Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lewis Hamilton and high-speed corners

McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale recently made the following comment about the prospect of having Lewis Hamilton and Jenson ("I do the triathlon, you know") Button together in the same team:

"In some ways, it multiplies our opportunities in a grand prix too: there could well be tracks where Jenson's skill-set is better-suited to the challenge, and equally, tracks where Lewis could excel. In the past, Jenson has demonstrated considerable talent at high-speed circuits, and we're looking forward to building that into our arsenal."

This isn't quite equivalent to suggesting that Lewis Hamilton has a relative weakness on high-speed circuits, but it isn't far away from it. But is it a notion which holds up to analysis?

Firstly, by high-speed circuits, let us restrict attention to circuits with a decent proportion of high-speed corners, rather than merely circuits, such as Monza, with a high average speed. As Autosport's Mark Hughes has explained at length over some years, Hamilton's natural driving technique utilises oversteer to achieve a rapid change of direction. This is perfect for slow to medium speed corners, but less appropriate for high-speed corners, so the question is whether Lewis has a relative weakness in high-speed corners.

But is there any evidence to support this supposition? Well, let's have a look at Lewis's performance at Silverstone and Spa, the two circuits with the highest proportion of high-speed corners, which have been on the calendar in each of Lewis's three seasons in Formula One. In 2007, Hamilton was off the pace of the other McLaren and Ferrari drivers at Silverstone. "In particular he was struggling through Copse corner, the near-flat-in-seventh first turn taken at over 185mph. Some drivers were claiming to be able to take it without a lift of the throttle. But Lewis never did." (Lewis Hamilton - The Full Story, p199). And although Hamilton was closer to McLaren team-mate Alonso at Spa, it was a similar story. In the case of Spa, however, there are mitigating circumstances, because Hamilton failed to drive in the pre-race test session, thereby losing valuable set-up time. The 2007 McLaren also had a natural tendency to over-heat its tyres in fast corners, and probably had lower peak downforce than the 2007 Ferrari on this type of track.

At Silverstone in 2008, Hamilton qualified eight-tenths off team-mate and pole-winner Kovalainen. Moreover, in his attempts to redress the difference, he over-drove and went bouncing off the circuit at Priory. The race itself, however, was Lewis's greatest day, his rendition of Senna at Estoril in 1985, operating on a different plane from the other drivers in torrentially wet conditions. Unfortunately, those same conditions make the race invalid as an analysis of Lewis's high-speed cornering ability.

At Spa 2008, however, Lewis qualified on pole, and would have won comfortably but for a silly spin in the early damp conditions. He then spent the remainder of the race remorselessly hunting down Raikkonen, eroding a tenth here and a tenth there, so that he was perfectly placed to nail the Ferrari when drizzle began falling again in the late stages of the race. It was Lewis's rendition of Hakkinen, hunting down Schumacher at Spa in 2000, after a silly early spin in damp conditions.

It's difficult to derive anything from Silverstone and Spa 2009, for the McLaren was lacking consistent downforce in these conditions, and wholly uncompetitive. Lewis, however, drove a very untidy race at Silverstone, allowing Alonso to drive him onto the grass at one stage, and spinning under braking at Vale on another occasion. At Spa he was shunted out on the first lap.

There's also mixed evidence from other tracks on the calendar. Lewis's driving style over-heated the outside front tyre in the fast, multiple-apex Turn 8 at Turkey in 2007 and 2008, but he looked very quick overall on both occasions, and, crucially, was faster than Alonso at Instanbul in 2007. He also looked fabulous at Suzuka in 2009, in a car which was still lacking peak downforce relative to its rivals.

In conclusion, there is some evidence that Lewis has a relative weakness on tracks with high-speed corners, but it seems likely that this is only relative to his extraordinary ability in slow and medium speed corners. One also assumes that Hamilton is the type of driver capable of eradicating any weakness, relative or not.

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