Is The Car More Important Than The Driver? Lewis’ Spectacular Spanish GP Drive Gives Us A Definitive Answer
“I didn’t give up, because that’s what we do.”
In the lead-up to Sunday’s race at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, two-time F1 Champion Fernando Alonso made an interesting statement while speaking to the BBC:
There’s an implicit axiom here that Alonso seems to have established for himself. With the authority of multiple LeMans endurance wins and several other motorsports achievements peppered throughout a racing career spanning three decades, the idea is simple: To win a world championship, a team’s car is more important than the driver.
Fair, I may be twisting Alonso’s words here a bit, but as far as real-life instances go, he’s probably the best example of this statement.
The Spaniard’s career is littered with multi-series wins, jaw-dropping displays of skill, and a shrewd, calculated style of racing that gave Hamilton, Vettel, and many more racers some serious trouble over the last twenty years—in every weather and track condition imaginable. Alonso also has the best ratings from within the grid – he has outperformed every single teammate he has ever had except for Hamilton (who he tied with), a serious achievement considering that this list consists of Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, and Kimi Raikkonen.
That said, perhaps the most questionable thing about Alonso is his capacity to absolutely flub his team choices, while consequently driving weak cars much harder than they had any right to perform. This, somewhat tragically, has been the driving force behind a decade’s worth of ‘What If’ forum posts, all wishing that Alonso’s career choices in the 2010s would have gone differently.
The most notorious example of Alonso thriving in the midst of mediocrity was his 2012 season for Ferrari. At the time, Ferrari had one of their worst championship contenders—the F2012—a car that would come to be known as ‘a dog’ by legions of F1 fans. The Italians at the time were starved for ideas and produced a reliable but somewhat weak car that tanked at almost every qualifier—definitely not something worth a championship run.
What Alonso produced in response to the challenge was, quite simply, the stuff of legend.
Battling within a grid composed of absolute monsters such as Kimi, Schumacher, Button, Webber, Hamilton and more, his main opponent was a prime Sebastian Vettel, armed with the RB8 racecar— the brainchild of Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s CTO and possibly F1’s most consistently-winning engineering genius.
Here’s where sheer driving talent proved itself. While teammate Massa languished in 7th with 122 points, Alonso used the same car to achieve an unbelievable championship runners-up—a 278-point masterclass that lost to Vettel by a mere three points.
Ten years passed by and Alonso’s fate took a turn for the worse.
After single-handedly carrying Ferrari, he decided to bet on an anemic McLaren after differences with the Italians in 2014 – a move considered by many to be one of the worst signing decisions by any world champion. Meanwhile, Hamilton started work on his rapidly expanding trophy cabinet while Mercedes’ dominance of the hybrid era continued to unfold.
Lewis’ Sunday Best
After this brief history lesson, it’s fairly evident why Alonso said those words in reference to his old teammate. The 40-year-old racer has seen world championships slip past his fingers despite providing excellent performances throughout his career, with subpar cars usually taking the blame.
Hamilton finds himself in a scarily similar situation in 2022. Despite their unparallelled track record in the 2010s, Mercedes-AMG are unable to provide the same level of engineering dominance as they used to, with aero challenges forcing the team to compromise and cut down overall performance.
For Hamilton, who saw the championship fly out of his hands in 2021, the change has clearly made its mark. Last month’s Imola GP saw him describe the car as ‘the worst it’s ever felt’, while team boss Toto Wolff has carefully tempered fan expectations ever since Mercedes observed intense porpoising during the pre-season Barcelona tests.
So, when Hamilton returned to Barcelona only to suffer a punctured tyre at the hands of Kevin Magnussen on the very first lap, it’s hard to fathom just how frustrated the man must have been. Dialing into his team comms, Hamilton immediately suggested to simply let go of the race, and preserve the engine’s durability for another day—a move that would have made a younger Lewis recoil in disgust.
“It’s not that I was defeated,” he told Motorsport.com, “it was just that I was literally 30 seconds behind, so why would I use an engine to finish last or outside the top 15 if that can lead to a penalty later?”
Down on his luck, suffering from weak form, and watching his biggest rivals including his much-younger teammate battle for a podium, it’s no small wonder that Hamilton sounded utterly spent. After all, he had suggested the very same ‘save the engine’ tactic back in Jeddah—a high-speed circuit where we’re sure the intense porpoising threatened to knock Hamilton’s bouncing head into a concussion.
This time around, race engineer Bono gave his driver a short pep talk convincing him that he still had the pace to make some serious points. It’s here where things got really interesting.
You might think that I’m about to launch into a passionate speech about Hamilton’s brave and compelling rise to P5 by the end of the race; a largely silent affair that saw both Hamilton and his team quietly power through position after position, until a water leak issue forced Hamilton to concede a brilliant sprint from P19 to P4.
While it would have been fun to harp on about Hamilton’s undeniable GOAT status for the 1,000th time, there’s something we haven’t addressed yet, and it’s hidden right under Hamilton’s famous nosepin.
Explained by veteran F1 correspondent Mark Hughes, the W13 now features an all-new floor, complete with strengthening rods and a couple of winglet additions similar to Ferrari, Aston-Martin, and Red Bull.
Their aim? To never see a single hint of porpoising ever again.
And indeed the car delivered – George Russell’s excellent podium finish is just as much a testament to Hamilton’s series of overtakes, if considerably less exciting to watch. This leaves us with something of a Catch-22 situation: Would another driver be able to hunker down, toss away his worries, and make up for a disastrous 30-second deficit? Were the floor upgrades useful, or necessary?
The latter question is an obvious yes, but the former isn’t quite so simple. His comeback on Sunday definitely conjured up memories of last year’s Brazil GP, where Hamilton started the weekend dead last, and still overtook every single opponent to come first.
In the end, I’d argue that Hamilton’s Sunday drive required a certain degree of confidence and calmness that many other drivers simply haven’t experienced enough to understand. Perhaps winning seven championships affords a driver the ability to trust in themselves, and let the chips fall where they may.
Lewis, like Wolff and Bono’s squads of motorheads, has likely come to understand that neither car nor driver is the absolute #1 factor when it comes to producing results. 2021 for instance, despite a super-competitive machine and one of Lewis’ most high-octane performances yet, went down the drain after a completely unrelated crash.
The factors at play here cannot be addressed by a single driver or a bunch of race engineers – it’s these elements, both human and mechanical, that need to be considered as one. Taking Alonso’s case, his unfortunate stints with Ferrari and McLaren both ended in bitterness and regret – Alonso publicly denouncing ex-boss Marco Mattiacci, while literally quitting the sport for a while after the McLaren.
What ultimately seems to have turned the Germans’ fortunes around is Mercedes’ ability to be honest with their problems, spend the season’s first few races patiently analyzing their car, fully support and address both drivers’ issues, while ensuring that Hamilton’s broken winning streak doesn’t spiral into a broken sense of confidence – not just for the driver, but for all 1,000-odd people working at Mercedes-AMG Petronas.
As Wolff finally admitted his renewed hopes for a Mercedes title fight, Hamilton, for a change, was spotted wearing a bright grin after sulking for months on end.
“I didn’t give up, because that’s what we do,” he said after the race, smiling into the distance.
(Featured Image Credits: Formula 1, FIA)