The skies are cloudy and the Barcelona track is slightly damp. In the pit lane, Lewis and Nico pull the wraps off their new car with a flourish, presenting the new Mercedes-Benz F1 W07 Hybrid! The cool temperatures on the first day of testing for the 2016 season do not seem to concern Lewis unduly. On the contrary: the three-time World Champion is impatient to clock the first kilometres in his new Silver Arrow on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. And he really goes for it – after 156 laps, equivalent to 726 kilometres and more than two full Grand Prix races on this track, he finishes his first test outing of the campaign with a broad grin on his face.
“The winter tests went fantastically well, and our new car is absolutely incredible,” says Lewis later at the team’s Motorsport Kick-Off event in Fellbach. Both he and Nico had put in a series of marathon sessions during the winter tests. “We were with the team yesterday and congratulated everyone involved on this great Silver Arrow. This is a real team effort from all our colleagues in Brackley, Brixworth and Stuttgart. Nevertheless, I’m expecting this season to be an uphill battle. Ferrari have caught up, and Nico is always a strong opponent.”
Tough start to the season
One week later in Australia, Lewis was to get an immediate idea of just what a strong opponent his team-mate was going to be this year in the season opener. Lewis secured pole position at Albert Park in Melbourne, but Nico won the race itself and went on to repeat the feat in the subsequent Grands Prix in Bahrain, China and Russia.
While Lewis finished three of the first four races on the podium, technical problems meant he could manage no better than a modest seventh place in Shanghai. Lewis’s qualifying for the Grand Prix of China was compromised by a fault with his MGU-H which could not be rectified during the session and prevented him from posting a timed lap. From grid position 22, he put in a strong combative performance to finish in P7 – not bad considering he sustained damage in a collision on the first lap. This was not the only occasion on which Lewis was to show his indomitable fighting spirit this season. Already in Bahrain, Lewis had staged a magnificent charge up the field after a botched start to cross the line in third place.
Spain was where the crash of the season would take place. Lewis’s race was over after only a few hundred metres, and to compound the disaster, Nico’s Silver Arrow was also out of contention. What had happened? Nico had got past pole-sitter Lewis on the outside going into the first corner to take the lead.
Lewis describes the situation in this initial stage of the race: “Coming out of turn three, I was catching Nico really quickly and went for the gap on the right – I had part of my car alongside but then had to take to the grass.” Nico lost power exiting the corner, as the switch for the engine mode was in the wrong position. The two of them collided and were unable to continue. So Lewis was still waiting for his first win of the campaign.
Lewis strikes back
Two weeks later, the wait was finally over: in the prestigious Grand Prix of Monaco – his adoptive home race – Lewis racked up his first victory of 2016. But it was hard work getting there. In a chaotic race, Lewis claimed the 44th victory of his career from third on the grid: “I walk along here every day and think about the greats who have won this race – the likes of Fangio, Moss, Hill and Senna – and it’s a truly amazing feeling to have my name added to that list again.”
With Nico finishing the Monaco Grand Prix back in seventh place, Lewis took the first sizable chunk out of his team‑mate’s championship lead. He continued in the same vein in the next race – the Canadian Grand Prix – once again ascending the top spot of the podium. After a difficult weekend in the first ever European Grand Prix in Baku came the perfect month for Lewis: four victories in five weeks took him to the top of the world championship standings for the first time this year. Whereas Nico had come away from Russia with a lead of 43 points, he went into the summer break 19 points adrift. With six victories from seven races, Lewis had made a truly impressive sprint in July.
Ups and downs after the summer break
But Nico was far from disheartened by Lewis’s spectacular points haul. The German came back strongly from the summer recess, staging as fast and furious a start as he had in the initial phase of the campaign. Between the race weekends in Italy and Japan, Nico won four out of five races, while Lewis could manage no better than three third‑place finishes and one runner-up spot. The bitterest blow was his forced retirement in the Malaysian Grand Prix from a leading position.
“While the struggle is real right now and has been all year,” said Lewis after the race, “I honestly feel that it’s a test of my will, my spirit and who I am as a person to get back in and keep fighting it head on. It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up.”
There was no question in Lewis’s mind of giving up. In fact, he was to clearly demonstrate his willpower and fighting spirit in the subsequent races. Whereas the pendulum had swung back to Nico after the summer break, it was now once again moving in Lewis’s direction. This was not merely down to his own performance but reflected the unusually close nature of the title fight between the two Silver Arrows drivers, with first one edging ahead and then the other getting his nose in front.
New personal bests as season draws to a close
Going into the big world championship showdown in Abu Dhabi, the much-analysed momentum was again running in Lewis’s favour, although there was still a twelve-point gap to close on Nico with only one race to do it in. The defending champion won the races in the USA, Mexico and Brazil to keep the title fight open until the grand finale on the Yas Marina Circuit. Here, Lewis did everything in his power to save the day, taking pole position and his tenth race win of the season. But in the end, it wasn’t to be: Lewis ended the campaign as championship runner-up, five points behind his team-mate Nico.
“As always, I’ve given my absolute best this season, but Nico has put in a fantastic performance and deserves the title,” said Lewis. “I know from my own experience what a great feeling it is to win the World Championship. That’s why I can imagine how amazing the last few days must have been for him. Personally, I’m now looking forward to the winter break, then to going all out on attack again next year.”
Lewis showed just how well he can attack during the recent season, claiming more race wins (ten) and more pole positions (twelve) than anyone else. In the course of the longest Formula One season in the history the sport (21 races), he also set a number of personal records. He has now moved up to third place on the all-time leaderboard in the podium (105) and pole position (61) categories. His win in Abu Dhabi was not only the 150th Grand Prix victory for a Mercedes-powered vehicle but also his 53rd Formula One triumph overall. Lewis has thus overtaken four-time World Champion Alain Prost to become the second-most successful Formula One driver in terms of race wins behind record championship winner Michael Schumacher.