Lewis Hamilton 'going to get stronger' after French Grand Prix win
"I know people might not want to hear it," Lewis Hamilton said after utterly dominating the French Grand Prix, to take his sixth victory in eight races this season, "but it is going to get stronger from here".
To some, that might sound a little boastful, but the thing is that there is no reason not to believe him.
The pattern of the last couple of years in Formula 1 has been exactly what Hamilton was talking about after probably his most comfortable win of the season.
He has tended to start the year well enough, but not necessarily noticeably stronger than his team-mate, or his other closest rivals, only to find another gear from about halfway through the season and move off into the stratosphere.
The worry in 2019 for Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas, Ferrari, and anyone interested in a competitive season is that, this year, that take-off appears to have happened early. If that impression is correct, the season is effectively over already.
Hamilton heads for the next race in Austria this coming weekend with a 36-point lead over Bottas. That means Bottas would have to win a race and take at least fourth place at another without Hamilton scoring at all to catch him.
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, in third place and a massive 76 points adrift, is so far away he is almost in a different championship.
- French Grand Prix - results
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How has it come to this?
Hamilton and Bottas started the season evenly matched. And after the Finn won the opening race of the season while Hamilton toiled a little behind him, there was much talk of a 'Bottas 2.0', a new man emerging, reinvigorated, after his travails in the second half of last year.
That always looked a little hopeful and premature, but Bottas did indeed have a strong start to the year. He and Hamilton shared two wins apiece in the first four races, after which Bottas actually led the championship by a point.
Since then, though, things have unravelled for him. A second place in Spain behind Hamilton, after taking pole, when Hamilton beat him off the line, was followed by an unlucky third in Monaco, which would have been second had he not suffered a puncture when Max Verstappen drove him into the pit wall at a stop.
In both, the margins between him and Hamilton were small. But that has not been the case in the last two races in Canada and France.
Bottas very much had an off weekend in Canada. And in France, after looking strong in practice, he fell away in qualifying and was destroyed in the race. After pacing himself in the early laps, Hamilton extended his lead by five seconds in nine laps before the pit stops, and continued to turn the screw afterwards, eventually crossing the line 18 seconds clear.
Bottas says he feels the same in the car now as he has done all season. And the suspicion is that it is not that he has dropped off in the last two races, but that Hamilton has upped his game.
"I can't believe it has been as good a season already to start with as it has," Hamilton said. "Particularly as I felt I really struggled in the first few races trying to get on top of the car.
"The races have been strong but in qualifying and practice I have been really struggling to put my finger on where the performance was and how to extract it. But I'm getting there."
This latest victory was the 79th of his career. He is now just 12 short of Michael Schumacher's all-time record. Not that he needs that for motivation - that's already in him.
For that, one only has to look at Hamilton's pursuit of fastest lap in the final part of the race, even though he knew Vettel had pitted for fresh soft tyres to go for it himself. Despite the massive tyre-grip disparity, Hamilton missed it by just 0.024secs.
"It is just always wanting to elevate," he said. "After every race there is something we could have done better.
"Like today, they were: 'Don't bother with the fastest lap, you can't get the fastest lap.' 'What do you mean? We have nothing to lose, I'm going for it.' And I went for it and nearly got it.
"It is switching the mentality to always be fighting, always be hungry and always be pushing. There is never a moment you shouldn't be pushing and the moment you sit back is the moment you lose. And I don't plan on doing that."
Hamilton on an 'exceptional journey'
The weekend started with a minor controversy surrounding Hamilton, after he was excused from the media day on Thursday to attend the Paris fashion show and the memorial service for the late fashion mogul Karl Lagerfeld.
Some felt this was another example of Hamilton being allowed to make his own rules, and dodge some responsibilities that he might not particularly enjoy.
For Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, though, it is "about creating an environment in which he can perform at his best".
And Wolff tried to throw in a bit of perspective about the level at which Hamilton is operating - and the respect he feels he deserves for it.
