At the end of pre-season testing in Barcelona, the smart money was on another constructors’ championship for Mercedes. Even after being closely challenged by Ferrari through 2017 and coming under pressure from Red Bull later in the year, the majority of F1 insiders were expecting the Silver Arrows to add to their trophy collection despite the increased competition.

After qualifying in Melbourne, when Lewis Hamilton delivered a stunning pole lap that put the Briton nearly seven-tenths of a second clear of the competition, the assumption was that Mercedes was going to walk away with the season for the fifth year running, Hamilton dominant.

But with three races done and dusted, one gearbox penalty, no wins for Mercedes, and two weekends of being out-qualified by teammate Valtteri Bottas, that assumption has been shattered. Whether Hamilton wins or loses the drivers’ title this year, he is facing a season of hard-fought battles.

Mercedes’ biggest struggle has been in getting its tyres working properly. Last year’s diva has become this year’s Goldilocks, running hot and cold and struggling to be ‘just right’ in the tyres’ narrow operating window. And while both Mercedes drivers are struggling with wear rates and experiencing difficulties switching on their rubber, Bottas has been able to keep his tyres cooler than Hamilton. In China the difference in tyre temps between the two cars was said to be as much as 10 degrees.

While Hamilton is something of a divisive figure in the sport - people either love him or hate him - even his detractors have to concede that he is a racer of exceptional talent. Blessed with natural speed, over the years he has refined his racecraft, driving with a combination of ballsy aggression and considered maturity that has seen him lose far fewer points than he did in the early years of his career.

But Hamilton is a racer whose biggest threats are internal, mental, emotional. Over the years we have seen his performances on track fluctuate depending on the highs and lows of his personal life, and while 33-year-old Lewis has a much better handle on that than the 2011 model did, a lack of internal equilibrium can dramatically impact his results.

Bernie Ecclestone, that bastion of F1 relevance, said in Baku that he believes Lewis Hamilton is no longer the racer he once was. Speaking to Sky Sports News’ Craig Slater, the former F1 supremo was critical of the Briton, who Ecclestone sees as a changed man.

“He doesn't seem to be the Lewis that he was before," Ecclestone said. "I don't know whether it's me, but when you talk to him and see him act the way he acts generally, he's not the racer he was.

"He's still very quick, still super talented, still a super nice guy. But maybe he’s just getting a little bit tired of travelling and he's fed up with things."

Since becoming chairman emeritus of Formula 1, Ecclestone has dialled back his visits to grands prix, and his overall involvement with the sport. Whether he remains qualified to comment on current ongoings given his declining presence is a matter for debate.

But Ecclestone, for all his weaknesses, is widely acknowledged to be a perspicacious individual, adept at reading people and identifying which buttons to push for what result. It is that skill that propelled him from second-hand car dealer to the boss of a multi-billion dollar global enterprise.

If Bernie thinks Lewis is burning out, or winding down, or losing focus, then he may have seen defeat in the Briton’s eyes. But Bernie is also an arch manipulator, someone more than capable of turning people into puppets on strings, dancing to the tune of his choosing.

When viewed in the context of Bernie as Machiavelli, Ecclestone’s comments are likely to be a challenge to Hamilton, the 87-year-old’s tried and tested method of setting a fire under the reigning world champion with a view to keeping the title fight alive and interesting until Abu Dhabi.

 

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