Never has the Formula One paddock been more intensely pressurised than in this most unusual 2020 season.
We’re two rounds into an unprecedented run of 10 races in 13 weeks, and with the full schedule of events still undetermined, every grand prix threatens to make or break a championship.
The pressure has never been higher. Fortunately Lewis Hamilton thrives on it.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
The reigning world champion was subdued in the Austrian Grand Prix, the first round of the season. Beaten to pole by teammate Valtteri Bottas, he copped two penalties over the weekend and trailed home fourth, unhappy with his car.
But in the second round, the Styrian Grand Prix held at the same Red Bull Ring, he was anything but understated.
His pole lap in the soaking wet was masterful. In borderline undriveable conditions Hamilton hustled his car quicker and quicker, underlining and underlining again his credentials as the fastest driver in the sport’s history. His margin was an astonishing 1.2 seconds.
Come the race he was untouchable, finishing almost 14 seconds ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas.
“I have never seen anything like this in the top class of motor racing. It is like seeing a unicorn,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told the UK’s Sky Sports. “Sometimes he needs weekends like the last one where you just work very hard to recover.
“When he is in that space he is just unbeatable.”
But pressure doesn’t affect all equally.
Ferrari, only two years ago the constructor of the fastest car on the grid, has slid painfully into the midfield, and the team is yet to understand why.
The engine is its biggest weakness, having gone from the most powerful in 2019 to the least powerful today. Its decline has coincided with an FIA investigation that, while not concluding rules had been broken, ended in a controversially confidential settlement.
The car’s aerodynamics are also too draggy — something more horsepower could have overcome — leaving the SF1000 hopelessly outgunned at the end of every straight. Combined these problems left Ferrari almost a second slower at the Red Bull Ring than it was last year.
It’s enough to tip the always-simmering Ferrari past boiling point.
Updates were rushed to the track for round two, but for the second successive week the team failed to get both cars into the grid’s top 10.
Charles Leclerc then barrelled into the side of Sebastian Vettel just three corners into the race, causing so much damage that both cars were forced to retire, robbing the team of the precious race data it needs to diagnose its problems.
Were it not for Leclerc’s fortuitous podium at the Austrian Grand Prix, enabled by retirements ahead of him, Ferrari would have just a single point, an average grid spot of 10.5 and two retirements from its first two races.
That’s to say nothing of its internal strife, with Vettel demonstrably unhappy about being strung along in apparently bad-faith contract negotiations before being given his notice in May, too late to find a competitive 2021 seat elsewhere.
Embarrassed by its 10 days from hell, Ferrari refused to meet with the media post-race, decamping instead for the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend (19 July).
The Hungaroring is less sensitive to power and so should better suit the SF1000, but Ferrari clearly has a long rebuild ahead of it just to make it back to the top three.
With dreams of its first title since 2008 now firmly on hold until 2022 at the earliest, keeping a lid on tensions at Maranello will quickly become the team’s primary concern.
Clearly pressure doesn’t make diamonds of everyone.