It is the inescapable question that has followed Formula One for five years. As the cars line up for this weekend’s season opener in Bahrain, all anyone can ask is: Just how do you beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes?
For Martin Brundle, the answer is two-pronged.
‘Two things can beat Lewis this year,’ the Sky Sports F1 pundit told Sportsmail. ‘One is a very on-form Red Bull with Max Verstappen on-form for a season-long basis.
‘The other thing that can beat Lewis and Mercedes are Lewis and Mercedes.’
Lewis Hamilton is the man to beat as the grid gears up for another season of Formula One
The 36-year-old dominated last season as he stormed to his seventh world championship title
The seven-time world champion has enjoyed nothing short of a phenomenal last 12 months.
Despite being required to perform at the top level in the most unusual of circumstances, Hamilton has turned in some of the greatest drives in his 14-year Formula One career – all while staunchly and admirably campaigning against racism.
Hamilton’s efforts on and off the track have been recognised with a knighthood, yet there is a growing sense of unease surrounding the 36-year-old and Mercedes heading into the opening weekend.
After months of deliberation and delay, Hamilton finally put pen-to-paper on a new one-year deal to drive for the team this year, signed just one month before the start of pre-season testing.
Hamilton enters the new season looking to eclipse Michael Schumacher’s championship tally
However, all does not seem well with Hamilton and Mercedes heading into the Bahrain opener
Mercedes endured a poor test while Hamilton’s body language appeared underwhelming
Hamilton did not appear in the best of moods over the three days of testing in Bahrain, either.
He spun his car off-track amid a Bahrain sandstorm, while the Brit’s body language was not that of a driver with the bit between his teeth. His right-hand man, Marc Hynes, is no longer working with him either.
‘The one-year contract is confusing,’ Brundle continued. ‘Lewis doesn’t seem entirely happy with some aspects; will they trip over themselves?’
‘In some ways I am not surprised that it is a one-year deal because towards the end you don’t want to be committed,’ fellow Sky Sports pundit and one-time world champion Damon Hill added.
‘What you don’t want to be doing is racing when you don’t want to, which is the position I found myself in.
He signed a one-year deal to stay at Mercedes this year after months of delay and deliberation
Sky Sports pundit Damon Hill told Sportsmail he can understand Hamilton’s one-year deal
‘Getting into Formula One is quite hard but getting out of Formula One the right way is even harder. Jackie Stewart had an unblemished reputation for a long time because he stopped at the top and got out and Nico [Rosberg] has done a similar thing.
‘I don’t think Lewis will want to hang around if he doesn’t see the opportunity of being in the fight for winning races.
‘I don’t necessarily think he wants the most dominant car, I just think he wants to know he can win races and he knows he can win championships if he can get that car.’
For Hamilton, there is plenty left to fight for. The Brit has obliterated virtually all records before him, with his surpassing of Michael Schumacher’s win record last year a landmark moment for the Mercedes driver.
It won’t be smooth sailing for Hamilton and Mercedes, with their closest rivals lurking
Red Bull impressed in testing with confidence high they can finally dethrone Mercedes
However, Hamilton remains tied with Schumacher on world championships, at seven apiece.
Although the 36-year-old has been far and away the best driver on the grid these last four years, any notion that this season will be smooth-sailing for the reigning champion should be curbed.
That’s because Verstappen and Red Bull head into the opening chapter this weekend with confidence high that they can finally dethrone their all-conquering rivals.
The team endured a tricky season last time out, as Verstappen and former team-mate Alex Albon struggled with a chaotic rear end as well as aerodynamic difficulties.
They have found more reliability with their new car and topped the timesheet after three days
Martin Brundle (left) says Max Verstappen looks ‘lean and mean’ and can sustain a title run
However, after an impressive three days of pre-season testing, those issues appear to have been ironed out, with the new-look RB16B car’s improved handling and predictability seeing Verstappen finish as fastest driver with a time of 1:28.960.
That, coupled with their dominance in last season’s finale in Abu Dhabi, has left fans optimistic that Hamilton may be in for a fight this time around.
‘They have obviously found something with their car,’ Brundle said.
‘They dominated the last race, they had a great test. Max [Verstappen] looks as lean and as mean as I have ever seen him, Sergio [Perez] looks relaxed and comfortable which is an important thing for them.
