• An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011
MEXICO CITY -- Several results have contributed towards making Lewis Hamilton's fourth world title his most impressive yet. His Ayrton Senna-equalling pole position lap in Canada. His dominant performance on home turf at Silverstone. His narrow victory over title rival Sebastian Vettel at the Belgian Grand Prix ... the list could go on. But arguably the most important moment of all didn't occur at a race track, it occurred around Toto Wolff's kitchen table at the Mercedes boss' home in Oxford.
Mercedes is a very different team in 2017 compared to last year, and while Hamilton is the same brilliant driver he always has been, this year he has been given an environment to explore new depths of his talent. For the previous three seasons, his only competition had been his teammate Nico Rosberg and, despite Mercedes management's best efforts, divisions grew.
For all his natural ability in on-track battles, Hamilton is not well equipped for dealing with adversity off it. In the cockpit of his Mercedes, he can rely on his talent to get the job done, but when he's embroiled in team politics he is no longer able to take control of the situation -- and for a racing driver that's always dangerous territory.
According to Mercedes chairman Niki Lauda, the breakdown in the relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg affected the former more than the latter. And when reliability issues conspired to prevent Hamilton from doing his talking on the track, it left him questioning the team and his future in the sport. In the immediate aftermath of an engine failure at the Malaysian Grand Prix, he dropped a series of barbed comments to the media and until the very last round of the 2016 season he continued to question the decision to switch a handful of mechanics between the two sides of the garage at the start of the year.
By the time he arrived in the final four races of 2016, the title battle was out of his hands, meaning Rosberg only had to finish second at each round to claim the championship. During the final race in Abu Dhabi, the peak of Hamilton's frustrations became visible as he backed Rosberg into the chasing pack in the hope his teammate would buckle under the pressure and slip down the order. The tactic not only failed but also received a public scolding from Mercedes' management, creating further tensions in a team that, at the time, still had two years remaining on both drivers' contracts.
Then came Rosberg's bombshell decision to retire, and with it a complete change in the dynamic at Mercedes. The 2017 season had held the potential to be Mercedes' most explosive yet, but all of a sudden the pressure was released with Rosberg walking away from the sport. In the week following the announcement, Hamilton visited Wolff at his house in Oxford. The two sat around the kitchen table and over several hours laid bare the emotions that had built up over the previous 11 months.
"I think going and seeing Toto at the end of last year was crucial in terms of solidifying longevity within the team," Hamilton said after the U.S. Grand Prix. "To just put everything on the table and say what's needed to say. And to then build and create a new, stronger relationship ,which we have done this year.
"Nobody knows exactly what happened within the team [last year]. Nobody apart from people within the team will be able to tell you what the dynamic was, but for sure it was uncomfortable.
"Having had that talk with Toto, I came in [to 2017] and really worked on the relationship with my guys. At the beginning of the year they asked if I wanted my old guys [mechanics] back and I was like, 'No, I want to stick with these guys now, just don't mess with it. The formula works'. I just wanted to build on that relationship, which I have, and my guys have done a sensational job."
Driver and team united
Those hours spent around the kitchen table proved to be the foundation of Hamilton's success this year. Although we will never know exactly what was said, it's clear that the conversation ended with the both sides wanting to start fresh. There was no point in dwelling on the past, and with Rosberg out of the picture, driver and team could set about building a new relationship based on openness and trust.
"It's my personal view that we had a difficult moment in Abu Dhabi last year and we came back together and had a long evening in my kitchen and took it all out," Wolff said. "All the frustrations and questions that had grown over the year were all dismantled. We went off and he came back with a great mindset.
"He's grown stronger through the year and you can see the relationship with Valtteri [Bottas, Hamilton's new teammate] is an important factor. The spirit is great within the team and through all the difficult moments that was an essential piece of the jigsaw."
The renewed team spirit Wolff talks about has been at the centre of Hamilton's title success this season. His 2017 season has had its low points -- think Sochi, Monaco and Budapest -- but the team used those off days as valuable lessons. What's more, in Ferrari, Mercedes has had a common enemy rather than trying to find a balance between two warring drivers.
"It's great that we are fighting another team, so the focus is different," Hamilton said. "When you have got a battle within a team it's like a hurricane of strong energy that's not being directed anywhere, whereas now we together have this bundle of energy that we are firing into the car and propelling us forward. I think it's overall a much happier dynamic."
Freedom to fight
It's easy to look at the Hamilton/Mercedes relationship and assume the driver is getting the better deal. His non-attendance at Formula One's London Live event stands out as an example of Hamilton sticking to his own rules rather than those of the team, and his continuous travel around the world is still seen as an unnecessary distraction among his critics. Yet Hamilton's time away from the track is more structured than ever and the freedom he has been given allows him to focus more intensely on the important elements of his job, such as visits to Mercedes' Brackley-based factory.
"We have done an exceptional job at improving what we do at the factory," Hamilton said. "What you have to always find is how to get the most out of a driver, and I have changed my days at the factory a lot compared to my days at the McLaren factory that were a bit of a waste.
"I'm not one that can sit in a meeting for five hours, I just can't focus for that long. We've just been working through trial and error on improving our process and it's been great. We've sat down every week, particularly me and my tight unit -- we sit down and we look at what we can improve on the next weekend and what I like about the car and where I need it to be I improve."
Source : http://www.espn.com/f1/story/_/id/21213425/why-lewis-hamilton-the-form-life-2017