Lewis Hamilton optimistic for Mercedes improving during season of F1 ‘adversity’

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes improving
Clive Rose/Getty Images
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BAKU, Azerbaijan — Lewis Hamilton is optimistic Mercedes is improving toward challenging the Formula One leaders and said the “adversity” of struggling to keep up has brought the team closer together.

Ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the seven-time champion has just one podium finish from seven races, his worst start to a season since 2009, after Mercedes had to redesign a car that started the year with a tendency to bounce and shake at high speed.

“Can I say it’s the best, most exciting journey? No, but it is an experience and it’s bringing the team closer,” Hamilton said Friday. “It’s making us all have to sharpen our tools. The technology is advancing a lot to be able to understand it, and we’re pulling closer than ever before. I guess that’s what happens when you’re faced with adversity, and so there’s lots and lots of positives.”

Hamilton said upgrades the team brought to the Spanish Grand Prix last month have “given us more of a direction to go in and it’s been positive” as he and teammate George Russell try to chase down title contenders Max Verstappen of Red Bull and Charles Leclerc of Ferrari.

Russell is still chasing his first F1 win and warned Mercedes would likely stay behind Red Bull and Ferrari in Azerbaijan and needs more time to develop its car to challenge the top teams.

“The car we had (for the first race of 2022) in Bahrain, that was sort of its maximum potential and we couldn’t really improve it from there on in,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to take a small step back to take three steps forward, and I think we’re in that transitional process at the moment. I think it’ll be a few more races before we start to see us hopefully fighting with Ferrari and Red Bull.”

Ferrari and Red Bull opened well at Baku, taking the top four spots in Friday’s first practice.

Points leader Verstappen and Leclerc both suffered disappointment last year in Azerbaijan.

The Dutchman’s tire blew at high speed, throwing him into the wall in a dramatic crash, while Leclerc started on pole position but lacked pace and dropped to fourth. That echoes Leclerc’s recent struggles – he has taken pole in each of the last three races but couldn’t convert any of them into wins as Verstappen overtook him in the standings. The last race in Monaco was particularly bitter as Ferrari made the wrong pit stop call and cost him a shot at winning on home soil.

“Obviously in Monaco there was plenty to analyze because we’ve done some mistakes,” said Leclerc, who trails Verstappen by nine points. “What gives me the confidence for the future is that we found the reasons why we did those mistakes as a team. … We just obviously need to focus on ourselves, don’t do any other mistakes. And if we do everything perfect, I’m sure that we can have a great result this weekend.”

Last year’s winner in Baku was Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, who comes into the weekend on a high after his Monaco victory and a new Red Bull contract. Now a title contender in his own right, 15 points off Verstappen, Perez said the contract talks didn’t define him as Verstappen’s wingman.

“There’s nothing in my contract that say that I need to finish second or something like that, you know,” said Perez, who led Friday practice. “So it was not a topic in the contract at all.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”