The seven-times world champion led on and off the track in a rearranged season that hit the heights despite the pandemic
Untouchable, indomitable, Lewis Hamilton stood astride the 2020 season like no other. His seventh title matched Michael Schumacher’s record in emphatic style; with 11 race wins he was almost flawless in execution. Moreover, Hamilton did it in a year where he showed remarkable strength of character. In Australia he was the only driver to say he did not believe F1 should be racing under the threat of the coronavirus. He was spot on. Then he was the first to speak out after the killing of George Floyd, spurring on fellow drivers and F1 to take action. The sport’s very public commitment toward anti-racism is down to Hamilton. The driving was exceptional but his actions off track actually had the biggest impact.
Success against the odds
When Australia was cancelled the sport’s leaders stood ashen-faced in the drizzle in Albert Park, bowing to the inevitable. As the impact of the virus was felt, going racing seemed fanciful. Yet F1 continued planning and a 17-race season was proposed alongside new measures: Austria and Silverstone hosting multiple races, strict social bubbles, PPE, social distancing and a rigorous testing regime were implemented. Over the season they have administered more than 80,000 tests with 93 positive results. An extraordinary ratio, reflecting the success of their measures. The sport should be proud of pulling it off.
The great escape
Romain Grosjean’s enormous crash in Bahrain was one of the most horrific F1 has witnessed in recent years. His survival was testament to the FIA’s relentless pursuit of safety. Grosjean hit the barrier at 137mph, with a force of 53g. Moments later he was engulfed in a fireball. Grosjean was in the flames for 28 seconds before he climbed free, aided by the crew of the F1 medical car and marshals. He owed his survival to the halo cockpit protection device as well as his cockpit survival cell, his fireproof suit, the Hans (head and neck support) device and the FIA protocols that resulted in him immediately being helped by professionals risking their own wellbeing. Ultimately Grosjean escaped with just burns to his hands.
Circuits to celebrate
One of the positive outcomes of the season being redrawn was the need to visit new circuits. Tracks that could never meet F1’s financial demands were back in the game and embraced by the drivers. Mugello, Portimão and Imola were all superb venues offering challenges that were unique. Turkey, a great circuit suffering from a lack of grip, delivered an absolute thriller for Hamilton to take the title in stark contrast to the tedious procession in Abu Dhabi. Next season 23 meetings are on the calendar but disappointingly F1 has reverted to all the usual suspects, with only one slot that may yet go to Portimão. Here’s hoping.
No one was in any doubt as to the raw talent George Russell possessed but after being called in by Mercedes to deputise for Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix, Russell gave definitive notice of just how good he could be. He had four hours of practice in the car and was physically disadvantaged. Taller than Hamilton he was forced to wear race boots a size too small, his hands were too big for his steering wheel and he climbed from the car bruised and battered after every session. Yet Russell delivered beyond all expectations. He was just two-hundredths off Valtteri Bottas in qualifying and in the race, having taken the lead, he grasped his chance and was utterly flawless, leading from the front for the first time in his F1 career. He was, ultimately, denied glory by a Mercedes error and bad luck but had made his mark. Dismissing it as the product of being in the best car is belittling and unfair to what was a brilliant performance.
Hardest learning curve
For Ferrari this was a painful season, down on the pace from the off. They were sixth in the championship, their worst result since 1980 when they were 10th. It became a matter of extracting the best from a bad job. Charles Leclerc once more showed his credentials as a future world champion by doing just that. He returned two unlikely podiums and outdrove his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, by a country mile. The German may have lacked motivation having been dropped by Ferrari but Leclerc’s advantage went way beyond that. There were echoes here of Schumacher in 1996 when he outperformed his machinery. Leclerc showed determination and this season will only make him stronger.
Sergio Pérez may still have earned a ride with Red Bull in 2021 – the decision has yet to be made – but if he is absent from the grid F1 will be all the poorer for it. The Mexican has enjoyed perhaps the strongest season of his career, including a superb debut win at the Sakhir Grand Prix. His Racing Point team have signed Vettel for next season and there was clearly going to be no marching orders for their other driver, Lance Stroll, whose billionaire father owns the team. Over at Haas they have taken on Nikita Mazepin, whose billionaire father is bankrolling his career. There is a pattern here, if only it was possible to make it out. Pérez has been dropped despite being one of the most talented drivers on the grid. His absence would be a travesty for F1.