Has Lewis Hamilton’s ‘instinctive, unconscious speed’ left him?

Jamie Woodhouse
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton smiling in pre-season photo call. Bahrain February 2023

Mercedes drivers George Russell and Lewis Hamilton smiling in pre-season photo call. Bahrain February 2023

Is Lewis Hamilton reaching the stage in his career where that “instinctive” blistering speed is leaving him? 1996 F1 champion Damon Hill says that time may be here.

F1 2023 has begun on a rather tricky note once again for Hamilton’s Mercedes team, though it is Hamilton who has claimed Mercedes’ best finish so far in the early stages of this campaign, crossing the line P2 in Australia.

That did come after team-mate George Russell, who had earlier been leading the race from Hamilton, suffered great misfortune with the timing of a red flag, before a power unit failure ended his race.

Russell has also outqualified Hamilton in all three outings so far this season, that stat the basis for Hill’s suggestion that the rapid speed which a supreme young racer unleashes through instinct, may now be slipping away for the 38-year-old, seven-time World Champion Hamilton.

“Maybe we can talk about that, the arrival of the younger, faster driver,” Hill began on the F1 Nation podcast.

“Because this has happened a lot in the past, you know, when Niki Lauda had [Alain] Prost arrive, or let’s say the older, more experienced driver is faced with the speed of a young arrival in the team, they’ve got an option.

“They can get depressed about it, throw their hands up in the air and say it’s all over, or they can devote their energies to making sure that the outcome of the race is actually the thing that matters.

“And so they may give up a little bit in qualifying, accept in their late 30s they can no longer do those absolutely absurd kind of transcendental laps that they used to be able to do when they’re in their 20s, and they can focus on getting somewhere in the race.

“George is super quick and he’s revelling in the early part of his career and he’s got this speed. I don’t know if Lewis has acknowledged that he can’t match that, or I’m sure he will do eventually, but it’s possible that instinctive unconscious speed is starting to leave him. It does happen.

“These guys do not lose what it is they know how to do, those days are rarer, and they are harder to conjure up, you have to sometimes be patient and wait for everything to come together. And of course Formula 1, any sport really doesn’t wait long.”

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Hill makes a valid point that this kind of one-lap decline impacts some drivers as they get older, but while the Russell versus Hamilton qualifying head-to-head so far in F1 2023 seems to give credit to that argument, really it is one that cannot be substantiated at this stage.

Hamilton is a driver accustomed to title battles, and as his record-equalling tally shows, he is rather good at winning those battles as well. So, now into a second campaign where Mercedes have not put a title-worthy challenger on the track, it would be understandable if it is a car of that level which is needed to draw top gear out of Hamilton.

And while Russell is absolutely a wildly talented Formula 1 driver with a very bright future, he has not been tested against Hamilton when title glory is on the line. That record eighth World title is Hamilton’s driving force, and if it was on the cards, then Russell could well meet the relentless Hamilton who has rewritten the F1 history books.

With Hamilton now finding himself outside of the title picture after so many years of domination, this assumption from Hill just feels like a really easy one to make at this stage.

Presuming that Red Bull remain at the pinnacle of Formula 1, once Mercedes provide the challenger to threaten their place again, then we will see whether Hamilton has actually lost any of his spark alongside a team-mate in Russell, who will absolutely pose that question to him.