Once more, with feeling, for Lewis Hamilton

My friend Gerald Donaldson lives in Toronto, has a rustic cabin deep in the Ontario woods (“You can hear the wolves at night,” he said), writes for the website “F1” and lives and breathes Formula One, among other racing series.

He’s written two dozen books on F1, from biographies of Gilles Villeneuve and James Hunt to the story of McLaren.

Every year around this time, we would sit down and talk about the new season of F1. Usually, it was at a downtown eatery called Over Easy. But then came COVID-19 and it’s been by telephone ever since. And Over Easy is history, I discovered the other day. So, one of these days we’ll have to find a place where we can have one of these conversations while tucking into bacon and eggs (me) and a cheese and spinach omelet (him).

Here is what Donaldson had to say about this year’s series – which is getting under way this weekend in Bahrain. Nicholas Latifi of Toronto has a new partner now that George Russell has moved on to partner with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. The new guy is ex-Red Bull racer Alex Albon and Latifi might find himself in for a fight.

Sebastian Vettel will partner with Lance Stroll of Montreal for another year at Aston Martin and Donaldson thinks this presents an opportunity for the Canadian.

Lando Norris will continue to advance as an F1 race driver, Donaldson said, and dominate his McLaren teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, even though “Danny Rick” is first in the pecking order.

In a surprise, Donaldson said he expects that Carlos Sainz will beat his Ferrari teammate, Charles Leclerc.

The 2022 World Champion will be, according to Donaldson, “Sir Lewis Hamilton.” I agree, but with a twist. And Max Verstappen just signed a new six-year Red Bull contract paying him $50 million a year, the same as Hamilton.

I believe that is an obscene amount of money for two people to be paid to race cars.

The other teams and drivers – Hass F1’s Mick Schumacher and somebody, Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, and Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon – aren’t really good enough to merit much discussion. And Williams only makes the cut because Toronto’s Latifi is one of the drivers.

It’s a new season with new technology, Donaldson said, so anything can happen, theoretically, although the usual suspects shone through during testing.

“But there’s always sandbagging in F1, so we never really find out who’s hot and who’s not until they actually start racing,” he said. “In short, the cars are going to be harder to drive. The tires are wider, thicker and bigger but they’ve cut down on the aero. This will make it easier to follow another car and to overtake – although that will always be artificial because of DRS (drag reduction system).”

One of the first things about the new season will be the absence of race director Michael Massey, who will have a job somewhere in Formula One or the FIA but not on the starter’s stand.

“He made a mistake that won Max the championship,” Donaldson said. “Hamilton was within a lap of winning his eighth championship and Massey pulled a trick that had never been pulled before and now he’s been replaced by two guys. It will be interesting because they’ve also brought in an adviser, Herbie Blash, who’s an old Bernie Ecclestone employee. “

That aside, Donaldson said there is another side to that story. “Max statistically deserved to win the championship,” he said. “He outperformed Lewis over the season and part of the problem, of course, was that Mercedes didn’t have as competitive a car early in the season. So, it will be interesting between them this year. We’ll see if they still want to murder each other.”

There’s lot of room for surprises this year and this ‘porpoising’ business – the cars are behaving like porpoises, which is a poor analogy because porpoises are smart – is the result of a screwup in the design department of one car that was then copied by others. It has the cars leaping around like calves in the springtime.

Teams McLaren and Ferrari

“I suspect Lando Norris is going to be up there,” Gerry said of the McLaren driver. “Although you’d never know it if you paid much attention to the McLaren PR department. I don’t think they know much about car racing. Ron Dennis would never have stood for this.

“And I think (Ferrari’s) Carlos Sainz will beat his highly touted sidekick Charles Leclerk. Sainz is a more thoughtful driver, and he thinks about it all the time. Leclerc is a guy who has kind of sailed through so it will be interesting to see how they fare together. Ferrari looks like they have a good car, finally, and we need that.”

Team Williams

I told Gerry that F1 journalist David Tremayne reported that Latifi had now endeared himself to the team. He was becoming more technically proficient and was improving as a driver. In short, they had come to like him as a person and a coming talent.

During an overseas media conference, Latifi was asked about IndyCar. “Isn’t that the series where they got to Indianapolis every May and stay for a month?” he asked. Told that had changed, he was noncommittal about the series, suggesting he hoped to be a Formula One driver for years to come.

“His new teammate, Albon, has been out of F1 for awhile but I’m afraid he’s going to whip him,” said Donaldson. “Latifi is a nice, friendly guy but he’s only there because of his money. Mind you, Albon has Wild West credentials – his mother was in prison for seven years for various offences – but I will be very surprised if he beats Albon.”

Donaldson said Latifi should take a closer look at IndyCar. “It’s not a bad place to be anymore. And, in fact, it’s not even an American series these days. At the recent race at St. Petersburg, they only had two Americans in the top 10. The cars are all made in Italy by the same company. It’s technically even. Nobody gets a big jump like they do in Formula One. And the series is entertaining to watch.”

Team Aston Martin

Sebastian Vettel could be ripe for the pickings this season, Donaldson said, which would be to Lance Stroll’s advantage. “He’s been there, done that – four times a champion – and last year they were pretty close in performance. I get the sense that he might not be around much longer. He’s probably had enough. So, it’s a good opportunity for Lance, maybe. He hasn’t disgraced himself climbing the ladder and he does belong in the current Formula One world. He’s earned his way.”

I agree with Donaldson on just about everything, although I think Sainz and Ferrari could be a real surprise. Donaldson said that ex-Williams driver George Russell might give Lewis Hamilton a tussle, but not too much of a tussle.

“He’s pretty good,” Donaldson said, “but Lewis is still the superstar. The British media have made Russell a hero already and he hasn’t earned it.”

I agree with Donaldson that Lewis Hamilton will win the championship. But I will add a caveat: because of what happened at Abu Dhabi, he will want to beat Max at every race. He will want to crush his ego.

Which is a good point, Donaldson said. “He will try harder, and nobody tries as hard now. So, it will be exciting.”

Norris McDonald, a past Wheels editor in chief, covers the Canadian automotive and global racing scene for the Star. He is a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.  nmcdonald@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter @NorrisMcDonald2.

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