Formula 1 drivers are nothing without the team behind them. Which makes the relationship between a driver and their race engineer the most crucial one in the sport.
The most successful driver-engineer pairing of all time has just completed its 10th season and is still going strong.
Peter Bonnington has been a familiar voice over the radio on the Mercedes pit wall. Before working with Hamilton – a future seven-time world champion – Bonnington had the honour of engineering Formula 1’s only other seven-time champion, Michael Schumacher, during his final season in 2012. When Schumacher retired, Hamilton moved from McLaren’s Woking factory to Mercedes’ base in Brackley and Bonnington remained in his role to ease their new driver into the team.
Naturally, some fine-tuning of the relationship was necessary to begin with. Just a handful of laps into his very first grand prix in a Mercedes, Hamilton came over the radio to ask for more regular lap time updates as he tried to nurse his Pirelli tyres around the Albert Park circuit.
But nine races later, Hamilton and Bonnington scored their first success together at the Hungaroring, the driver claiming his first win in Mercedes silver.
“Get in there, Lewis. Get in there. That’s P1, man,” Bonnington praised his driver – the genesis of what would become his trademark radio call that symbolises Hamilton’s entire Mercedes career.
The following year the V6 turbo era began and Hamilton got his first opportunity to fight for a championship with his new team. Mercedes arrived with comfortably the best power unit and car in the field and Hamilton and Bonnington took full advantage. They won over half the races and took 16 podiums on the way to clinching the championship ahead of the other Mercedes, driven by Nico Rosberg, at the final round in Abu Dhabi.
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While Mercedes were again the class of the field in 2015, with Hamilton sewing up a second-successive title by the US Grand Prix, there were some difficult moments during races between him and Bonnington. A likely victory in Monaco was lost when Hamilton pressed Bonnington about Mercedes’ decision not to pit him under Safety Car.
|Peter Bonnington||Lewis Hamilton||Safety Car, Safety Car. So we are staying out.|
|Lewis Hamilton||Peter Bonnington||Are you sure it’s the best thing to stay out? These tyres have lost all their temperature. Everyone’s going to be on [super-softs] now.|
|Peter Bonnington||Lewis Hamilton||OK. Copy, copy. Box, box.|
After pitting, Hamilton emerged back onto the track without his lead as he expected, but was third behind Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. Hamilton was furious, parked up at Portier on his in-lap, and Bonnington had to coax his driver to resume his return and park his car on the grid for the traditional podium ceremony.
But in 2016, the dynamic at Mercedes changed dramatically for a variety of reasons. Mercedes reorganised several crew members, leaving many of Hamilton’s previous engineers now working on Rosberg’s car. However, Bonnington remained as Hamilton’s race engineer.
With a resurgent Rosberg to contend with, plus costly mechanical failures at critical moments, Bonnington and Hamilton’s connection was also challenged by the FIA temporarily introducing a bizarre rule banning teams from giving their drivers instructions on adjusting car settings during a race.
That led to a frustrating afternoon in Baku for Hamilton, who was losing almost half a second a lap with unexpected engine power loss due to a problem with his hybrid energy setting – one that Bonnington was agonisingly forbidden from telling his driver how to solve.
“Can I make a suggestion and you say if it’s okay or not?” Hamilton asked. “No that’s not allowed,” Bonnington reluctantly admitted.
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However, the short-lived radio restrictions did lead to the pair inventing their most famous phrase out of sheer creativity. Bonnington later explained how his signature “Hammertime” call – indicating Hamilton should push flat-out – was born.
“The ‘Hammertime’ thing – that was a bit of a laugh,” he said. “It was when radio comms were restricted and they would allow you to ‘offer words of encouragement’.
“It’s like we’ve got to try and emphasise – you can’t just say ‘push’, it’s like ‘how hard?’. I said ‘I don’t know, do you want to put a number on this?’. We said ‘let’s just use different language’. So for an all-out lap it turned out to be ‘Hammertime’. Lewis suggested ‘put the hammer down’ and I thought ‘hmmm, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s say ‘Hammertime’. And once I mentioned it, that was it.”
But despite the advent of ‘Hammertime’ leading to Hamilton taking the most wins and pole positions through 2016, it was not enough to prevent Rosberg from taking the championship. When Rosberg stunned the F1 world by immediately retiring, the arrival of Valtteri Bottas as his new team mate heralded an end to the intra-team Mercedes wars and the start of a more harmonious atmosphere.
It also triggered the start of the most dominant period of Hamilton and Bonnington’s partnership, with the pair claiming the next four consecutive drivers’ championships together. Over the same period, Hamilton set new all-time records for the most pole positions taken by a single driver and the most races won, both exceeding Schumacher’s tallies, before matching Schumacher by becoming a seven-time world champion.
But in 2021, Hamilton faced the toughest competition he had since Rosberg’s departure from the sport in the form of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. At the end of a season in which the championship lead swung back and forth between the pair, a controversial, rule-breaking intervention by race director Michael Masi under a late Safety Car at the final race left Hamilton exposed.
Verstappen took full advantage, passing Hamilton for the win and the title on the final lap. Bonnington, who had so often found the right words to comfort or placate his driver, struggled for anything to say. “I’m just speechless, Lewis,” he said as Hamilton crossed the line. “Absolutely speechless.”
While Bonnington reminded Hamilton he was supposed to stop on the grid, Hamilton pulled silently into the pit lane, taking a minute to compose himself before climbing out of the car and sportingly offering his congratulations to the new champion.
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The pair’s tenth season together was statistically their least successful together, with Hamilton failing to record a win or a pole position in a season for the first time in his career. Mercedes were never in the hunt for the championship from the opening round, their troublesome W13 not having the pace of their rivals Red Bull or Ferrari.
Bonnington returns to the pit wall as the voice in Hamilton’s ear for an 11th year this season. Next month the pair will break a remarkable total of 200 grands prix starts together when the lights go out in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix.
In their 198 races together, Formula 1’s most successful ever driver-engineer partnership has achieved six world championship titles, 82 grand prix victories, 77 pole positions, 140 podiums and 49 fastest laps. While Hamilton’s own incredible success shows that even the greatest records can always be broken, it will take something very special indeed for their to be another partnership quite like theirs.
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