Hamilton’s underrated last championship opponent

2021 F1 season

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Max Verstappen’s victory in the Monaco Grand Prix displaced Lewis Hamilton from the top spot in the drivers’ championship.

That fact provided mathematical proof we have a genuine fight for the championship on our hands this year. That’s something many of us have been waiting a while to see.

Lewis has had a pretty easy ride outside of his one year with Nico,” commented McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown prior to the Monaco Grand Prix, describing the showdown between Hamilton and Verstappen as a “great rivalry”. But has Hamilton really gone without serious opposition since Nico Rosberg beat him to the championship five years ago?

For anyone striving to beat Mercedes over the past seven years, the headline statistics make grim reading. Their sweep of every championship awarded during that time is unprecedented. It’s easy to look at that and conclude they’ve had things all their way since 2014.

But that wasn’t the case. As the 2017 and 2018 seasons reached halfway, the drivers championship was led not by Hamilton’s Mercedes, but the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.

It’s not as if he got there through luck. Vettel opened his 2017 account with six top-two finishes in a row. Over the first 10 races of 2018 he won four times and placed inside the top five on all bar one occasion.

The striking similarity in both seasons is that Vettel began them so strongly, yet ended them poorly. That allowed Hamilton to clinch both titles (in Mexico, coincidentally) with multiple races remaining – two in 2017 and three the year after.

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“Ultimately we didn’t win the championships,” Vettel reflected when asked about those campaigns by RaceFans. “We were leading the championships but we didn’t win them at the end.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Monaco
Verstappen has a hard-earned four-point lead
“I think in both of those years we actually had a very strong beginning, but we weren’t that strong at the end. And ultimately, that’s why we lost out, we just didn’t have the pace.”

Notably in 2018, Vettel made mistakes which swung the pendulum in favour of his rival. But Mercedes’ superior development rate to Ferrari also told. “The package… all needs to come together,” said Vettel. “And in that regard Mercedes have been quite strong since 2014 and won everything there is to win in the big picture.”

We are still in the early stages of this season. Five races in, Verstappen’s lead is four points. Vettel had a 25-point lead at one stage in 2017, yet lost by 46 at the end of the year.

Mercedes’ capacity to fight back will not be lost on Verstappen for one moment. Having become the first non-Mercedes driver to take the championship lead since Vettel in mid-2018, the possibility his hard-won advantage could get away from him will be uppermost in Verstappen’s mind. As Vettel showed, a strong start to a season is easily forgotten if the title fight doesn’t go all the way to the end.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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60 comments on “Hamilton’s underrated last championship opponent”

  1. No, no, no! This thinking cannot be allowed – it doesn’t fit the narrative of “hollow” championships.

    AnYoNe CaN wIn In ThAt CaR!

    1. Strange, I thought the article clearly indicates the reason why Mercedes won was because they outdeveloped Ferrari.

      1. I think @scbriml is being sarcastic.

        1. I thought it was obvious.

      2. It was a joke. :-)

    2. Underrated? That has got to be a joke. That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard about Vettel in a long time. If anything he is the most overrated driver in the field. Aston hired him for marketing purposes I am sure. Having Vettel in the team for racing reasons only makes sense when you have the dominant car. He’ll put it on pole and drive off on Sunday. But don’t ever make him start beyond the first row.

      1. Completely agree with this!

      2. @mayrton
        Read the article, it’s talking about his 2017 and 2018 title challenges, nothing about Aston Martin in there at all.
        Some advice for you – read and listen before you speak or type.

        1. Thanks for your concern. The Aston remark is about why he is still around. Thats relevant. His performance was and is so poor that I explain why, despite of it, he is still around. For marketing value

          1. @mayrton
            Still hold that view? Think your opinion has been shown up by now to be pretty wide of the mark.
            You’ve no proof and it’s not backed up by the reality now unfolding in front of us.

