A year on from Malaysia misery, all is well with Hamilton

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain take a look at his car at his garage ahead the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix in Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (Vincent Phoon/AP)

SEPANG, Malaysia — One year ago, Lewis Hamilton was questioning whether some people inside his own team actually wanted him to win.

Now all is harmonious within Mercedes as Hamilton heads into this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix with a 28-point lead in the title race.

“I’m loving and enjoying racing more than I ever have before,” Hamilton said Thursday.

When asked if he’s in the best form of his Formula One career, he added: “Feels like it, yeah.”

It’s a far cry from last year when a furious Hamilton demanded answers from his team after a sudden engine failure late in the Malaysian GP cost him victory on the Sepang circuit. The blip handed former teammate Nico Rosberg a 23-point lead. Rosberg went on to win the championship, denying Hamilton a fourth title and deepening the rift between them.

Hamilton’s frustration was such that he pointed the finger at his own team, hinting at foul play and stopping just short of accusation.

“Someone needs to give me some answers because this is not acceptable. We are fighting for the championship and only my engines are failing. It does not sit right with me,” a dejected and confused Hamilton said after the 2016 race. “Someone doesn’t want me to win this year.”

He hasn’t failed to finish since — a run of 19 races.

“When you arrive on weekends knowing reliability is good, it’s a great feeling,” Hamilton said in the Mercedes motorhome on Thursday. “I’ve just got to make sure I keep performing as I have been.”

With Rosberg now out of Hamilton’s way, there is a much more relaxed aura to Hamilton this year. He has spoken in glowing terms of his new teammate Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish driver who replaced Rosberg after he suddenly retired days after winning the title.

The drivers have shown admirable sportsmanship toward each other this season.

Hamilton gave up third place in Hungary in July to let Bottas pass him, as a return favour after Bottas had earlier let Hamilton overtake him in order to chase down the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, who finished 1-2. It cost Hamilton valuable points.

“I felt like I made the right decision, but even if I’d stayed ahead I think he would have understood,” Hamilton said. “That decision only made things better. But I don’t think if it was the other way round it would have gone sour. It’s a very good working relationship.”

Such a return of favour would have been unthinkable between Hamilton and Rosberg.

Their relationship degraded from a friendship forged in their teenage karting years, to one of hostility and near enmity in the three years they spent together challenging for the title with Mercedes. Hamilton rarely speaks about Rosberg these days.

Without Rosberg around, Hamilton’s focus is clearer because it is geared toward an external rival in Vettel, rather than an internal opponent — making for a far healthier and manageable rivalry.

Earlier this month, Hamilton said he was expecting to extend his contract with Mercedes beyond 2018, when it runs out.

It remains a key decision as the 32-year-old British driver weighs up his future, with his many interests outside of F1 extending into music and fashion.

“I’m quite happy where I am. But I still contemplate what decisions I’ll take,” said Hamilton, who recently spoke of wanting to start a family. “The longer I delay my departure from the sport, the longer my next life is delayed. It’s just trying to weigh up the balances. But at the moment I’m here to stay.”

Having won the last two races, he has put Mercedes back on top and favourite to secure the drivers’ and constructors’ championship for a fourth straight year.

“It’s not a bad time to negotiate. I’m in pretty good form,” he said. “You always want to negotiate when you’ve got two wins in your pocket.”

One domain he will not enter into, after his eventual retirement, is politics.

“I don’t have the greatest understanding of it and I absolutely hate politics,” Hamilton said.