Can anyone end Hamilton’s dominance?

Can anyone end Hamilton’s dominance?

Morning all. They are resurfacing my road this week. Since Monday afternoon there has been a giant, extremely loud machine parked outside my front door making giant, extremely loud noises. Boris, my dog, is not a fan and so has decided to join the giant, extremely loud noise-making exercise by way of his bark, which seems to become stronger and higher-pitched as he ages. The situation is not helping my concentration but, in the name of blogging, I shall try to plough on regardless.

This week there is an exciting sense that the return of sport, which began almost two months ago, is preparing to shift up a gear in intensity. On Tuesday, the first big move in football’s transfer market since the lockdown was announced with Manchester City’s German midfielder Leroy Sane set to join Bayern Munich for around £50m. Next week, England will take on the West Indies in the first international cricket match since March. And this weekend, the truncated 2020 Formula 1 season will finally get under way with the first of two back-to-back races in Austria.

During the hiatus, Formula 1 did a commendable job of keeping the news pages turning with a series of interesting developments. First, Sebastian Vettel kicked-off a lively game of driver musical chairs by announcing that he would be leaving Ferrari, and possibly racing altogether, at the end of this year. Within a few days, Carlos Sainz had replaced the German at the Prancing Horse and Daniel Riccardo had taken Sainz’ seat at McLaren after deciding to leave Renault after just one season.

Then, the teams agreed to introduce controversial cost-cutting measures from next year in a bid to ease the financial pressure of COVID-19. I’m not going to go into the minutae of the agreement because its really complicated and I’m really tired and frankly not that interested. But the most important thing to know is that teams will only be allowed to spend $145m per year on car development, which should, in theory, help level the playing field throughout the grid.

This is a positive development because it might help to ease of the biggest problems facing Formula 1 in recent seasons: the complete, unquestionable and (dare I say it) slightly boring dominance of Lewis Hamilton.

Since losing to teammate Nico Rosberg in a thrilling championship battle that wasn’t decided until the final corner of the final race in 2016, Hamilton has cruised to a hat-trick of titles, swatting away all would-be rivals with concerning ease. In each of the last three seasons, the 35 year-old has wrapped up the title with two races to spare. In 2017, he finished 46 points ahead of second-placed Vettel. In 2018, the gap almost doubled to 88 points. And last year Hamilton won by 87 points ahead of his teammate Vallteri Bottas. That’s more than three clear victories of breathing space.

I refer to Hamilton’s recent dominance as “concerning” because Formula 1, like most other sports, is often defined by and in many ways depends on its rivalries. From Senna-Prost to Schumacher-Hakkinen and Vettel-Alonso, tense title fights tend to go hand in hand with the most exciting, unpredictable seasons. Just as Barcelona would be nothing without Real Madrid, nor Federer without Nadal, both Hamilton and Formula 1 need someone to step up to the plate this year and challenge for the title.

So with that in mind, who could rise to give the Stevenage man a run for his money? There appear to be three realistic candidates.

The first, and most obvious, is Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas. After winning four races and taking five pole positions (compared to Hamilton’s 11 wins and five poles), the Finn is coming off the back of easily his strongest season since joining Mercedes in 2017. Finishing in the top two in each of the first five races last year, the 30 year-old finally proved that he has the speed to match his teammate if everything goes to plan. But after his strong start, Bottas struggled to maintain that level of performance and ultimately faded away from the title battle entirely. Armed with the same weaponry as Hamilton again this year, he should be best-placed to challenge the Brit, but only if he can find the consistency to match his obvious pace.

The next in line would appear to be Max Verstappen. The Dutchman, like Bottas, is preparing for 2020 after a marked improvement last time out. He recorded three wins and his first two career pole positions, while also crucially wiping out the mistakes that plagued his previous campaigns. If pre-season testing is anything to go by, the 22 year-old’s Red Bull should be Mercedes’ closest challenger this year. He is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and talented drivers on the grid and, with a strong-enough car, has already proved on numerous ocassions that he has what it takes to win races. Starting the season at his team’s home circuit in Austria, he should be fired up and raring to go this weekend.

Finally, there is Charles Leclerc. The 22 year-old had a brilliant first season at Ferrari in 2019, particularly excelling on Saturdays as he booked seven pole positions, including an impressive run of four in a row between Belgium and Russia. The Monegasque also won two races, and by the end of the season had completely out-shined his four-time world champion teammate Vettel. But while there is no doubting his talent, there are significant question marks surrounding his car for this year. The Ferrari struggled in testing and earlier this week boss Mattia Binotto announced that the team was working on a “significant change of direction in terms of development” ahead of the season opener. Given the frantic nature of this year’s shortened championship, there have to be doubts over whether Ferrari have enough time to make up the gap.

Hamilton, as it happens, is my favourite driver on the grid. He is lightening quick, a brilliantly daring overtaker and, certainly in recent years, ruthlessly consistent. I’d love him to win his seventh world title this year. Nevertheless, if he starts to cruise to comfortable victories every week I’m going to find it hard to get excited about Formula 1. The sport needs a rivalry, and a close battle this weekend would be a great place to start.

Right, that’s all from me today. See you folks on Friday.

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