Opinion: How Hamilton will set himself apart from Vettel following Hockenheim woes
(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Opinion: How Hamilton will set himself apart from Vettel following Hockenheim woes

Championship leader faltered in German Grand Prix, but responses to setbacks have defined his career.

dave-comerford
David Comerford

Lewis Hamilton's performance in a chaotic German Grand Prix was, without any doubt, his worst in recent memory.

The five-time world champion was leading the race when he strayed off-line at the perilous penultimate corner and slid onto the slippery run-off and into the wall. It was a simple error - Charles Leclerc had crashed out in virtually the same circumstances moments earlier - but it proved decisive.

The Briton tumbled down the order during an impromptu pit-stop which sparked frantic scenes in the Mercedes garage and was hit with a five-second penalty for cutting across the pitlane entry.

Most alarmingly, perhaps, he then appeared to lose his head. He could not mount a fightback even on fresh rubber and, to cap off a wretched afternoon, he went spinning in a plume of smoke at the first corner. 

Usually flawless on a Sunday and indeed in changeable conditions, Hamilton experienced a monumental change of fortune.

The poetry surrounding Sebastian Vettel's concurrent fightback was remarkable.

12 months ago, Hamilton had extraordinarily won the race from 14th on the grid after a vintage wet-weather performance and an excruciating error from comfortable leader Vettel.

This time around, the German, calm amid the chaos, assuredly navigated his way from the back of the field to second as Hamilton instead threw away victory with the smallest of lapses.

For Vettel it was redemption and for his supporters the irony was oh-so-sweet. 

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Vettel's 2018 title challenge unravelled after he hit the barriers on home soil, but Hamilton's rivals should not consider his error-strewn display cause for any optimism. 

How Vettel folded, and why Hamilton will not

Only on Sunday did Vettel finally dispel his 2018 heartbreak. It has, one might argue, haunted him on-track for a full year.

Soundly beaten at subsequent races in Hungary, Italy and Singapore, the Ferrari driver, sensing that Hamilton's march was relentless, grew desperate.

And that desperation resulted in two race-ruining spins at the Japanese and US Grands Prix, effectively securing the title for his arch-rival.

He appeared to lose his confidence in the heat of battle, losing control of his car in Bahrain at the start of this season to cost himself a shot at victory and cracking under pressure from Hamilton in Montreal. The fury resulting from his controversial post-race penalty shielded him from further criticism in the wake of his latest error.

And then, at Silverstone, he carelessly punted Max Verstappen, leading observers to call into his question not only his mettle but his future in the sport. His admittedly immense charge through the pack has silenced his critics, but for how long?

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No such doubts will be expressed in Hamilton's case, because there is reason to believe that he will deliver an instant response.

If we take a collection of Hamilton's poorest performances from the past four seasons, a trend emerges.

At the 2015 Hungarian Grand Prix, he hobbled to sixth after an erratic display, but following a summer-break reset, he rattled off back-to-back wins.

Hamilton labelled his qualifying performance at the 2016 European Grand Prix the worst of his career in the aftermath of a clumsy accident in the top-ten shoot-out, and after he could only manage fifth on race day, he proceeded to put together a scintillating run of four consecutive victories.

What about the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix - when a dreadful qualifying ruined his weekend before he won in Montreal next time out - or the 2018 Canadian Grand Prix - when he was beaten by both Red Bulls as his team-mate Valtteri Bottas chased victory, and he went on to produce a supremely dominant display in France? 

Even in his field-leading machinery, this cannot be dismissed as a coincidence. Hamilton is a multiple champion because setbacks do not send him into a spiral of self-doubt, they make him better.

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Indeed, nobody has managed to beat him in consecutive races this year.

He has something else to prove

Hamilton has a unique capacity to raise his level when it matters and though this year's title fight may lack the intensity of its predecessors, there is another significant, though unofficial, title to play for: that of the best driver in Formula 1.

Verstappen has the best claim to that mantle at this very moment after an awe-inspiring charge to victory in Austria and a masterclass at Hockenheim. 

Hamilton knows that the Dutchman might well prove to be his biggest obstacle in his quest to become the most successful driver in the sport's history, and will want to reassert his place at the top of the F1 hierarchy to lay down a marker before his newest competitor.

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The 34-year-old's record is testament to his mental fortitude, and his appetite for glory is only growing. As a result, he could well arrive in Budapest this weekend as an unstoppable force and, when F1 reconvenes at Spa in August, he could, once again, unlock another level and swiftly build an unassailable advantage.

Such is his unique brand of greatness.

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