      3. isthatglock21
        3rd June 2021, 15:45

        Why not? He did great to take on Lewis in 2017 & 2018, sure many say he should’be won, but he did loose out to one of the true greats of the sport. Seb kept the lead by much bigger margins than Max has currently at the same round in 2017. It was a great battle, Seb slipped up but so did Ferrair, they lost out at the end despite often leading most standings throughout the year. People do underestimate those years & act like the hybrid era had no great fights hwne it did, and by extension that removes just how close Seb was to winning & his entire Ferrari time wasn’t a full on flop

    3. Totospeak.

      After the blown diffusor era, Seb would not challenge my granny’s dog’s fleas for a championship

  2. It’s not a secret that I don’t agree with vettel about 2018, ferrari was every bit as competitive as mercedes, he was driving well in hockenheim and extending his advantage, made a mistake, a bit unlucky since it was a difficult moment with slick tyres on wet track and also brought out a safety car which played into his rival’s advantage (no one crashes behind the SC ofc, otherwise more could’ve ended up crashing in those conditions), then made more mistakes such as monza, which could’ve been a ferrari 1-2 otherwise; these mistakes probably pushed ferrari to overdo it in the development and go into the wrong direction and end up losing performance in the last few races, I’m pretty sure the car would’ve still been up there were it not for vettel’s mistakes and they could’ve at least fought till last race.

    1. Agree on the last part. 2018 should have at least gone down to the last race (if not a Seb win). Hamilton winning with THREE races remaining was all down to Seb’s mistakes.

      In 2017, atleast you could blame reliability and a genuinely superfast Mercedes of the 2nd half.

      But there was nowhere to hide in 2018. I would even go ahead and state that had Lewis and Seb exchanged cars for 2018, Lewis would have still won in the Ferrari.

      1. @sumedh Re: ‘I would even go ahead and state that had Lewis and Seb exchanged cars for 2018, Lewis would have still won in the Ferrari.’

        100% agreed. Will never know but I suspect overall Mercedes was still the best car, although by a very small margin. Hamilton still would have won against Vettel had they swapped cars I’m sure

      2. Agree with both, hamilton performed far better than vettel in 2018, they were much closer in driver performance in 2017 with vettel doing better in 2017 than 2018 and hamilton viceversa, and indeed, 2017 ferrari was outdevelopped by mercedes and in any case lacked reliability, which didn’t happen in 2018.

    2. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      3rd June 2021, 16:06

      @esploratore I agree, Vettel is not a perfect driver. Ferrari is also not the perfect team. But you don’t get win 4 WDCs and come 2nd 3 times without being an exceptional driver.

      On the other hand, Lewis and Mercedes have been nearly flawless over the past 7 seasons.

  3. Winning from competitors which are perceived as great makes the winner an even greater racer.

    Keith banging on his ‘Lewis is so great’ drum again.
    He think he is is so great, that even when he is struggling in Monaco, Lewis is not a struggler.
    And even when he has the best car, the greatness of Lewis is required to win.

    @Keith, could you please have a more unbiassed and more journalistic apporach?

    1. Well, when we have comments as biased as yours, let’s give any (perceived) bias a bit of slack @rebelangelfloyd and say it balances out, more or less, over the article+comments

    2. @rebelangelfloyd: can you point to any sentence or statement in this article that substantiates your assertion that Keith is biased in favour of LH?
      Have you considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe it’s you who is not being objective with your assessment of the article?

    3. ian dearing
      3rd June 2021, 9:23

      You do know that your history is freely available to all?

      Thanks for the laugh.

      1. Having a look at your history @rebelangelfloyd I can only assume Keith has tripped up your cat at some point and not said sorry. Any journalist will have their opinions, at times it’s their job to offer nothing but that. I don’t think this site is anymore ‘pro-Lewis’ than it is to any other driver. But that’s my opinion, and why I enjoy this site is that we as a community have the opportunity as a collective to address and discuss any in-balance if there is / was.

        If you gave me a dollar and asked who win at the mid-point of 2018, I’d have said Seb, and many others would have.

        If you gave me a dollar today and asked about 2021, I’d say Lewis. Him and Mercedes are just too consistent, they always seem to wriggle their way free when someone seems to get the better of them.

