Lewis Hamilton’s Tuscan Grand Prix pole position came after a forensic response to a difficult Friday when he struggled to master the Mugello circuit as quickly as his immediate rivals.
Hamilton has ended Friday practices this season adrift before, but not (in representative conditions) by the margins he faced this weekend. He said he was enjoying his first experience of Mugello but was simply lacking pace compared to team-mate Valtteri Bottas, and was also struggling to move clear of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.
“Valtteri was miles ahead really” :: Lewis Hamilton
But Hamilton’s work ethic is often hailed as one of his determining characteristics as a six-time world champion and it was at the heart of his response to his early Mugello setback.
“In my past I always felt that one of my strengths was learning a circuit quite quickly,” he said when asked by The Race about his turnaround after edging Bottas to pole.
“For this one we went on the simulator, which I never do, and don’t feel like I benefited particularly, but then getting here was a lot of work.
“The pressure was incredibly high because I’m going out there doing laps and I was struggling to find the limit in certain sectors. And Valtteri was miles ahead really in some of those areas.”
Hamilton admitted he didn’t have “a great answer” for why he found himself struggling more on Friday given his build-up to the weekend was enhanced, if anything, given his simulator effort.
“The first couple laps of practice one looked good,” he said. “And then they just pulled away, in terms of how much improvement everyone was making.”
Bottas and Verstappen felt they got to grips with the circuit quite quickly. Verstappen was aided by testing a GT car at Mugello recently, and said that not only “helped me to get started” but also gave him some set-up clues, directing him on wing level and roll stiffness so that “when we started the car was already in a very good window”.
Similarly, Bottas felt comfortable from the beginning.
“I really enjoy the whole process of learning a new track,” he said.
“Finding, step by step, the limits and the small secrets of the track, I’ve always loved that.”
Hamilton had to play catch-up to that. With hindsight, he says he was struggling with the balance of his car and that was sapping him of much-needed confidence through the high-speed sweeps of this track.
It’s a snowball effect here if you’re “uncomfortable with the balance of the rear of the car – then you just pull back and then you’re just too slow at the apex and exits of a lot of these corners”.
The process of addressing the deficit was impressive. Hamilton says he spent Saturday “dissecting every single corner and sector” with his engineers, trying to drill into what improvements needed to be made.
Correlating expectation with reality was always going to be a vital part of the Mugello weekend. It is a fast, technical circuit and building a rhythm is important. Hitting the lines that are actually quickest in the real world, and having the car to hit those lines, changes through the weekend as driver and team learn more about the track.
“He’s just impressive as a personality and as a racing driver. He’s on a constant improvement slope, because he reflects. He puts himself in question” :: Toto Wolff
While Hamilton had ultra-impressive speed through the chicane that follows the Arrabbiata corners, his altered approach in the longer medium-speed corners of opener San Donato, lengthy right-hander Correntaio and final bend Bucine.
He was initially very wide through the first corner then engineered a narrow entry to the other two in first practice. But on Friday afternoon this was already slightly different, mainly a tighter line through San Donato and a wider one through Correntaio.
In qualifying his main time loss to Bottas was still Correntaio, which was again held tighter on his pole lap, while the long Bucine almost became a ‘U’-shape with pointed edges as Hamilton turned a wide entry into quite an aggressive angle of attack, then guided the car right out to the run-off before straightening up on exit.
Hamilton said a key part of his process was trying to determine exactly what was holding him back on track. This went for both man and machine, as he previously admitted there was little point changing the set-up if he wasn’t driving the car well.
“There’s a real fine line between knowing whether you’ve got understeer or oversteer, whether you’re on the limit or not in certain places,” he said.
“Because you can be a limit through one corner but not through the rest of the corners, for example. It could be the first one, and then you’re not on the second one, and then the third one you are.
“You have to understand whether you’ve got the balance right within yourself, and then knowing what to request for when you do move towards the limit. You need to pre-empt what the car’s going to do.
“It’s a real science to it and that’s why I had so much respect for all these drivers because it’s not only the ability to drive but to understand those things.”
The reward for that level of craft was a seventh pole of the season. It continued a trend this year in which Bottas builds an early advantage over Hamilton but cannot sustain it into qualifying, where Hamilton edges clear by the smallest margins.
This was not Hamilton’s first Saturday turnaround. But he reckons it was the most challenging because there was more work to do than usual.
“The pressure was higher than ever,” he said. “Because if I hadn’t done the work then I wouldn’t have got the result that we got at the end.
“Going into qualifying we made a relatively big change and it worked out pretty well.
“Our real strength is the work that we do behind the scenes, and we’re constantly trying to evolve that.”
Starting from pole presents Hamilton with a golden opportunity to win a race that is not expected to feature much overtaking. If he converts F1 career pole number 95 on Sunday it will be F1 career victory number 90, just one win short of Michael Schumacher’s all-time F1 record.
These are astonishing numbers made possible by Hamilton finding ways to improve even this far into his F1 career. It’s a habit that leaves his boss Toto Wolff struggling for new answers.
“This is the thousandth time I have to answer that question,” he said when asked how Hamilton has found this new level in 2020.
“He’s just impressive as a personality and as a racing driver. He’s on a constant improvement slope, because he reflects. He puts himself in question and works very hard.
“He put in a lot of hard work yesterday night to understand where he could improve in terms of driving lines, technique. And he’s made a big jump today.”