilton. Even at points last year when Red Bull were quicker, Mercedes had a fundamentally sound car. This year there are fundamental problems.
Hamilton clearly has used his skills to develop a fast car into an even faster one, but that is a different task. Saudi Arabia was a case in point – when a set-up dead end saw him eliminated in Q1 for the first time since 2017 – and that again was repeated at Imola.
This underlines Russell’s excellence as much as Hamilton’s woes. Let us also not forget that he came into F1 with a record as good as nearly anyone in the junior categories. And that he jumped into an unfamiliar Mercedes for a one-off in 2020 and almost won. But he did not have the luxury of a race-winning car in his first season, like Hamilton did in 2007.
What does this mean for the rest of the season? Is Hamilton doomed?
Will this trend continue? As well as Russell has done so far, it would be a shock if the gap continued to grow in this manner throughout the season. As good as Russell’s race was on Sunday, he only qualified three-tenths ahead of Hamilton and finished five seconds ahead of him in the sprint on Saturday.
Mercedes are yet to either develop their way to a car that is easier to drive, or find an optimal set-up to minimise their current issues. Given the enormous amount of data available to Mercedes, it is perhaps a bit odd to say their current situation is akin to them scrambling around in the dark for performance but that is how it appears. Maybe Russell has a brighter torch.
When it became clear that Mercedes would not be fighting for victory in the opening race, the team stressed that it did not think a fix was around the corner. Five weeks on and that has turned out to be true, with the team as far off the pace in Imola as they were in Bahrain.
It would be odd if Mercedes made no further inroads into the leaders this year, but it is not impossible. Both championships already look out of the question which raises the question: why waste resources on this year’s car when you can look to 2023?
As long as these fundamental issues persist, there is a greater chance of a performance gap between their drivers. There will likely be times where Russell struggles compared to Hamilton.
Hamilton is now fighting on two fronts. One, with a problematic car and two with a team-mate who is as talented and quick as anyone he has lined up against for almost a decade. It is not a crisis but is slightly uncomfortable.
We should expect him to recover, but the scale of that recovery looks uncertain. His fight against Verstappen was one of the biggest challenges of his career. This is starting to look that way too.