Achieving a record-equalling seventh title could prove to be Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton’s toughest challenge yet.
Lewis Hamilton has been crowned Formula One champion once again, but there was a point at which his title defence looked under serious threat.
Having won all but four of the first 12 races this season, Hamilton could have been forgiven for going into the mid-season break thinking his sixth championship success was effectively wrapped up.
When the Briton made the most of Mercedes’ decision to pit him a second time at the Hungarian Grand Prix by using his fresh tyres to overcome a 19-second gap to Max Verstappen in the final 20 laps, it looked like nothing could stop the Silver Arrows.
That all changed when the second half of the season got under way, with Charles Leclerc claiming back-to-back wins in Belgium and Italy before his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel triumphed in Singapore.
Hamilton still held a 65-point advantage over closest rival Valtteri Bottas, but Leclerc and Verstappen – who won in Austria and Germany – had made it clear they were not going to make things easy.
However, hopes of the drivers’ championship turning into the sort of entertaining battle that has been absent from F1 for years were quickly scuppered when Hamilton took the top step of the podium in Russia.
The challenge was short while it lasted, but the 34-year-old Hamilton was finally forced to scrap with an opposing team again, having until then found team-mate Bottas his nearest rival.
Now, after wrapping up the championship in the United States, his sights will be set on equalling Michael Schumacher’s record haul of seven drivers’ titles.
“Still we rise guys, still we rise”
“Thank you so much, guys – we did an incredible job… I can’t believe it”
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 3, 2019
Asked about his chances of reaching milestones set by Ferrari great Schumacher, Hamilton last month told Bild am Sonntag: “I’m not even anywhere near. I’m so far from his records.
“Michael’s records are the summit of a huge mountain, and I’m still at base camp.
“The closer you get, the bigger your footsteps get, but of course I’m unbelievably honoured to be placed in that category and I’ve made it so far.
“I grew up watching Michael, and what he did is unbelievable.”
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 3, 2019
The Mercedes driver’s seemingly modest take may not be too far off the mark – 2020 could well prove to be Hamilton’s biggest test yet.
Ferrari have made significant strides over the course of the season and proved they can outperform the Silver Arrows on high-speed tracks. Leclerc now has wins under his belt, having earlier agonisingly missed out in Bahrain and Austria, and will inevitably be a force to be reckoned with if the Scuderia are brave enough to back him.
Leclerc was denied in Spielberg by Verstappen, whose controversial move down the inside ensured it was he who triumphed – though he faced a lengthy wait to have it confirmed while the stewards investigated the contact in his overtake of the Monegasque.
That was the first of Verstappen’s two victories for Red Bull this season and he will be keen for more when their partnership with Honda enters its second campaign.
Vettel cannot be discounted either, the four-time champion having ended a year-long wait for a win in Singapore, while Renault will hope to get themselves in a position to mix it with the big three.
This year, Hamilton batted down the competition to seal success. It could prove a very different story next time around.