Weird season has Lewis Hamilton chasing normalcy as F1 action moves to Austin

Hamilton trails Verstappen in title race, but Circuit of the Americas has been a happy hunting ground for Mercedes driver

Lewis Hamilton heads for his happy place in Austin on Sunday in the midst of the longest barren spell of his Mercedes career.

He has sealed a world title in the past at the grandly named Circuit of the Americas and triumphed five times in eight years, so there’s no question that in the land of the gun (which he enjoys firing) he’s quickest on the draw.

But this year the pressures piling on his German team are as high as the expectation.

It may appear nip and tuck in the title race but the geography of the last nine races tells a different story. Hamilton has led just 11 laps and failed to hit the front in five of those. That compares with over 208 laps led by bitter title rival Max Verstappen, albeit in something of a recent trough himself.

More surprisingly, the most prolific winner in the sport’s history ranks a lowly eighth of the 11 lap-leaders since the French Grand Prix in June.

Despite five wins this year, Hamilton has not dominated one race. Not since his first season at Mercedes in 2013 has he suffered such a dearth of front-running form.

By contrast the Dutchman has been at the front longest – and more than all the rest put together (even with Hamilton) over the entire year.

But is this a case of lies, damned lies and statistics?

After all, being Lewis Hamilton he may have led just three laps in two of those races but they were crucial: he won both. A rich reward for any career except the very best.

But, soberingly, for Mercedes only one driver has won the world title in the last 12 years without being at the top of the lappery.

As nerves begin to jangle and tensions rise the margin for error remains terrifyingly thin.

While Red Bull admit Hamilton is the man to beat come Sunday the high altitude races that follow in Mexico and Brazil should favour them.

After that it’s anybody’s guess for the new venues in Qatar and Jeddah before the finale at Abu Dhabi.

Mercedes, though, have shown an increasing penchant to fold under extreme pressure, most recently throwing away third in Turkey.

And Hamilton’s radio rant at his own team was an unedifying display when you can be sure he knew the world was listening. How often has Hamilton played the ‘ice-cold-nerveless-architect-of-victory’ card when Mercedes have won? That he failed to hold up his hand and protect his team by admitting responsibility only made him look weak.

But the pattern is now set. Or so it appears. Mercedes are struggling with engine issues but doubling down on their historic strength - reliability.

Despite the ebb and flow of a championship that has changed hands five times Mercedes boss Toto Wolff believes reliability rather than speed could be the deciding factor.

Having lost one of Hamilton’s engines at Zandvoort, another is in doubt after debuting as recently as Spa, while the third has already been plundered for parts.

So accepting a penalty for calling a fourth into action in Istanbul smacked of Mercedes pushing the panic button. And Wolff is not ruling out the need for a fifth.

The tensions are such that Red Bull have questioned the sudden turn of speed that has arrived with Mercedes' new engines which are supposed to be unchanged from their predecessors.

After all, Verstappen couldn’t keep up with Bottas at the last race, let alone Hamilton.

Christian Horner noted Mercedes' acceleration without DRS was suddenly better than Red Bull with it. It was gamesmanship with a dark undertone in tense times.

In their turn Red Bull are battling a car that is proving difficult to set up for each new circuit as they chase diminishing returns.

Perhaps a small piece of the puzzle over their recent drop off was solved after it emerged head designer Adrian Newey was involved in a serious cycling accident over the summer break and required “several operations” before his return in Turkey.

But going to America Mercedes desperately need a victory as a cushion against what is likely to come.

So, much as the city’s motto is ‘Keep Austin Weird’ Hamilton will be hoping it will very much be a case of keeping it just normal, F1-wise at least.

Updated: October 20th 2021, 5:13 AM