Lewis Hamilton title prospects a matter of 'when' not 'if'

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton will match Ayrton Senna's tally of three world titles if, as expected, he wins this season's championship

Lewis Hamilton is not there yet, but he might as well be.

The Briton's victory in Russia on Sunday, his ninth win in 15 races this season, has moved him to within touching distance of a third world title. It would take something akin to a shift in the space-time continuum to wrench it from his grasp.

Hamilton is 66 points clear of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, and 73 ahead of Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, who retired early from the race in Sochi.

With a maximum of 100 points available over the remaining four races in the USA, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the size of the task facing Hamilton's pursuers is clear.

To look at it another way, if Hamilton wins in Austin, Texas, on 25 October, Vettel needs to finish second to keep the championship alive. Rosberg, meanwhile, has to beat Hamilton at the Circuit of Americas to have any hope of maintaining even the slenderest of interests in this season's title race.

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When Hamilton wins the title - because it surely is now a 'when' and not an 'if' - it will be no less than he deserves.

In truth, the trophy has appeared destined for his mantelpiece ever since he got off to a flying start by winning in Australia back in March and raced into a 27-point lead - more than a clear race victory - after just four grands prix.

Rosberg has had his moments, but at no point since then has he looked like getting back into the fight.

It took the German five races to beat Hamilton for the first time. When he did, he went on a run of three wins in four grands prix, but two of those wins were aided by problems for his team-mate. Even then, the Englishman's incredible run of pole positions meant he always maintained a sense of superiority.

Highlights: Hamilton wins action-packed Russian GP

That sequence - 11 poles in the first 12 races - has come to a halt since F1 began the long-haul dance around the globe that brings the championship to its conclusion.

But the victories have kept coming and the title will soon follow.

"I've never felt it's ever been done and dusted," Hamilton said during his BBC Sport interview following the post-race celebrations with his Mercedes team.

"The goal is to make sure when you cross the line [at the final race] in Abu Dhabi, you're ahead. I feel amazing but there is still a long way to go and a lot of points available. I am just going to take my time and come back at the next race and work as hard as we have."

He's kidding no-one, however. It is surely only a matter of time before Hamilton achieves his lifelong ambition of matching his hero Ayrton Senna's tally of three world titles, having surpassed in Russia the great Brazilian's mark of 41 career victories.

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton appeared to crouch down and hug his car after the race

Rosberg has some head-scratching to do

Hamilton has always looked on course to win the title before the season concludes in Abu Dhabi, but Rosberg has suffered bad luck; a significant reason why the championship battle is likely to be over so early.

The German's retirement in Russia, during a race he might well have won, was his second in four events - and one more in total than Hamilton has had this season.

Rosberg has weekends when it comes together for him and he can beat Hamilton. Russia was looking like it might be one of them, although it's difficult to know how the race would have turned out had he not run into problems.

Be that as it may, Rosberg has never looked a consistent threat to Hamilton, any more than he did last year, when it was only bad luck for the Englishman that made the the championship as close as it was.

Nico Rosberg
Rosberg has all but lost the 2015 title to Hamilton

The last two seasons have confirmed a widespread impression in the F1 paddock that Hamilton is just too good for Rosberg, and it's difficult to see right now what the man in the number six Mercedes can do about it.

So comfortable has Hamilton seemed this year, in fact, that one team boss remarked at the last race in Japan: "Lewis has Nico in his pocket.

"He's so comfortable that he can jet off to New York between all the races and still come back confident he can beat him. If he had Vettel or Ricciardo or Alonso in the other Mercedes, I doubt he would be able to get away with that."

That, of course, is a matter for debate. But for all Rosberg talks a good game, insists he won't give up, claims that only "small differences" separate him from his team-mate, he remains behind.

One title in the bag

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton won his ninth race of this season in Sochi

Russia did - eventually - secure one title for Mercedes, when Kimi Raikkonen's penalty for an over-ambitious overtaking attempt on Valtteri Bottas's Williams on the final lap demoted him to eighth. That sealed the constructors' championship for Mercedes some hours after the race had concluded.

Mercedes have won that title at exactly the same point as they did in 2014. As Hamilton mentioned in his BBC Sport column in the days before this weekend's race, that is an impressive achievement, given that they have not quite been as dominant in performance this year as they were last.

Ferrari have definitely put the frighteners on Mercedes at times this year - starting with Vettel's unexpected victory in the second race of the season in Malaysia.

Coming two weeks after Mercedes had dominated in Australia, that result was a shock for Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and their team.

Tom Clarkson speaks to Paddy Lowe after Mercedes win title

In hindsight, though, it was clear that it was based on a set of unique circumstances - Ferrari had better-enough tyre life in the tropical heat of Sepang to be able to close the performance gap between themselves and the world champions, and Mercedes gifted them the lead with what many believe was a strategic error during an early safety car period.

Vettel won again in Hungary in July, but again this was more to do with Mercedes failings - or, to be more precise, errors by Hamilton - than anything else.

Only in Singapore last month have Ferrari had a performance advantage over Mercedes.

And the events of that race - which marked a 2.5-second swing in performance away from Mercedes compared to the preceding and subsequent grands prix in Italy and Japan - were so surreal as to be mystifying even now, despite Mercedes' claims that they think they have a logical explanation for them.

The bare facts of 2015 are that Mercedes have had a pace advantage over Ferrari of an average of 0.6 seconds a lap in qualifying this year - an enormous margin for any rival to close in one winter.

Lewis Hamilton was the world champion in 2008 and 2014

Ferrari technical director James Allison said after the race in Russia that they need to take as big a step this winter as they did during the last to be able to close the gap on Mercedes before 2016.

That is going to be no easy feat, especially as at least two-thirds of that margin is accounted for by the chassis - an area in which Ferrari have struggled for many years, and which the highly-regarded Allison has been employed to put right.

Mercedes have made this new hybrid era of F1 their own, through investing in the car and engine earlier and more substantially than their rivals. They have reaped the rewards with two years of domination as complete as any era in history.

Behind them, all their rivals lack in one way or another, and it is going to take something special from one of them to stop Mercedes taking title number three next year, and Hamilton earning title number four.

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