For the first time since 2015, Lewis Hamilton sealed the world championship with a victory. The various titles in between have been clinched in a variety of ways, just not with a win. In the Turkish Grand Prix he turned around a miserable weekend for Mercedes to earn his win, and his seventh title, the hard way.
It has been rightly hailed as a fitting way for Hamilton to be champion. That’s rooted in the idea that Hamilton gave a gutsy, battling drive without the fastest car, and shone where his rivals failed. And he won a race that, as Sebastian Vettel put it, wasn’t his to win.
Actually, it was Hamilton’s race to win. Or rather, it became his race to win as the conditions changed and the circumstances swung towards Mercedes. It wasn’t a faultless drive because he made mistakes on the opening lap and early in his second stint when behind Vettel. And it wasn’t a rare underdog turnaround because in the second half of the race the Mercedes became the fastest car on intermediates.
The real brilliance of his victory was that it was so, so well-executed. That it came from a long way back. That when the Mercedes was not the quickest car Hamilton was able to hold it together and stick to the lead group, not losing too much time. That when he was on the intermediates he was able to go quickly without wrecking them. That in the dicey moments late on, with the threat of rain raising the prospect of another pitstop, he had the nerve and the precision to stay out and make the tyres last.
Ultimately, that it was without any real ‘wow!’ moments, because it was so much more professional as a global performance than his rivals managed, he didn’t need them. Team-mate Valtteri Bottas wrecked his own race on the first lap with two errors, one that left him with significant steering damage and left him spinning a total of six times (!) over the entire grand prix. Other victory contenders like the two Red Bulls spun away their chances. The Racing Point was too aggressive on its rubber as the track dried, and Lance Stroll apparently had invisible damage that the team only discovered post-race.
Don’t take this as trying to play down the quality of Hamilton’s drive, it’s just an argument that it has been slightly misunderstood, or mischaracterised, as an epic, virtuoso performance in challenging conditions. It WAS remarkably good, but because it was pretty uneventful. Which in the conditions faced in Turkey takes astonishing skill and judgement.
Even Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said that it is “really difficult” to say just how good the performance was! “Not to belittle today’s win but he has put together so many brilliant races over the years.” As Shovlin said, “what’s nice about this one and a lot of his recent wins is that they’re not about situations falling into his lap and freak events that go his way or anything like that”. What the 2020-spec Hamilton does is just slowly, quietly put together an unbeatable performance. He keeps calm when the race isn’t under his control and smashes it as soon as it is. “It’s why he’s a seven-time champion,” said Shovlin. “Because he can read a race like he did today and he manages the tyres and even when he dropped back he actually stayed nice and calm and could sort of see the bigger picture. “He did a brilliant job today and showed why he’s got seven titles.”
There were some other excellent performances in difficult conditions, and all credit to the other podium finishers Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel. They ran in podium contention all race long, Perez even led for a while, and thoroughly deserved their reward at the end. Vettel had to take advantage of an error from team-mate Charles Leclerc with a couple of corners left to do it, but it was a shrewd and competitive drive from Vettel, his best of the season.
The big disappointment was Max Verstappen who, unlike Hamilton, had the fastest car for much of the weekend and for probably the first time this season failed to get the most out of his machinery. Much as he maligned the intermediates in qualifying he should have been on pole but made a mistake on his final lap. And while ultimately the Mercedes’ pace and Red Bull tyre wear on a drying track probably made it unlikely he’d have won, Verstappen should have had track position but threw it away when he spun needlessly behind Perez.
Verstappen’s still an all-or-nothing driver, a legacy of being out of championship contention and just putting everything on the line for each individual race. He can probably change that if he ever finds himself in a title battle. But he’s still got to prove he has the refined ability that Hamilton displayed so emphatically in Turkey.