    4. I’m honestly not the biggest Hamilton fan, but he has like one subpar race in about 20 and people using that as proof that he’s not great.. Well that is way more biased than anything I’ve ever read from Keith

      1. Ok, he rarely makes mistakes, but when he has a terrible race he’s not listed as a struggle, that’s not fair to other drivers, how many drivers would’ve been rated a struggler with a race like hamilton’s at monaco 2021?

    5. Pot, meet kettle.

    6. @rebelangelfloyd It’s tiresome but not really the main point here as much as it’s to ensure a profitable 100 comment thread

  4. Vettel’s 2018 season is not underrated at all. I strongly believe that the 2018 Mercedes and the 2018 Ferrari were on a very similar level and if Vettel hadn’t made all those mistakes that season, he could have taken the championship all the way to the last race. Unfortunately, mistakes in Baku, France, Germany, Italy, Suzuka and USA meant that Vettel threw away a potential championship and has nobody to blame but himself that season.

    Hamilton won that 2018 season because he kept it clean with no mistakes while Vettel cracked under pressure.

    1. I’m willing to excuse baku and france, because he was partially unlucky, as in he would’ve probably won without the SC caused by the red bulls’ crash and was put in a difficult position in the restart and then made a mistake that costed him far more than if the SC hadn’t been brought out, in france I also remember him being in a difficult position by the start the mercedes’ in front had, making the crash with bottas very difficult to avoid; germany is basically the race that marks the end of the vettel-good-driver era and the beginning of the bad performing vettel, he drove very well until an incredibly costing (32 points) mistake, italy was really a disaster with an immediate spin, which turned a likely ferrari 1-2 into a mercedes win, suzuka was also bad, I remember a spin following collision with verstappen and in the USA with ricciardo; agree about mercedes vs ferrari performance level in 2018.

  5. In some way, I disagree. While there was some competition there, in these two years it was more like Ferrari pushing hard while Mercedes just managing, so Ferrari was making more mistakes. Ferrari did not have a clear speed advantage. Considering that Mercedes won these 2017 and 2018 championships very early, it suggest even a bit of sandbagging during the first GPs.

    In contrast, this year I think that Mercedes is not managing at all, but worried about Redbull performance. Early Hamilton’s “mind” games and now the issue about Redbull giving you flexi wings prove this point. Also Hamilton’s seems to be more error prone because his is really pushing the car, Imola is a clear example. It is not only Verstappen who is doing mistakes.

    Hopefully, this will be reflected into a more fun championship.

    1. I’m disappointed in myself for not thinking of ‘Red Bull gives you flexi-wings’ before I saw your comment.

      1. Ahaha, that’s great!

  6. Illegal Ferrari engine couldn’t be used that hard for race pace.

    1. @jay
      Wow, you know that Ferrari didn’t have the same qualifying advantage in 2017 and 2018 as 2019? And that in 2018 Ferrari’s race pace was pretty strong, especially at the beginning of the year?
      Learn your facts before making such ignorant comments.

      1. Ferrari did have what appeared to be an unusual PU in 2018, but it was more exploiting a loophole in the rules than trying to deliberately circumvent the rules as in 2019, so was almost certainly legal. I seem to remember it had something to do with ERS deployment.

    2. Mate that was in 2019 followed up by the worst season ever in the entire F1 history.

  7. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    3rd June 2021, 10:29

    There were some poor mistakes from Seb which he has now made his trademark, however it’s not unreasonable to presume that as Ferrari’s development fell away in comparison to Mercedes’ that Seb probably ended up overdriving a little to try and bridge the gap. Which as we see all the time is the biggest cause of mistakes.

  8. @rdotquestionmark – I agree. Vettel could have (the classic “could’ve/would’ve”, but we’ll never truly know!) won the championship in either 2017/2018. I can’t remember which of the two years, but one of the years he seemed to make a lot of mistakes. I don’t know if the car was particularly tricky, or whether he made driver errors, or if it was a combination of both brought on my pressures from the team.

