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Hamilton keeps the fire burning

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AFTER clinching his sixth world title at the weekend, British driver Lewis Hamilton shows no sign of slowing down. PETER COSTER reports:

THE words that define who Lewis Hamilton is came from Hamilton himself after winning his sixth world championship: “I’ve still got that fierce fire I had when I was eight years old.”

Nico Rosberg, who was Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes started in karts when he was six. They raced against each other in karts when they were 13.

Rosberg is the son of former world champion Keke Rosberg and won the world championship in 2016 when he announced his retirement

The fire has burned even brighter for Hamilton, who was brought up on a British council housing estate and whose father worked at a second job to keep him in racing. “He told me to never give up.”

When he was 10, Hamilton asked McLaren boss Ron Dennis for his autograph, telling him he wanted to drive for his team.

He was signed for McLaren when he was 13 and won his first world title when he was 23.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc has just turned 22, as has Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Almost as amazing as feeling the fire in your belly at eight is that Hamilton is still feeling the burn at 34.

There is a new generation of F1 drivers. Lando Norris finished seventh at the US Grand Prix on Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas aged 19.

Red Bull’s Alex Albon, who finished fifth on Sunday is 23.

The reason for putting training wheels on young drivers was best described by Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul.

The English-fracturing Frenchman was being questioned about letting Nico Hulkenberg go at the end of this season: “The problem sometimes in Formula1 is you have people doing very long careers, and at the end, they are a bit [there] to be in Formula 1 and almost [winning] becomes secondary,” said Abiteboul.

Does he mean the fire is no longer as fierce?

The 32-year-old Hulkenberg holds the unenviable record of the most Grand Prix starts without a podium finish, 177.

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He is being replaced by 23-year-old Sebastian Ocon, the Mercedes reserve driver.

Kimi Raikkonen is 40, the oldest driver in F1, and was at Ferrari last year when he won the US Grand Prix.

But that didn’t save him from being sent to Alfa Romeo in favour of Leclerc, who is consistently the Scuderia’s faster driver.

His four-times world champion teammate, Sebastian Vettel, failed to finish on Sunday when his right-rear suspension broke on lap eight, dramatically lifting the left-front wheel clear of the track as the back of the car collapsed.

The fault lay in the track, not the car, with drivers complaining about the bumps as their cars bounced and skittered over a track clearly unacceptable for F1 racing.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen said some of the floor on his car was missing and, “I didn’t hit anyone.”

SuperMax finished third and was close to overtaking Hamilton in second place.

Both Ferraris struggled for speed from the start with Leclerc finishing fourth, 52 seconds behind race winner Bottas, while Vettel was left to stalk  back to the pits after his suspension collapse.

This is something drivers dread. It makes them passengers. Triple world champion Niki Lauda, who died of respiratory complications this year, was trapped in his burning Ferrari at the Nurburgring in 1976 after a suspension failure. He breathed in the toxic fumes and was lucky to survive.

Double world champion Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim in a Formula Two race in 1968 when the rear suspension on his Lotus failed.

Both Ferraris struggled for speed from the start with Leclerc finishing fourth, 52 seconds behind race winner Bottas.

The 32-year-old Vettel was second on the grid on Sunday but has been making mistakes and was a year without a victory until the Singapore Grand Prix in September.

Lewis Hamilton is the exception at 34. He shows no signs of retiring, surpassing Fangio’s five world championships when he finished second on Sunday. With only two left, no one can score enough points to pass him.

Fangio was 30 when he won the first world championship in 1950 and nearly 40 when he won his fifth.

Hamilton must now rank alongside the greatest of all Formula One drivers and may yet surpass Michael Schumacher’s seven world championships.

The world champion was on failing tyres after an early pit stop, but never gave up the chase against eventual winner and pole sitter Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton says he has no intention of retiring from F1. “I love racing,” he says.

But so do drivers like the discarded Hulkenberg and the taciturn Raikkonen, who was world champion for Ferrari in 2008.

Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo is another driver counting down the years now that he has turned 30.

The Renaults are improving with Ricciardo finishing sixth on Sunday. Reaching the podium is possible next year and wins may come in 2021 when major changes are made to F1 cars and regulations.

The engines will be the same 1.5 litre, V6 turbo-hybrids, but the cars themselves will be markedly different.

F1 will be slimmer, shaped to slip more cleanly through the air, sending most of the slipstream over a car behind instead of generating a turbulent backwash that can make passing impossible.

The Downforce Reduction System, DRS, which was introduced to allow a following car to open its rear wing to get past, is to be retained.

Fans don’t want to watch a procession and while entertainment is part of that business the “reverse grids” suggested by F1 managing director Ross Brawn and owners Liberty F1 would have been a mistake.

The grid would have been formed on championship point standings on the Saturday before a Grand Prix with the results setting the grid for the next day’s Grand Prix.

What makes more sense than this obvious manipulation is capping team budgets to US $175 million a year to give lesser teams a financial break.

The downside is that less money will be spent on research and development by teams such as Ferrari and Mercedes who have budgets of  US $400 million.

Another likely problem is teams will be skirmishing with each other even more than usual over upgrades and new bits on their cars.

Max Verstappen accused Ferrari of “cheating” in an extraordinary outburst after the US Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver said Ferrari had been forced to make changes after a directive from the FIA about an illegal fuel flow system.

Leclerc and Vettel won three races after the summer break, but Mercedes dominated the next four races after complaints by Red Bull.

The American race also ended Ferrari’s run of run of six straight pole positions.

Ferrari F1 boss Mattia Binotto denied the allegations, saying no changes had been made to the power unit since the Mexico Grand Prix.

A furious Binotto said “nothing at all had been altered” and Leclerc said Verstappen was “not in the team and knows nothing about us. I think it’s a joke to be completely honest”.

Whether Verstappen got it right over Ferrari’s lack of  performance on Sunday, he got inside Ferrari’s head.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games.

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