Formula 1

Mika Häkkinen: F1 success requires strength, focus and commitment – Lewis Hamilton has mastered that for 13 years

October 27, 2020January 6th, 2022

LEWIS Hamilton’s 92nd Grand Prix victory in Sunday’s Portuguese Grand Prix takes him beyond the record which my old rival Michael Schumacher set back in 2006 and really underlines the complete dominance which Lewis and his Mercedes team have enjoyed during the hybrid-engine era of Formula 1.

It’s a huge achievement for Lewis considering that his first victory came back in June 2007, in Canada, and to remain so competitive 13 years later is incredible. I know how much effort goes into winning just one Grand Prix, so to do it 92 times is very special indeed.

Many people point out that Lewis is driving the best car in Formula 1, but I can promise you that there is nothing easy about driving one of these complex machines at the limit, lap after lap, race after race and season after season. This requires mental and physical strength, focus and commitment of the kind we see across all top sports people – not only Formula 1 – and to find a way to repeat that for 13 years deserves a lot of appreciation.

Portugal brought some unique challenges, of course, since this was race was part of the rescheduled World Championship caused by the global pandemic. Algarve’s Portimao track has never been used for a Formula 1 race before, but Portugal is no stranger to Grand Prix racing. I made my debut for McLaren at Estoril in 1994, my teammate Ayrton Senna having won his first Grand Prix there back in 1985 while Michael won his second Grand Prix there in 1993.

Normally at this time of year the races have moved to warmer countries as Europe moves into winter, so Portugal was colder than we are used to, with some rain affecting the race and the newly resurfaced track providing very little grip. With limited practice on Friday, including two stoppages, none of the teams managed to test the cars over a long run, which meant that they did not have the normal amount of data to help with tyre strategy.

This is one of the reasons why there was a lot of difference regarding tyre selection on Sunday, both Mercedes cars starting on medium compound tyres while the majority went for softs. The medium was the tyre to have, for although the drivers using soft tyres started really well – including Carlos Sainz taking the lead in his McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen driving a brilliant first lap to move from 16th to sixth – the soft tyres started to deteriorate after four laps by which time the medium tyres were up to temperature and working well.

The start of the race was exciting, but once everything settled down you could see the Mercedes cars return to their normal position at the front of the field.

I thought Valtteri Bottas did a fantastic job following another strong performance in qualifying, making a great start and taking the lead when Lewis had a big slide on the first lap. The light rain which affected the start of the race really added to the challenge.

However, this race was all about tyre temperature and grip levels, and when Valtteri’s car was unable to maintain the necessary temperature and grip it was inevitable that Lewis would get past. From then on, the two Mercedes cars once again moved well clear of the field, Lewis eventually lapping everyone up to fourth position.

Red Bull Racing could have made this a stronger race if they had started on medium tyres, Max Verstappen showing strongly at first but then fading away. As I have said before, Red Bull Racing suffers from being a one-car team at many races, and again we saw a difficult race for Alex Albon, who finished one lap behind his teammate.

This is unusual since Alex is clearly a capable driver, just as Pierre Gasly was before him, yet driving the second Red Bull seems to be a problem. I am certain that Christian Horner recognises how important it is for them to find a solution soon. A car setup which is too Verstappen-specific could be the issue, and it is really noticeable how much more competitive Pierre has been since moving back to Red Bull’s junior team.

Having won the Italian Grand Prix last month, Pierre drove another strong race in Portugal to finish fiftth for Alpha Tauri behind Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari driver having a strong weekend following the latest upgrades to his Ferrari. It is great to see Ferrari making progress, although surprising that it is really only benefitting Charles as teammate Sebastian Vettel had another difficult weekend and finished 10th. Like Red Bull, Ferrari needs a competitive two-car team if it is to take the fight to the formidable Mercedes combination of Hamilton and Bottas.

Next weekend Formula 1 returns to Imola, Italy, for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. This is one of my favourite tracks since it is where I scored my first World Championship points when I finished fifth for Team Lotus back in 1991. That was quite a race, since I had only qualified 25th! We definitely didn’t have a good car for qualifying, but the race was a different story.

Formula 1 has not raced there since 2006, so there will again be a lack of data and experience at this track, added to which the teams are running a two-day schedule. With only one 90-minute practice session on Saturday morning the teams and drivers are going to have to work hard to evaluate their qualifying and race set-up. Inevitably this kind of pressure will cause some problems, and perhaps also create opportunities.

I still expect Mercedes to continue its dominance, but if Red Bull can work out how to make both cars more consistent and Ferrari continue their return to form on home ground, it would be nice to see a competitive race on one of the sport’s most historic circuits.