As a restart of this blog (and a long overdue one at that), it seems only fitting to pick up on a topic which seems to be becoming all too familiar in 2011: the torrid season of Lewis Hamilton. Despite being undoubtedly one of the top drivers of his generation, and racing for one of the most successful teams on the grid, it is difficult to conclude that Lewis’ season has been anything other than a disappointment – as much as 5th in the championship can be one, at any rate. The highs of races such as his win at the Nurburgring are outweighed by his two collisions at Monaco, nearly taking his teammate out with an opportunistic move at Canada and the more recent incidents at Spa and Singapore. This is not by any means what was expected at the start of the season, so what exactly has gone wrong for the Brit?

First, the obvious should be removed. It is clear that Red Bull, via Adrian Newey, have built a car which is head and shoulders above the rest of the field, and that Sebastian Vettel has made the best possible use of this car. The dominance on display at Singapore was that of a driver not only completely in tune with the car, but also in control of his own mind and oblivious to the pressure around him. These are traits which, sadly, are not present in the McLaren camp, particularly on Lewis’ side of the garage. The MP4-26 is not itself a bad car – it has won 4 races this season, after all – but it is not as consistently fast as the RB7, and its drivers have responded in two contrasting ways. Jenson Button, widely accepted as the more calculating of the two, has accepted the situation, taken his time and made the best use of opportunities as they arise. In contrast, Lewis has responded by trying to make up the difference with his own talent, almost akin to his hero Ayrton Senna. What worked in the 1980s, however, does not work with the 2011 Formula One car, and as such it results more in over-driving and counterproductive loss of pace. This leads to greater frustration borne out in impatience, which then leads to the incidents Lewis has been caught up in all too often. It is not unique to Lewis – it happens in all forms of racing to all kinds of drivers – but what is striking is that rather than becoming better as the season wears on, it appears to be getting worse. Both his tangle with Kobayashi in Spa and the run-ins with Massa in Singapore were completely avoidable, and in Monza his efforts to stay out of trouble saw his pace suffer considerably and his racecraft appear almost tentative. For some reason, Lewis is struggling to strike the balance required to be a contender in modern Formula One.

Why is this the case? Two possible causes emerge. The first is that Lewis’ increasingly showbusiness off-track life is starting to become a distraction – having popstars such as girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger and Rihanna in his entourage at races and appearing on the Jonathan Ross show may do wonders for his public profile, but ultimately do not aid his racing. This is not to say a racing driver should be a Puritan – far from it – but given Lewis’ complaint after Silverstone regarding the number of sponsor commitments he had to fulfil there does seem to be a contradiction at work. A distraction from racing is a distraction from racing, whatever its end goal, and there lies the risk of his off-track life overshadowing his on-track performance. There is precedent in this regard in the form of the late James Hunt, and while it is unlikely Lewis will follow this example it serves as a reminder of the need for balance. The second possible cause is that, since the split from his father Anthony, Lewis’ management has not been fit for purpose. Simon Fuller’s XIX is well regarded and looks after other sports stars, but whether it provides enough of a grounding influence in the bubble that is Formula One is debatable. Much as Anthony could sometimes be overbearing (pulling Lewis out of a triathlon contest with Jenson being a notable example), he did seem to be a calming influence and this is equally apparent in the progress of his latest protege, Paul di Resta. Indeed, placed alongside his fellow Brit the contrast is stark, and of the two the Scot is looking more likely to deliver on his equally considerable potential.

What, then, should be done, if anything? Alarmist responses are not the answer – Lewis is clearly still a top-level driver, despite his troubles, and he can easily point to the pace of his car and the occasional out-of-character error from his team at playing their part in his situation. At the same time, however, merely ignoring the issues as they arise will do no good either. Lewis is good enough to win more world championships, yet in having silly accidents and accruing penalties as a result he makes it more difficult to mount a sustained challenge. His frustration is understandable; at the same time, it cannot be allowed to dominate his attitude on-track. If it does, the danger of following James Hunt in being a considerable talent yet winning only one championship becomes more real – and that would be a real tragedy, both for Lewis and for the sport. As such, it is perhaps time for McLaren and XIX to start giving Lewis guidance rather than affection or publicity, and address the issues which have become increasingly apparent in his driving. He is still young, and there is still time, but in the fast-changing world of F1 neither may remain the case for long.