McLaren gets a grip: Hamilton emerges from twists and turns

Mastery at Hockenheim leaves rivals disillusioned as Briton shows he has what it takes to be world champion. By David Tremayne
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Lewis Hamilton is on a roll. And, like any world champion in the making, he is continually revealing his abilityto win in all circumstancesand conditions.

Last year he showed in Canada that he can win from the front. A week later in America, that he can win under pressure. In Fuji he showed phenomenal talent in the rain. Australia this year confirmed that he has the confidence to lead one of the two best teams in the game, and to dominate. In Monaco he showed that he can fight back from mistakes and still win. At Silverstone he demonstrated the wet-weather mastery that has been evident in all of the great champions of the past. And in Germany last weekend he showed that he can keep his head while all around him are in danger of losing theirs, and fight back in the manner of Nigel Mansell at his most ebullient.

If he felt after Canada that he needed to develop a script with which to prove to the sceptics that he is the real deal, he could not have penned it better. He might make the odd error here and there, but anyone who doubts his champion credentials must think again or risk ridicule.

Besides what it told us about Hamilton, Hockenheim also confirmed that McLaren currently have a better car than Ferrari, which was most definitely not the case earlier in the season. This is a game of developmental swings and roundabouts, but right now the work in Woking, Stuttgart and Brixworth between McLaren and Mercedes-Benz has paid off handsomely and the silver arrow is a better bet than the prancing horse.

What was once an edgy car to drive is now smooth and harmonious, as Hamilton at least proved in the last two races, in which he was utterly dominant. Ferrari left Silverstone kicking themselves for a tactical misjudgement; they left Hockenheim looking disillusioned and knowing there is a lot of work to be done, and quickly, after Felipe Massa finished a beaten third and Kimi Raikkonen had one of his increasingly frequent away days to bring his Magny Cours-dominating Ferrari home in only sixth place. And yet McLaren almost fumbled the catch with their decision to leave Hamilton out as all the other front-runners refuelled the moment the pit lane opened after Timo Glock's big shunt had brought out the safety car on the 36th lap.

Hamilton is really beginning to show his true calibre after the ups and downs earlier in the season, keeping calm in tricky and frustrating circumstances and fighting back cleanly but resolutely. Another indication is that he can use his car in a different aerodynamic regime to that of his team-mate, HeikkiKovalainen, who has shown similar speed on occasion this year in qualifying but rarely in a race.

In a search for a grippy front end on his McLaren MP4/23, the Finn opted for trim tabs on the front wings to give greater downforce, but the associated penalty was inferior airflow through the radiators, which thus had to have their apertures opened up to the maximum to maintain adequate cooling. This imposed a drag penalty. Hamilton could drive his car in a different manner with smaller cooling apertures and less drag, and was able to utilise much better the lower aerodynamic package that McLaren had prepared for that race.

"Full credit to Lewis," said the former world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. "He delivered when he had to. He was extremely aggressive in passing Massa and [Nelson] Piquet. And brave too. In either case he could have interlocked wheels. We saw at Hockenheim that Hamilton, with just one year's experience, is unquestionably the faster driver in the McLaren team."

Without him, the race would have been the usual McLaren versus Ferrari scrap, with Massa "winning" that ahead of BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, Kovalainen and a downbeat Raikkonen as they all trailed behind the rookie Nelson Piquet Jnr. The last-named, one of Hamilton's old GP2 sparring partners, has had a tough season but drove his best race on Sunday. But let's be clear about his result. Without Glock's accident, and Renault's one-stop strategy which coincided perfectly with the safety car deployment, he would have remained the also-ran he looked for the first half of the race.

"The 'make it happen' moment of the race was Renault's decision to put Piquet Jnr on a one-stop strategy," said Stewart. "The timing of Glock's accident turned out to be a major benefit to him. Without it, he would have had no more chance of a podium finish than of flying in the air. He was aiming to be in the top 10, but Renault's strategy allowed them to take full advantage of the available opportunities. And Piquet drove a very good race – not like we saw from him in the first half of the season."

He completely overshadowed his vaunted team leader, Fernando Alonso, which must have been satisfying for more than the most obvious reason. Last weekend the Spaniard had begun making noises about how his young Brazilian partner ought to start scoring consistent points to help the team's quest for fourth place in the title fight. He did just that, bringing home eight, while Alonso spun a hard-to-drive Renault in the hairpin and came 11th, out of the points. And while Piquet wisely conceded victory to the charging Hamilton, he did more than enough to stay clear of the small threat that Massa posed in the closing stages. Once he found himself in a strong position, he was able to justify being there. It will be interesting to see if the performance gives him the confidence he has lacked thus far and unlocking his natural potential.

Next weekend comes the Hungarian Grand Prix, which Hamilton dominated last year to prove a point after Alonso had deliberately delayed him in the pits during qualifying.

Things are much calmer now chez McLaren, and on current form it is not difficult to envisage Hamilton simply carrying on where he left off last Sunday.

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