Last season, Hamilton triumphed in an emphatic season long battle with arch rival and teammate Nico Rosberg, thus joining the exclusive club of double world champions. Now in 2015 with four races gone and Hamilton already having won three of those, he is surely on track for another championship success, but can anyone challenge him and pull off a major upset?
Brief insight into Hamilton’s tenure at Mercedes till now
When Hamilton signed with Mercedes for 2013, fans and pundits alike doubted his decision. Quite rightly so, as in 2012, Mercedes at that point of time had won only one race and had finished fifth in the Constructors Championship that year, obviously not a great prospect with regard to the fact that his former team McLaren had finished third in the Constructors and had won seven races that same year.
But come 2013, tables turned rather radically as McLaren swiftly swept back in the midfield, while Mercedes finished runners-up behind Red Bull. 2014 further cemented Mercedes’ improved form as they secured over one second advantage over any other team on the grid. With the major rule changes being introduced that year, it was Mercedes who utilized them the best and came out on top. Hamilton produced a marvelous season, in which after a tough fight with Rosberg especially during the first half, he finally came out on top after winning eleven races to Rosberg’s five.
Who can challenge Hamilton for the title?
With Mercedes’ complete supremacy in 2014, it was an easy guess for anyone to expect another similar season from the dominant silver arrows, but as things stand currently, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Ferrari rather surprisingly has struck back in form and has emerged as an immediate threat, especially after Sebastian Vettel’s win in Malaysia.
With their development rate rapidly catching up to that of Mercedes, it would come as a no surprise if they even manage to overhaul them more consistently especially after the mid-season break. But besides Ferrari, Hamilton will also have to see through a tough challenge from his teammate Nico Rosberg, who will be looking to gain back his lost form as soon as possible and challenge him for victories.
Major Impetus on Rosberg to rediscover his lost form
The careers of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have paralleled so much so that they were teammates during their karting days and even entered Formula 1 a year after the other. While Rosberg debuted with Williams in 2006, Hamilton came in with McLaren the following year. Hamilton, in the cockpit of competitive cars throughout his career, enjoyed a far better career than Rosberg who got his first win only in 2012 as opposed to Hamilton who achieved the feat in his debut season in 2007.
Many expected that now, with both being in similar and competitive machinery, Rosberg would finally get an evenly matched teammate, alongside whom he would be able to display how good he really is, as earlier he had Michael Schumacher as his teammate who is seventeen years older than him. But as the new season got underway, except qualifying, Rosberg was consistently outsmarted by Hamilton in the races, which proved to be a major reason towards him losing the championship in 2014.
Currently, things appear to have gotten from bad to worse for him as this year not only in the races, but in qualifying too, he has been outperformed by his teammate. A three week break before the Spanish Grand Prix must have given him ample amount of time to get back together and regain his form. He needs to at least start out qualifying his teammate just like the previous season to have a better crack at winning races.
His overtaking maneuvers in Bahrain were top notch and if he can continue such form alongwith pole positions in the upcoming races, then surely he will be the driver who can catch Hamilton. Obviously, with Rosberg being in similar machinery as Hamilton, he does have the best chance of catching him, but of course if and when he rediscovers his lost form. The sooner he does that, the better it will be as time is slipping away for him and even Ferrari look to be closer to them than ever before.
The threat form Ferrari - a resurgent force
Ferrari has made monumental gains over the winter and has emerged as major title contenders this year. Rewind the clock to last year, the team had endured its worst season in almost twenty years and was struggling to even get on the podium leave winning a race. This dwindling form had set alarm bells ringing in Maranello which set forth a radical change in the personnel structure within the team.
Team Principal Stefano Domenicali left, to be replaced by Marco Mattiacci, who himself was shown the door in favor of the charismatic Maurizio Arrivabene in November. The team president Luca di Montezemolo also had to leave, with his position taken over by Fiat president Sergio Marchionne. The team’s lead driver Fernando Alonso after going through another disappointing season with the team finally left to join McLaren in its effort towards getting competitive again with assistance from new engine supplier Honda. He was immediately replaced by the four time world champion Sebastian Vettel. Besides them, there were also personnel changes in the engine, design and other departments, all of which made the team appear starkly different from last year.
