Lewis Hamilton is undoubtedly one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all-time. With 103 race victories, 104 pole positions, and seven world championships, he leads nearly every major statistical category in the sport's history.
His immense talent was on display right from the get-go. Signed by McLaren's Ron Dennis while still karting at the young age of 13, Hamilton burst onto the Formula 1 scene in 2007, scoring multiple wins and podiums, only to miss out on a maiden world championship by one point in his rookie season.
Hamilton was able to match, and often beat, two-time reigning world champion teammate Fernando Alonso, showing his incredible talent in what was arguably the greatest rookie season in motorsport history. After that season, Hamilton went on to dominate Formula 1 for over a decade, winning the title in seven of the following 13 seasons, including six from 2014 to 2020 alone.
Having worked his way to the top without a boatload of money and connections like most drivers, but with a father who worked two jobs to fund his racing career and a God-given ability behind the wheel, Hamilton's rise still stands one of the greatest recent family success stories in all of sports.
However, since winning his seventh Formula 1 world championship in 2020, times have not been so kind to Hamilton.
In 2021, Hamilton's Mercedes team struggled out of the gate with the new regulations, allowing Red Bull and Max Verstappen to mount a title challenge, one Verstappen would controversially win after a hard-fought, vicious, season-long duel with Hamilton. Still, the seven-time champion won eight races that season.
Unfortunately for him, his victory in the penultimate round in Saudi Arabia remains his most recent win, meaning it has been over two years since the sport’s only centurion race-winner stood atop the podium.
Mercedes have struggled relative to expectations with the ground-effect, cost-cap regulations that came into effect for 2022. In fact, the team have only won one race in two years since. This has led to many frustrations from Hamilton, teammate George Russell, and team boss Toto Wolff, some of which boiled over in 2023.
While Mercedes have still been good, per se, the last two seasons, finishing in third and second place in the 2022 and 2023 constructor championships, respectively, their last two cars have been labeled as "divas" -- cars that are fast, but on a knife's edge and prone to off-days.
This has led to both Hamilton and Russell being on the podium one weekend and being at the bottom of the top 10 the next. At times, it has put Hamilton, in particular, in a place he has never really been: the midfield.
With Hamilton not running away with race wins each week, a major flaw that was previously masked by his dominance has now come to light.
Hamilton has always been known for his incredible raw speed, tire management, and overall "good guy" persona. For as valuable as those things have all been in making him the most successful driver in Formula 1 history, they are not the full package.
Racing in the pack with a race-winning machine instead of a podium-contending or points-scoring car are two vastly different things. When you're not in a dominant car, especially these days, you're in a car that, on a lot of weekends, is neck and neck with several other teams. Perfection in wheel-to-wheel combat is an absolute must.
That area of the equation has got the better of Hamilton over the last three years.
In both the 2023 Italian Grand Prix and the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix, Hamilton made contact under braking with Oscar Piastri, once earning himself a penalty and once suffering a tire puncture. In the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix, Hamilton sent it around the outside of Verstappen and Russell at the start, only to make contact with his teammate and ruin both their weekends.
Those were just a few select instances from 2023 alone in which Hamilton allowed himself to lose out when fighting others on track. All around, he had a solid season, but you can’t help but think that he could have finished ahead of Sergio Perez for P2 in the standings had he not had issues with his race craft.
However, these issues go back further than just 2023.
With Verstappen out of the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Hamilton was handed a race win on a silver platter, before blowing through turn one battling Perez on the restart en route to a point-less 15th place result.
In the Hungarian Grand Prix that same season, battling his way through the field after a botched Mercedes strategy, Hamilton needed 10 laps just to pass the Alpine of Fernando Alonso, which ultimately cost him the victory.
While Alonso’s defense was brilliant, Hamilton was nearly a second faster, and he let Alonso dictate the fight. This was all too similar to how Verstappen pushed him around all season, perhaps the biggest factor in beating him to the world championship.
So why does Hamilton struggle in wheel-to-wheel combat?
The easiest thing to say is that he has become used to running away from the pack and winning race after race, and never having to race anyone.
While there could be some truth to that, there's also a lot to refute it, as he has had several spectacular comeback drives, such as winning the 2018 German Grand Prix from 14th place or going from last to second in the British Grand Prix that same season.
Additionally, Verstappen is currently in an even more dominant state than Hamilton ever was, and he still has unquestionably the best race craft in all of motorsports.
As mentioned, one thing Hamilton has always been applauded for is his respect for other drivers both on and off the track. As great as that is, it may also be his biggest downfall.
Too many times in recent years, Hamilton has been stuck behind a slower car, pushed off track, or made a mistake, all with no way of responding. Too many times has he had a chance to make a move, but backed out late in the braking zone, or left space for the car on the outside.
On top of that, a new rush of young talent -- a pool consisting of Verstappen, Russell, Charles Leclerc, and Lando Norris, to name a few -- entered the sport while Hamilton was dominating, and they have ushered in a new standard of driving, racing, and overall respect. For better or worse, Hamilton has yet to adjust to the heightened levels of aggression.
And he will have to adjust. With Mercedes once again entering a season as an underdog, Hamilton will either find himself in the midfield, the thick of the podium battle, or perhaps even challenging Red Bull and Verstappen for wins. Whichever way it goes, the Brit will find himself in a lot of wheel-to-wheel situations.
With how close the competition promises to be, Hamilton and Mercedes can’t afford to lose out on any points by simply being out-raced. No matter how fast Hamilton and the Mercedes W14 may be, he still won’t stand no chance against drivers such as Verstappen, Leclerc, and Norris if he doesn’t up his aggression and change his combative ways.
If that means pushing his “nice guy” persona to the side in order to win a record-breaking eighth world championship, then that’s what it will ultimately take.