‘They had a wonderful test, but test is the key word there. Mercedes, it is an evolution year, they haven’t got a pup on their hands.
Hill added that Hamilton will not shirk a challenge and will ‘relish’ a fight with Verstappen
The Brit came out on top after going toe-to-toe with Felipe Massa to win his first title in 2008
‘They had a poor test, the car is not quite right but we know they will sort that out but I do genuinely think – unless Mercedes were carrying an extra 60 kilos of fuel at all times with the engine on a very low mode and just having a laugh with us all, it does appear to be game on between those two, with McLaren in third place.’
It may be a more closely-fought race to the championship this time around, but Hamilton is not one to shirk a challenge.
Despite coasting to the last four championships, the 36-year-old has the mettle to go toe-to-toe over the course of a 23-race season, having pipped Felipe Massa in the final race of the season in Brazil to win his first championship back in 2008.
‘It might be more difficult, but I don’t think that will be off-putting for Lewis,’ Hill said.
‘I don’t think he will mind if it is a fight. If it is a fight between him and Max I think he will relish that.
‘He has come this close and he has statistically beaten Schumacher’s record but on championships they are level.
As Hamilton bids to pass Schumacher, there will be another MSC on the grid this season
Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, enters Formula One this season after being signed by Haas
However, the Haas car disappointed in testing, with expectations low for the team this season
‘It will be awfully hard to come this far, this close, for it not to convert at the end of this season because it would mean he might have to do it again and he might end up in a rut trying to crack this nut.
‘His race wins and his poles, laps led and all this stuff his statistics… he has knocked everything into another orbit.
As Hamilton bids to eclipse Schumacher’s imperious championship record, the Mercedes star will be competing against another ‘MSC’ this campaign, with the German legend’s son, Mick, making his highly-anticipated F1 debut.
The 22-year-old has joined Haas, but any expectation that the youngster will be pushing Hamilton and Verstappen should be nipped in the bud early.
The team’s VF-21 was way behind the pack in testing as a result of Haas making very minimal tweaks to last season’s car, with sights set on preparing to hit the ground running with new regulations on the way for 2022.
Hill says if Schumacher can ‘dominate’ team-mate Nikita Mazepin, that will be a good result
Hill, who also entered F1 to much fanfare as the son of former racer Graham, says the youngster needs to ignore the ‘froth’ from the German press and keep his head down this season.
‘I think it is more something for us to deal with than him,’ he said. ‘He’s dealt with that, he is mature enough and had enough experience of you know, going to school as ‘the son of’ and all the other things you do, you learn to deal with it.
‘I’m sure it will affect him when he wins the world championship because we will all have a lump in our throat, as the saying goes.
‘He will be laying low where he is. He has got an opportunity to dominate his team-mate, if he can do that that would be a brilliant start, and he’ll have built the foundation that he needs to go beyond that.
‘The whole name thing is more of a froth story, it will come and go, I am sure the sensational papers in Germany will be writing all sorts of crazy stuff.
‘He just has to keep his head down, he is professional enough to weather that and the rest of us will be watching his progress and seeing how he deals with the actual business of Formula One.’
The grid offers an intriguing blend of youth (Yuki Tsunoda, right) and experience (Fernando Alonso, left) this season
For Sebastian Vettel, a change to Aston Martin may be last chance saloon for the German
The 33-year-old had a torrid time with Ferrari, and Brundle fears the best of Vettel is gone
MARTIN BRUNDLE’S PECKING ORDER HEADING INTO FIRST RACE
1. Red Bull
4. Aston Martin
8. Alfa Romeo
Young Schumacher is one of a trio of hotshots making their F1 bows this season, with Yuki Tsunoda and Nikita Mazepin driving for AlphaTauri and Haas respectively.
The grid offers an intriguing blend of youth and experience, with veterans Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso bidding to teach the youngsters a thing or two.
One such veteran who has plenty to prove this campaign is Sebastian Vettel. The German endured a torrid time of it last season with Ferrari and has since moved to Aston Martin.
Brundle says it may be the last chance for the four-time world champion to prove he’s still got what it takes to compete at the top.