"In general, in the UK, Lewis is not recognised how he should be recognised," Wolff said. "One day he will stop his career with multiple records and people will say he was the greatest driver on the planet and we were witnesses on that journey and wasn't he an interesting personality with all the things he did apart [from F1]?
"But for whatever reason, there is this idea of hitting out. And maybe it provides a better headline or gives more clicks or sells more newspapers. But I don't think it recognises the opportunity we are part of to see maybe the best driver that has ever existed on an exceptional journey."
Where does Bottas go from here?
After sitting opposite Hamilton in debriefs for two and a half years now, poring over his data, seeing the differences between them, Bottas does not need to be reminded of the challenge in front of him. But even if he looked a broken man after the race, he is still saying all the right things.
"I just need to reflect on this weekend on why Lewis was quicker today and yesterday in qualifying," Bottas said. "It's something I need to look at. He was really strong and consistent today, and also yesterday in qualifying. He's not unbeatable; I know that. I just need to work hard.
"Many races to go; no point in giving up on anything. You never know what can happen in the championship. The last three weekends have not been ideal in terms of points but not a disaster.
"I feel in a good place and still strong and quick. I just need to learn from this weekend and trust me it will be good."
Not all bleak for Ferrari
At first glance, France looks to have been a pretty dark weekend for Ferrari. Not only were they destroyed on track, but they failed in their attempt to get Vettel's 'victory' in Canada reinstated.
The document with which governing body the FIA explained its reasons for rejecting Ferrari's request for a review of his five-second penalty for dangerous driving was pretty dismissive.
And when it emerged that part of what Ferrari deputy technical director Laurent Mekies had described as "overwhelming" new evidence was television analysis from a Sky pundit, it caused a degree of mockery in the paddock, including from Hamilton himself.
"It was definitely odd coming here when I heard that Ferrari was spending time focusing on something else," Hamilton said.
"Naturally, for me, with my team, I would be having them focus mostly on trying to improve the car. But then when I arrived in the morning I heard Karun Chandhok's video was the new evidence, and I was pretty relaxed after that."
As it happens, Ferrari had been focused on trying to improve the car as well, and they arrived in France with a big aerodynamic upgrade package.
Vettel was pretty negative about it for much of the weekend, saying after qualifying that "we reverted on most of them so [it was] not the step we expected", and repeating after the race that "we have to understand why some of the bits we brought didn't work".
But there were mixed messages, because team boss Mattia Binotto made it clear that the new front and rear wings and brake ducts were all kept on the car, and only a new floor was taken off.
Admittedly, the floor might arguably be the biggest single change of all. But that is not exactly a total failure, and Ferrari did actually seem to make progress.
They were always expecting to struggle at Paul Ricard because its sequence of long-duration corners exposes the weaknesses of their car, in much the same way as the layout of Barcelona does.
But whereas in Barcelona the quickest Ferrari was 0.866secs off pole - a margin of 1.148% - in France that margin was down to 0.646secs. On a considerably longer circuit, that deficit was 0.731%.
And in the race, while Hamilton was admittedly off in the distance, Vettel's team-mate Charles Leclerc finished third, right on the gearbox of Bottas.
For Ferrari, that is a positive sign heading to Austria, where the circuit layout should be more in Ferrari's favour, and where Mercedes are worried about cooling in conditions forecast to be over 30C.
"Austria is one of my favourite tracks," said Leclerc, who finally had a clean weekend, having cut out a series of errors, and looked very strong. "And for the car it maybe fits a bit better compared to Paul Ricard. I am pretty sure we can have a positive weekend there."
That's just one weekend, though. There will be others - such as Spa and Monza in early September - where Ferrari will also be strong. But for a title challenge that's not enough. Especially because there will be other tracks where, assuming the current performance pattern of the cars continues, Mercedes will romp away again.
Just like Bottas, Vettel insisted Ferrari were "not giving up". But Hamilton has them all on the ropes right now and, barring a quite extraordinary run of bad luck or poor reliability, it's hard to see how any of his rivals come back from this.