Friday, June 23, 2006

Lewis Hamilton - the next Ayrton Senna or the next Jan Magnussen?

Spare a thought for poor Trinidad and Tobago, not only were they effectively knocked out of the World Cup by England the other week, but nobody really seems to have noticed that England's new golden boy of motorsport would actually be eligible to play for their football team!

But enough about that, doubtless Ecuador will soon take care of Beckham and co. and us motorsports fans can go back to wondering whether Schumacher has any answer to Alonso, who Kimi Raikkonen will drive for next year, and quite what possessed Renault to re-sign Giancarlo Fisichella. On the basis of what I've seen, Brazilian, Spanish, Argentinian and Dutch fans might be waiting a while longer.

Either way, I don't recall really seeing Lewis Hamilton's name outside of the specialist press until about two weeks ago, but after not only winning the first GP2 race at Silverstone commandingly from the front, but also taking the second
with a feisty drive from 8th on the grid (including an attention-grabbing double pass for 2nd in the Becketts complex) , it seems he's suddenly everywhere. The mainstream press have him as a shoe-in for the McLaren drive next year, and seem convinced that he will succeed where, in their eyes, Button has failed. All this ignores a whole lot of unanswered questions, like: Could anyone else on the grid have won a race in Button's BAR over the last three years? and; Just how much of an advantage is his berth with the all-conquering ART team providing? but it doesn't half make for good headlines.

So what of Lewis Hamilton? When I saw him racing in Formula Renault a few years back, I have to confess I wasn't exactly bowled over backwards by his abilities. He was good, don't get me wrong, but he didn't seem really stand out over his rivals that year - Danny Watts and Jamie Green. Certainly, I couldn't see whatever it was that had led Ron Dennis to take such a keen interest in the boy from such an early age. On the other hand, though, I only saw him at one race, and it was his first season in cars. Watts, by contrast, had several seasons of single seater experience, and even Green at least had the advantage of having done the FRenault Winter Series first. He won the series at his second attempt, and while winning a UK FRenault championship is hardly an automatic pass on to greater things, he hardly deserves too much criticism for needing a second bite at the cherry.

It took him two attempts to nail the Formula 3 Euroseries too. To be fair, though, his team, Manor Motorsports, had not yet really established itself as a significant force in EuroF3 in 2004. After all, his team mate, Charles Zwolsman could only manage a distant 16th in the series, despite greater F3 experience, and he went on to win Formula Atlantic last year, and hasn't looked too shabby in Champ Cars either. In his second year, he switched from Manor to the all-conquering ASM team and dominated the series to the extent that almost nobody else got a look in. Certainly he achieved rather more in the ASM car than Paul Di Resta is managing this year.

All of which brings us bang up to date with his GP2 career. Initially, his media handlers seemed keen to promote the idea that this was to be a 'learning year' for Hamilton - that ART drive or no ART drive, he was not going to be able to beat the likes of Premat, Piquet or Carroll in his first season. This seemed fair enough at the time and indeed I didn't include Hamilton in my list of the most likely winners of the series when I wrote about it back in February. However, with just over half the season gone, it looks more than likely that, unlike with FRenault and Euro F3, Hamilton is only going to need one year to crack GP2. His drive at Silverstone may have been the one which caught the attention of the UK press (not surprisingly, perhaps), but to me, it was his first double win at the Nurburgring that has been his standout achievement of the season. Not only did he become only the second driver ever to win both GP2 races in a weekend, but he won the first one despite a drive-through penalty, and he won the second in such a dominant fashion as to make everyone else, including his own team mate, wonder why they bothered. But for a very chancy move by Alexandre Premat in the final lap at Barcelona, he would have won both races in Spain too.

So clearly, he's not bad, but is he really something special? GP2 is theoretically a single-make formula where all go to the grid with equal cars. In practice though, like F3000 before it, some teams seem to be able to make a much better job of preparing and setting up their identical cars than others. For a while in F3000, it seemed that an Arden drive was the passport to the title, but in GP2, the ART seats have been the ones to have. For those that have any doubts about the variance between the teams, look at how suddenly Timo Glock's fortunes improved the moment he switched from the unpredictable BCN Competicion team to the front-running ISport operation.

For all the suspicions that part of Hamilton's advantage might come from his ART team though, the sheer extent of his domination of some of the races this year suggests he might not have had much trouble winning in any GP2 car. After all, Nico Rosberg has looked pretty handy in F1 this year, and yet he didn't enjoy anything like the margin of superiority over his ART team mate, Alexandre Premat, as Hamilton does. And that despite the fact that Prfemat is now in his second year in the series.

No, if there's a word of warning to be had about Hamilton, its that sometimes, absolute dominance in the feeder formulae does not translate into a successful F1 career. How quick did Erik Comas look in F3000 in 1990? And yet, what did he ever really achieve in F1? Bjorn Wirdheim dominated F3000 in 2003, and yet never looked more than moderately competent at Jaguar in F1 (although there, we kind of knew that the quality of the F3000 grid that year was poor). Ricardo Zonta beat Juan Pablo Montoya to the title in 1997, but then what? And of course, then there was the man that I mentioned right at the top. Jan Magnussen broke all the records in British F3, and was hailed by the British press as the new Ayrton Senna. After all the last guy to achieve that kind of dominance in F3 was...yes, Mr Senna. On the strength of his F3 performances, he got a test driver's job at Mclaren, and later a full race seat at Stewart. And he sank without trace.

I think that's less likely to happen to Lewis Hamilton. We know that the GP2 field is pretty strong, and the same could not always be said of the F3000 grid, and certainly not of some of the national F3 fields. So, I doubt he'll end up the next Jan Magnussen, especially not with Ron Dennis' guiding hand.

But equally, I think it far too early to declare him the next Senna, Schumacher or Alonso. He's looked pretty impressive so far, but then most drivers who actually reach Formula 1 in the first place are the ones who impress in F3, F3000 and GP2. And put simply, Hamilton has yet to test himself against anyone of the ability of a Raikkonen, a Schumacher or Alonso. Can't wait to see how he does though.


Blogger Qwerty said...

The only way we'll know for sure is once he does step up into Formula 1. However, I find it interesting to note that the winner of last year's Macau Grand Prix won the race in Hamilton's ASM Dallara Mercedes. Hamilton himself did not compete in the race. It would seem to me that his was a very well prepared and quick car. If Sebastien Vettel were placed in it I bet he'd have won the race.

What I'm trying to say is that his Formula 3 victories had as much to do with a quick car as his skills.

But having said that, Kimi Raikkonen never won karting championships and competed in 23 car races in Formula Renault before landing at Sauber and look what happened to him... as compared to say a Jan Magnussen.

Jenson Button never did win the Brit F3 but he impressed Gerhard and Frank enough to be picked for Williams.

Hard to say who will make it in this game. Sadly I've never watched Hamilton race. But I think the real superstars absolutely shine from the word go. Take a look at Senna, Prost, Schumacher and Raikkonen. All of them were highly impressive in their first ever tests in Formula 1. It is that ability to make sense of the whole situation instantly is what seperates the great from the merely good.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

he has one of the best cars so far... but he is the best rookie ever in f1, Alonso is scared about him. Hope he is the next formula 1 champinon.

7:54 PM  
Blogger pd said...

more senna than magnussen, don't you think?

2:25 AM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

He seems to be a rising star of sports

5:43 AM  

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