‘I don’t understand the concept of giving a driver at this level his mojo back and making him feel in a better place,’ Brundle said. ‘It is about whether Sebastian really likes the way the car handles, whether he gets off to a good start.
‘We know he has still got the speed, he gets to the front, we’ve seen him since 2018 make a lot of unforced errors, silly mistakes. Has that set in? Has he passed his peak? Or did he just lose his way in a car that didn’t suit him in a team that didn’t make him feel particularly good.
‘It will be all about how the start is. My gut feeling is perhaps the best of Sebastian Vettel is behind him but I very much hope he proves me wrong.’
Another driver with a point to prove is Daniel Ricciardo. The jovial Australian’s move to Renault from Red Bull did not reap the rewards he had hoped for and now he begins in Bahrain with McLaren, who showed very positive signs in testing.
Ricciardo has often provided a much-needed tonic to the at-times fractious paddock, with his toothy grin lifting the spirits of those around him.
Brundle, though, expects the horseplay to go out the window this season.
The clock is ticking against Daniel Ricciardo, too, as he switched to McLaren from Renault
The Australian (right) has been in serious mood and will look to dominate Lando Norris (left)
McLaren performed well in testing and are tipped to be the third-fastest car on the track
‘They are not in the entertainment business in that respect,’ the Sky Sports pundit added. ‘Daniel is out front, he’s got a great character. He is a very serious sportsman. I don’t think he will be that interested in the jack the lad stuff.
‘If you watched the McLaren launch he has already shown how he intends to go on. This could be last chance for him.
‘McLaren has to work out for him. That’s all about delivering the results, that is what he will be all about.
‘Lando [Norris] is extremely good and Daniel will try to have some authority over him early on. The jokey stuff won’t be on the agenda.’
Ultimately, all eyes will be on Hamilton and Verstappen as the daring Dutchman looks to finally destabilise the Brit, starting in Bahrain on Sunday. So, who do the two experts pick to end the season triumphant?
Brundle says it is difficult to look past Hamilton and Mercedes, while Hill has tipped Verstappen to do the unthinkable and stop the Brit from winning title number eight
‘I have got a sneaking feeling that Max could nick this, that is how my gut is going at the moment,’ Hill admitted.
‘But when we get off this call my senses will return and I will immediately realise that I have underestimated, yet again, the power of the Hamilton-Mercedes train.’
‘If Lewis is happy and focused, on commentary you’ll have heard me saying ‘a happy Lewis is an incredibly fast Lewis’, the might of Mercedes – that is the combo to beat,’ Brundle added.
‘Max will have to make sure he makes no mistakes because Lewis very rarely makes mistakes. They will have to hook everything up to beat Lewis and Mercedes this year.’
BRUNDLE AND HILL PAY TRIBUTE TO F1 LEGEND MURRAY WALKER
Brundle and Hill will be tasked with calling all the action from prime position this season, although the presence of a larger-than-life character will surely be on everyone’s mind as we get under way in Bahrain.
Legendary motorsport and F1 commentator Murray Walker passed away earlier this month, aged 97. Walker’s broadcasting career spanned over 50 years, half of which were as a full-time F1 commentator for BBC and ITV. He was famed for his enthusiastic voice and his ‘Murrayisms’ during live races.
Dubbed by the British Racing Drivers’ Club as ‘the nation’s favourite commentator’, Walker’s loss has been deeply felt by the whole sport.
‘He was just a fantastic communicator and communicated his love for all form of motorsport,’ Hill said of Walker. ‘He’s been a long while not commentating but the love is still out there in huge bucketloads and it will continue, I am sure it will.’
‘What a communicator he was,’ Brundle added. ‘He was the soundtrack to so many of us growing up and falling in love with motorsport in general and Formula One in particular.
‘We gained our passion and enthusiasm and love for Formula One through him. We drew off his passion, but he had so much energy he had plenty more passion left as well for the sport and for the commentary so we didn’t drain him that’s for sure, we joined him on the journey.
‘I would sign up for it, actually: 97, achieved what he achieved, to be loved as much as he was loved, and then pin-sharp until nearly the end. I think we will celebrate it, that’s how I feel.’
F1 has lost an iconic personality in Murray Walker, who died aged 97 earlier this month
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