    Lewis was consistent, he didn’t make frequent errors; I listened to an interview with Jake Humphrey afterwards and he referred to Lewis Hamilton’s “metronomic consistency” compared to Bottas. Bottas probably gets more criticism than he deserves, but his moments of greatness tend to be just moments, whereas Lewis turns up and brings his A-Game to almost all races, drives at peak performance, and very rarely makes a mistake. I say “almost” because of course there are examples where he wasn’t blisteringly awesome (and folk will refer to Monaco of this year for decades to come), but his high level of consistency means, he ends up hunting down that championship and dominating the field.

    This year Verstappen has been impressively consistent too. His lead of the championship is narrow but he deserves it most. There’s a lot of the season to go and I can’t wait to see that battle for the top spot. This may be a championship won by the most impeccable driver, and not just the number 1 spot, but the “best of the rest” cup too – ad you have to say that Lando is looking mighty there.

    1. The year you’re looking for in 2018, another user made a list earlier on in the thread, while the 2017 season was pretty good from him, he was hamilton-level imo that season, mercedes was a bit better.

    2. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
      3rd June 2021, 17:32

      @geekzilla9000 I think that’s where the elite excel. A lot of the top drivers can find an incredible lap or a run of great form. But the best of the best are so talented they can drive at 90% over and over and over like a metronome like you say. They can drive at 90% in any car they jump in, looking after tyres and being robotic, but their 90% is 95-100% for the other drivers, who can match them on their day but are generally going to make more mistakes trying to get there. Not to mention the elite have another 10% in their back pocket when they really need it for those special weekends.

  9. In 2018 yes, we bottled it (We as a whole team no apportioning blame)
    In 2017 we were definitely close, but not enough when we were infront, it was relatively close when Mercedes were in front they dominated
    What I gather from this article is backtracking after articles stating Vettel wasn’t that good
    Of course raising his calibre now raises the calibre of Hamilton who was carried into all but one Championship in 2018 by a great team making a great car

  10. In my opinion, bottom line is, if Ferrari had Alonso in the car they would have won the drivers championship.

    1. Could be, and if so is just another example of how poor Alonso has managed his career. If there were a World Championship for poor career decisions then Alonso would be the eight time world champion.

      Reply moderated
    2. I agree. I would rather give the article the title: Hamilton’s overrated last championship opponent. Seriously… trying to make Lewis look better by claiming he had an opponent in Vettel is resulting in the opposite. Everyone can beat Vettel bar Webber. We all know by now Vettel is only fast (and probably the fastest) on an empty track. That’s just living up to half of being a good F1 driver.

      1. Indeed, if there’s someone who did a good job, especially in 2018, it’s ferrari, who gave vettel the best car to challenge mercedes since 2014, we can’t yet say the red bull 2021 is better than the 2018 ferrari, it’s early season still and it’s easy to be outdeveloped by mercedes, vettel did nothing special and I totally agree peak alonso, schumacher would’ve won the title in the 2018 ferrari; also I think 2018 ferrari hamilton would’ve been up there with 2018 mercedes hamilton.

        1. You bring another overrated driver in MS. MS make himself looked like a rookie in his comeback year.

          1. @madjaya
            The comment refers explicitly to peak Schumacher, not 2010 Schumacher. Please read before replying.

    3. Partially agree. ALO did a tremendous job in 2012, but still have to agree that he managed to be in cards all season long thanks to the fact that it was a 3-way fight: RBR-McLaren-Ferrari. And Ferrari had the least amount of PPs and wins.

  11. Adam (@rocketpanda)
    3rd June 2021, 13:38

    I think he outperformed a mediocre Ferrari that wasn’t as strong as the Mercedes. He seemed he had to push ten times as hard to get the kind of performance out of his Ferrari to actually beat Hamilton, and wasn’t helped by Ferrari going down the wrong development path several times by their own admission. Even worse, Ferrari’s pitwall choices were often ridiculous and he seemed more often than not having to not only drive the car but direct Ferrari to do what needed to be done – they’d argue, and then the moment would pass. If anything he had the same ‘meh’ treatment that Alonso had.

