After months of delays, the Formula 1 season is finally underway, and a Mercedes won the first race of the season. That isn’t a surprise. The car’s design – with the possible exception of a gearbox issue that briefly threatened to derail the team’s Austrian Grand Prix – is generally thought to be comfortably superior to anything else that’s on the grid this year. What is a surprise is the fact that Lewis Hamilton wasn’t driving the car that came over the line in first place. His Finnish team-mate Valtteri Bottas was.
For the majority of the race, it looked like we would finish with a Mercedes 1-2, a familiar formation to anybody who was watching Formula 1 last season. The cars even crossed the line in that position, but that’s not what the final result showed. Instead, Bottas was joined on the podium by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris, the latter celebrating the first F1 podium of his young career and the former getting more than was expected out of what looks like a dreadful 2020 Ferrari. They didn’t get there exclusively on racing merit, though. They got there because Lewis Hamilton made a mistake – and it wasn’t his first error of the race weekend.
By this point, we’re used to Mercedes dominating proceedings in Formula 1, with either Ferrari or Red Bull coming in second. Much as we’d love things to be as predictable as they are in one of the many F1-themed games you’ll find at online slots websites, the sad reality is that the real sport tends to be far easier to forecast. Any bet could have any result on a Pragmatic online slots. Out on the grid, very few cars can keep pace with either the Mercedes or the sheer talent of Hamilton. Were Hamilton able to apply the equivalent talent to those online slots, he’d hit the jackpot every time. He’d be banned from the casino. When Hamilton doesn’t win or come second, something has usually gone wrong – and based on his performance on this opening weekend in Austria, we have to wonder whether that ‘something’ was the man himself.
For a start, Hamilton should have been on the front row when the race began. The fact that he wasn’t was down to him. He qualified in second place behind Bottas, but began in fifth after Red Bull complained that he’d ignored yellow flags on his Q3 run. Red Bull had video footage to back up their complaint, and the stewards had no option but to demote Hamilton. That ended any realistic prospect of the six-time world champion beating Bottas during the race, and so the second place he appeared to have secured would have to be considered a good result. It wasn’t, and that’s because Hamilton erred again under pressure.
Late in the race, as the British driver came under pressure from Red Bull’s Alex Albon, there was a collision between the two cars. At first glance, it appeared that Albon had been too eager in attempting to pass, and Hamilton had done nothing more than stand his ground. Upon review, the onboard camera footage made it clear that Albon had successfully passed Hamilton when the incident happened, and Hamilton failed to give the rookie a car’s length to complete the overtake. For that transgression, he was awarded a five-second penalty. Ultimately, those five seconds were enough to push him off the podium and into a disappointing fourth place. Hamilton was unrepentant after the race, stating that he felt it was a racing incident and couldn’t have been avoided. Albon and his team boss Christian Horner unsurprisingly held a different view.
Although he’s been prone to fits of temper and moments of selfishness throughout his career, Lewis Hamilton doesn’t usually make mistakes. A single one across the course of a race weekend would be unusual. Making two of this magnitude is almost unheard of. It’s possible that he didn’t see the yellow flags during qualifying, just as it’s possible that he believed that he’d given sufficient space to Alex Albon, but ‘possible’ isn’t the same as ‘likely.’ This is a man who’s chasing a record-equaling seventh world championship, and possibly beginning to feel the pressure of the ticking clock. The days when he was the sport’s up-and-coming young star are long ago and far away. Leclerc, Verstappen, and Albon compete for that title now. Hamilton is 35 and has fewer races ahead of him than he does behind.
It’s unlikely that equaling the all-time record will be enough for the hyper-ambitious Brit. He’ll want to make it to eight championships and stand alone at the top of the pile. To do that, though, he needs to win two more world championships. That means driving on until he reaches the age of 36 at the earliest, or 37 or 38 if he misses a year. At that age, some of the faculties that make a driver great begin to wane. That’s why Kimi Raikkonen, at the age of 40, is driving an Alfa Romeo around the back of the field when just a few years ago, he was driving a Ferrari at the front. Hamilton won’t want to leave it that late. He’ll want to get this done quickly, and that’s why he’s likely to want to win this year more than he’s ever wanted to win in his life until this point.
In any sport – and in many walks of life – there’s such a thing of ‘wanting it too much,’ which is the point where your desire to succeed impairs your judgment and pushes you into making decisions that you wouldn’t make if you were thinking clearly. Deciding to selectively ignore a yellow flag might be an example of such a decision. Risking a penalty for aggressively defending your position against an overtaking driver might be another. We cannot fault Lewis Hamilton for his ambition – any driver of his talent who had the chance to become the definitive greatest of all time should be expected to shoot for it – but he needs to take care that it doesn’t become all-consuming for him. He’s good enough to do this on his own merit. He doesn’t need to push for it to the detriment of both himself and his team.