Before the beginning of the season, Arrivabene had been quoted as saying that he did not expect much improvement in form this year and was targeting at most two wins this year. But as pre-season testing got underway, Ferrari proved to be quick and were consistently around the top of the timesheets. Then as the season began in Melbourne, Ferrari’s true pace became clearer when the team got their first podium after eight races with Vettel finishing in third place.
But what happened next in Malaysia was even more unexpected as Vettel, through Ferrari’s better race pace, tyre management skills and with bit of luck from safety car, clinched his and Ferrari’s first win in over a year. Their form continued in China, as Vettel and Raikkonen finished third and fourth respectively. Then, in Bahrain, although Vettel succumbed to fifth place due to mistakes, it was Raikkonen who hunted down Rosberg and passed him on the 56th lap for second place. Thus, Mercedes who hadn’t even been overtaken on pure race pace by anyone last season have now succumbed to that twice.
Although in Bahrain, Rosberg had brake overheating problems, Raikkonen had consistently put in quick laps which matched both the Mercedes especially during latter half of the race. Thus, after four rounds, it has become very much evident that Ferrari will remain the closest rivals of Mercedes throughout the season. They are still undergoing development at a rapid rate and it should come as a no surprise, if they overpower the defending world champions at quite a few other upcoming races.
Improved form of both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen
As regards to its drivers, both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen have had a resurgence in form of late. Vettel had endured one of the worst seasons of his career in 2014, during which he was outperformed by his teammate Daniel Ricciardo and also couldn’t secure a victory throughout the season. Now along with Ferrari, Vettel’s form also has dramatically improved and especially after his win in Malaysia it will be no mistake to count him amongst championship contenders. But his performance in Bahrain was below par as even after starting in second position, he ended up finishing only fifth due to several driving errors on his side. Apart from minor mistakes in Bahrain, he has been flawless this year and if he sustains this form, which it seems he will, then surely Hamilton will often have to check his mirrors.
His teammate Kimi Raikkonen had endured an even worse season last year. Mostly owing to the fact that the car didn’t handle well and was not built according to the Finn’s driving style, he struggled throughout the year and couldn’t secure a podium finish. But with James Allison now in charge of designing the car and with special instructions from Arrivabene to design the car according to his driving style, things have got better for the Finn. Being much more comfortable with the car, he has surely rediscovered his lost pace.
After being unlucky in Australia, on the back of great race craft he finished fourth in both Malaysia and China and made up for tough qualifying sessions. But come Bahrain, the Flying Finn finally delivered on the potential shown in the first few races. It was a real pleasure watching him continuously hound the Mercedes especially during the last fifteen laps of the race, at the end of which he even managed to overtake Rosberg for second and finished just three seconds behind Hamilton.
His race craft remains unquestionable, but an area where he still lacks is in Qualifying, in which he still hasn’t succeeded in beating his teammate. Even during his first stint with Ferrari, Massa, his then teammate used to frequently outqualify him and also last year alongside Alonso he had been outqualified 16-3. Thus, if he can improve his qualifying form, then already with a great race craft he can easily challenge for podiums if not for victories. But realistically speaking his qualifying form will hurt his chances, which will give advantage to Vettel who has by far proven to be the better qualifier and thus probably it will be him rather than Raikkonen who will challenge Hamilton for the title.
As regards the other teams, their possibility of catching Hamilton and Mercedes are almost non-existent. Williams had emerged as the fastest car behind Mercedes last year, but this season they have slipped back in their pace and will most probably remain behind Ferrari throughout the season. Red Bull on the other hand seems to have endured an even worse fate. Last year, through a great aerodynamic package, they had made up for a weaker engine and had succeeded in finishing second in the Constructors, but now with their engine supplier Renault still not making any major gains, the car currently is uncompetitive and languishing in the midfield.
Hamilton’s challengers this season
Thus, there are only three major forces which can challenge Hamilton for the title this year; they are his teammate Rosberg and the Ferrari duo of Vettel and Raikkonen. With Rosberg consistently finishing behind Hamilton, it will require a mammoth motivation boost for him to get back.
As regards the Ferrari drivers, they are doing their utmost and their performance should get better with further improvements to the car, but it might get too late till the team catches Mercedes, so at least this season Mercedes and Hamilton should again seal the world titles, though maybe not with the ease with which they had done last year.
But come 2016, nothing can be taken for granted, as Ferrari appears to be catching up to Mercedes rapidly and might even succeed in overthrowing their current dominance in the near future.