Having worked with F1’s two seven-time World Champions, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton, James Vowles claims it’s the latter who has the most “natural talent”, but it can lead to issues.
Embedded in Brackley back in 2001, Vowles was a stalwart within the team through its BAR, Honda, Brawn GP, and later Mercedes days before leaving for Williams last season.
From playing a part in Jenson Button’s 2009 championship success to Hamilton’s six under the Mercedes banner and Nico Rosberg’s 2016 title, he also worked with Schumacher in Mercedes’ first years after buying Brawn GP.
‘Lewis Hamilton is the most naturally talented driver’
Today both Schumacher and Hamilton stand on seven Drivers’ Championship titles, but while the latter wasn’t able to break that record in 2021, he has eclipsed other Schumacher records.
The most notable of those is for the most wins and pole positions with Hamilton up to 103 wins and 104 poles, with Schumacher having scored 91 and 68.
Vowles puts that down to Hamilton’s “natural” ability.
“I struggle to find another sport similar to this where it’s a team sport, but it starts with beating your team-mate,” the former Mercedes strategy director told the High Performance podcast.
“If you don’t beat your team-mate, you’re in question. The key behind it is that’s just one fight, but actually, each individual contributes towards the success of the team. Simple as that.
“With Lewis, when he joined us [he] was – and still is today – the most – within my Mercedes career – the most naturally talented driver I’ve worked with, including Michael [Schumacher]. Just so much natural talent.
“That journey we took him on was we’ll win championships together.
“His mentality at the time when he joined was a brilliant one, I can see why he’s so successful, but it was ‘I’m going to win every race at all costs, it doesn’t matter what the cost is’.
“But if you speak to him today it has migrated, he accepts that it’s the second places and third places that win championships.
“And building and working with the team on the days where you can’t win the race will give you far more reward than pushing everyone away in order to win that single race out of it.”
Lewis Hamilton’s strengths, and the engineers’ frustrations
However, one of Hamilton’s biggest strengths, his ability to optimise the car, can also be one of his downfalls as sometimes he takes it too far away from the baseline.
“Lewis just has oodles of natural talents,” Vowles, now Williams’ team boss explained. “And with him, he’s got these tendencies and traits where when you go out in FP1, he’s like an octopus all over the wheel. He’ll change every setting on the wheel near enough and explore it. But it’s what makes him incredible.
“I’ll give you an example. There was a time when on simulation in Brazil it said go into seventh gear up the hill. And within two laps Nico was doing exactly as we asked him to do. Within two laps Lewis went ‘this doesn’t feel right’, and it took until the end of the session before Nico saw the data and saw that he was this optimiser.
“He’s got a feel beyond anything else for it. And he has no issue exploring the boundaries and that manifests itself in you’d often see him go off at Turn 1. He finds the absolute limit or braking and it would just push him wider at Turn 1 and then abort the lap.
“And one of our biggest frustrations with him was that out of 20 laps, he did one. I was ‘Come on, you’ve got to do more than that’. You’ll see now he completes every lap, he’s now found a way of still gaining the experience.
“But he was this perfectionist, and braking was his strength, his forte, maximise everything under braking, and then I know the limits of the car, and then I can build from there and get into the rhythm of things.
“But because he’s explored all these boundaries, he knows in just a few laps in FP1 – and he learns to track incredibly quickly – what the boundaries of the car is, what the limits are already within his tools that he has available and understands therefore how to get the car into the right positioning as the grip comes up. Very, very impressive.
“Where others are still just spending seven or eight laps learning the track, he’s explored quite a bit of the boundaries.
“Now that came with some downsides often. Often he would change the car so quick on that you’d lose yourself. Certainly, as engineers it’s difficult when your data is moving, the track is moving, the grips moving, the driver’s moved everything on the steering wheel.
“And you think ‘Okay, we’re starting from scratch here, basically’. And that’s some of the reasons why at times you’ll see Lewis drops backwards and often when he jumps forwards again it’s because he’s gone to a setup that’s known and now he’s back on the money.
“But he’s able to do that and many drivers aren’t. He’s able to explore often, perhaps in the wrong place on setup, but he’s learning from it. And that’s Lewis all over.”