In response to the tidal wave of criticism of the French Grand Prix, F1’s insiders adopted a familiar tone. With more than a hint of condescension they asserted that if you cannot appreciate the brilliance of Hamilton and Mercedes as they throttle the opposition, you cannot be a true fan of F1.
While the elite group of F1 media correspondents glossed over the French snoozer, fans called it for what it was: painfully boring. Though it was a particular low point, it is clear that in 2019 fans are despairing of Mercedes and Hamilton’s continued dominance.
Austria a temporary blip for the Mercedes juggernaut
Last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix thankfully offered a welcome respite from the Mercedes juggernaut. But a temporary blip is all that it was.
The freakishly high temperatures at the Red Bull Ring compromised the Silver Arrows in a way that is unlikely to be repeated again. Therefore we can expect normal service to resume at Silverstone and with it, more ‘appreciation’ articles from F1’s intelligentsia.
It is possible to appreciate the brilliance of Mercedes and Hamilton.
They are man, machine and team in near-perfect harmony. Executing their plans with meticulous, dispassionate brilliance. But this kind of dominance, over multiple seasons, drives more people away than it attracts.
Sporting perfection is a turn off
This is not unique to F1. Pick any sport and you will find that the buzzer-beater, the bottom of the ninth home run or the last round knock out will always engage and enthral more than sporting perfection.
That is why the Lauda versus Hunt battle in 1976 is the stuff of legend. Hamilton’s maiden title in 2008 similarly so. Even the epic battles between Prost and Senna at McLaren, as the rest of the grid watched from the outside, will live longer in the memory than Hamilton’s 2017, 2018 and inevitably, 2019 titles will.
Whether the elite ranks of F1’s management, media correspondents and assorted hangers-on like it or not, the sport in its bloated, elitist state balances on a single, weakening platform: it’s body of fans. Fans that are increasingly frustrated and bored.
Picking up where Ferrari and Schumacher left off
Continued domination by Mercedes and Hamilton risks damaging the sport in the same way Michael Schumacher and Ferrari did.
A side-effect of Ferrari’s dominance during the German’s reign was how much it undermined his sporting legacy. In his single-minded quest to shatter Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five World Championships, Schumacher failed to consider whether those achievements would be truly valued. Sadly Hamilton faces a similar fate if F1 retains its current regulations for much longer.
Ferrari and Schumacher were the Mercedes and Hamilton of the era. Many F1 fans – perhaps even the majority – looked upon Michaels tally of seven titles with scepticism.
Were they all true representations of his driving brilliance? Or the product of Ferrari-favouring regulations, submissive teammates and trick Bridgestone tires that choked the opposition into submission?
The risk to Lewis Hamilton’s F1 legacy
Schumacher’s freak skiing accident in 2013 has, subsequently, softened attitudes to that legacy. Had he not been seriously injured, it is safe to say that fans would be debating the legitimacy of his seven titles with greater voracity.
Perhaps it is little wonder that since Paul Ricard, Toto Wolff and many of the same F1 insiders have been talking about Hamilton as the greatest ever. Better than Senna, Fangio, Prost, Schumacher, Clark, Stewart, Piquet and the rest of F1’s pantheon of greats.
Maybe they understand that the dominance of Mercedes – having won 74% of all races in the turbo-hybrid period from 2014 to 2018 – and the failure of Valtteri Bottas, Ferrari and Red Bull to provide much competition has the potential to tarnish Hamilton’s F1 legacy. Hence the desire to make this season’s thumping of the opposition less about a team at the top of its game, and more about the driver.
An F1 legend or a great driver in a brilliant car?
Hamilton may well retire at the end of 2021 having eclipsed Schumacher’s seven titles and broken every other record the German set. But if 2019 is the blueprint for the next two seasons, Hamilton’s legacy will be questioned in ways that those of Senna, Fangio and Clark are not. An outcome that would be highly unfair on the racing talent of this generation.
Those inside the F1 circus will probably continue to pedal the same opinions for the rest of the year. Fans who ‘cannot appreciate’ the brilliance of Mercedes and Hamilton will be looked down upon.
The question is how many fans will still be around to read and listen to their perspectives? If appreciating perfection is all F1 can offer for the foreseeable future, undoubtedly there will be a lot fewer of them.