    I think because of the issues he overcooked it more than not and pushed himself into making mistakes, culminating in sliding off in Germany and I don’t think psychologically he ever really recovered from that, and then the enormous blow of being dropped by his childhood idol’s team I think is something that has severely crushed him.

    In short the guy’s far better than the credit he’s given. This argument that he only won his titles because of the best car is ridiculous when he had to fight a lot harder to get those titles than Hamilton has in the last five years – if that argument is true for Vettel, then it is for Hamilton – and in truth its false on both. Bashing Vettel seems almost popular and it really shouldn’t be and is pretty distasteful.

    1. I totally and completely disagree with you. Go and reflect on his victories. How many of those were from the first row? And where did his team mate qualify (accidentally also happened to be on the first row?) Vettel is half a F1 driver, the half about being fast. He cant battle other cars. He has mo place in the field and wish he would make way for new talent.

  12. Ferrari has the fastest car in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Red Bull is fastest this year.

    1. Ferrari HAD the fastest car in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Red Bull is fastest this year.

      Pretty much sums it up I feel.

    2. @jaymenon10
      Ferrari certainly wasn’t fastest on race pace in 2019. The argument could go either way about 2018, but in 2017 the Mercedes was definitely faster (15 poles versus 5 for Ferrari).
      You’ve been listening far too much to Toto Wolff, trying to play down when Mercedes is the fastest car.

      1. Agree, 2017 mercedes had more speed later in the season, and more reliability; 2018 I’m pretty sure ferrari can be considered equal and I blame vettel’s mistakes for pushing ferrari to go into a wrong development cycle the last few races; 2019 mercedes had more race pace and reliability, you can see it wasn’t even close compared to 2017.

      2. Not to mention mercedes was NEVER beaten in race pace this year except monaco, even the first race it was every bit as fast in the race as red bull.

    3. I think the fact that there were more times when a Mercedes overtook a Ferrari (than viceversa) during those years… it’s a good enough proof to contradict you. Their speed seemed better overall in races compared to Quali, but also it was more volatile compared to Mercedes. There were multiple races where with 1 set of tyres the car worked like a charm, with the next set the car was as fast as a midfield car. There were some driver mistakes, some unlucky moments, (maybe) some strategy mistakes (looking in retrospective), but overall don’t think VET lost that much.

      1. I am at the third stage of reintegration, so to me, this is true.

  13. Vettel doesn’t have the hunger he once had. I think it’s hard for a 4 time world champion. If you look at Max, he is all about racing. In his free time he’s sim racing. And he’s freaking serious about winning in that too. The difference between Seb and Max I think, is that if Max is 40 points behind Lewis with 2 races left, he will still be fully committed. Partly because that’s the only way Max races, and partly because he is used to being in those situations (not leading championships). So it won’t affect his game plan. With Seb, I felt like he fell off his game a bit after Lewis developed significant lead. And even more after Lewis won those two championships – 2017, 2018. I think he’s racing with the mindset “championship or nothing” because he won those 4 so easily.

    Reply moderated
  14. isthatglock21
    3rd June 2021, 15:43

    Great artcile. So many pundits & even F1 itself is hyping this season up like something we’ve never seen before, we have such short memories. 2017 & 2018 was a great few years of racing between at the time two 3X world champs going head to head. People forget Ferrari & Seb led most way through 2017 in the standings, compared to roung 5 in 2017 Seb was 30 odd points ahead vs Max only 6 points ahead now. Sure Ferrair & Seb in both years flopped at the end which didn’t help, but those years are underrated. F1 doesn’t do itself a service when it overlooks recent history.

  15. Did he made mistakes? Yes. Did Ferrari made mistakes? Yes. Would have Hamilton won the title in both ’17, ’18? If we take only the car in consideration, then yes. But so could Vettel. The thing is that people easily forget that Ferrari was and is, a mess operationally. And when Marchionne died, mid ’18, things got only worse and balance shifted espacially when it came to Vettel. Hamilton has a very supportive environment thus he can do magic. Vettel didn’t have that, he had to fight with the internals and it took away from his driving. All geat championship runs did have a team that isolated the driver from all the other ditractions.

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