Is Hamilton the Favourite for the F1 Drivers’ Championship?

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Another day, another twist in the Formula One Drivers’ Championship.

In the wake of the British Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton’s dominant victory, we spoke at length about the Englishman’s brilliance and how he may well have seized the initiative in the Drivers’ Championship. Mercedes’ optimism may well have been heightened by the fact that the Hungarian Grand Prix was up next, with Hamilton having won there last year and more times than any other driver in history (five in total).

The tables have turned once again, however, after Mercedes endured a torrid weekend in Budapest and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel extended his championship lead to 14 points over Hamilton. So has Hamilton lost the momentum earned at Silverstone, or does his natural ability mean that he retains an edge in the title race?

Who Won in Hungary and What Does it Mean for the Title Race?

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In many ways, the events at the Hungaroring epitomised Hamilton’s inconsistent form over the period of the last two years. Despite entering the weekend full of belief and confidence after a stunning performance at Silverstone, Hamilton cut a frustrated figure as his Mercedes struggled for pace throughout qualifying. Restricted by a long-wheelbase that is simply unsuitable for twisting tracks such as the Hungaroring and poor performance, super-soft tyres, Hamilton eventually slipped to fourth on the grid after two particularly disappointing sessions.

While Hamilton leveraged his own innate ability to set the fastest lap time of all during the second stage of qualifying, the lack of consistency and reliability that has plagued both team and driver since 2015 was painfully apparent. In contrast, Vettel and his teammate Kimi Raikkonen delivered a seamless one-two on the grid, with the four-time champion and current leader claiming an all-important pole.

Things scarcely got any better for Hamilton once the race began in earnest, as despite a late assault on the leaders he never really looked like claiming an unlikely victory. With Vettel struggling as he strived to manage an obvious handling problem, his teammate Raikkonen served as a buffer against Hamilton who continually lost grip as he attempted to overtake. To compound Hamilton’s frustration, he also allowed his teammate Valtteri Bottas glide past him in third to honour a promise he made earlier in the race when the Finn stepped aside as the Englishman took the fight to Ferrari.

So while Vettel limped home in first, Hamilton floundered in fourth and saw a one point differential turn into a 14 point deficit with just nine races remaining. While this is by no means a decisive lead (particularly given Hamilton’s class and penchant for embarking on three or four race winning streaks), the timing of Vettel’s win in Hungary and its nature may prove telling as Formula One heads into its annual, four-week break.

Can Hamilton’s Class Overcome Mercedes’ Shortcomings?

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It is hard to underestimate the frustration and disappointment that Hamilton will be feeling after Hungary, particularly as it followed hot on the heels of such a devastating performance at Silverstone. He could also be forgiven for being besieged by a strange sense of deja vu, as such inconsistency has become a byword for Hamilton’s performance since the beginning of 2016. Much of this can be attributed the Mercedes’ various shortcomings, of course, although this has clearly had a draining impact on a man who is renowned for his competitive spirit and warrior-like mentality.

This was evident after qualifying in Hungary, when Hamilton faced the worlds’ media with an uncharacteristically downcast and pessimistic outlook. “We can’t do anything in the race,” said the Brit ahead of the race. “We can’t follow or overtake a car that is as fast or faster, and it is going to be a huge battle just to get on the podium.” By frankly acknowledging the superiority of Ferrari, Hamilton also appeared to hint at how the events of the last two years have drained a little of his own confidence and self-belief.

While the Englishman may suffering from his own inconsistencies in terms of outlook and judgement, however, there is no doubt that his incredible talent is being restrained by the performance of his car. Although he may not have suffered from the swathe of bewildering engine failures that ultimately cost him the Drivers’ Championship, ongoing issues concerning tyres, a long-wheelbase and a fundamental lack of speed (in relation to Ferrari, at least) have clearly afforded title rival Vettel a significant competitive edge.

With this in mind, the question that remains is whether Hamilton can rediscover his swagger and create a platform from which his natural talent can overcome these shortcomings? Recent history would suggest not, as for all of Hamilton’s vaunted brilliance and occasionally dominant wins he his simply unable to perform at this level for any sustained period of time.

The fact that he is up against a faster and more consistent car is also a potentially decisive factor, as the Englishman must be at his very best for the remainder of the season if he is overcome this disadvantage from what is effectively a standing start.

The Last Word: Who Holds the Edge in the Drivers’ Championship?

Hamilton may also have met his match in the form of Vettel, if not in terms of talent then certainly from the perspective of pedigree and composure. The German showed this in abundance throughout the Hungarian Grand Prix, dampening Hamilton’s enthusiasm with a dominant performance in qualifying before showcasing his ability to win ugly during the race itself. This, allied with his greater consistency and access to a superior car, means that he probably goes into the rest of the season as the Drivers’ Championship favourite with nine potentially thrilling races to go.

After a bad-tempered clash between Hamilton and Vettel during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix (when the German was sanctioned after deliberately driving into Hamilton as part of a chaotic race), the Englishman defiantly claimed that he would win the win the championship ‘the right way’ this season. The events of Hungary may well have him clamouring for any kind of win, however, as he strives to exorcise the demons of last year and win a fourth world title.

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