Lewis Hamilton looks to future in F1 while helping end Mercedes’ 2022 slump

Lewis Hamilton F1 future
Bryn Lennon - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is coming off a crushing defeat for a record eighth Formula One championship and on the verge of the first winless season of his 16-year career — but he also is looking toward his F1 future.

His Mercedes has been a beast to drive all season and a flaw in its design created a bouncing effect that causes his teeth to chatter and his back to ache.

New teammate George Russell outranks him in the season standings – Russell is fourth, Hamilton is sixth – and a 24-race schedule is looming for next season, when Hamilton will be 38 years old.

Many thought he’d quit the sport when he lost last year’s F1 championship to Max Verstappen in a controversial series of calls in the December season finale at Abu Dhabi, but he returned for what will go down as arguably one of the most difficult seasons for the driver who holds the F1 record with 103 career victories.

Now comes word that Hamilton has opened talks with Mercedes on a multiyear contract extension on a deal that expires at the end of next season.

Ahead of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix in Brazil, where earlier this week Hamilton was awarded honorary citizenship, The Associated Press asked Hamilton why he wants to continue to race into his 40s and why he didn’t quit F1 following the injustice he believes he was dealt last year in Abu Dhabi.

He used an analogy of a rare day off he had last week to explain how he’s wired. He’d traveled to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, where Hamilton spent eight hours in the wave pool.

“I was in the pool the whole time, and I fall and I stumble off of a wave and I get back up and try to do it again. And I continue to do that, and that’s just something in my DNA,” Hamilton told the AP. “I love this sport. I love racing. I would have definitely said at the end of last year that I lost a bit of the love for it, because, as you know, it was difficult.

“But I just refuse to let that moment be a deciding factor in my life and my career. And I still feel fit and focused and there’s no stopping. You know? We want to get number eight.”

It won’t be this season as Verstappen clinched a second consecutive F1 title last month, and despite the progress Mercedes has made in improving its car this year, the team still can’t challenge Red Bull on speed for wins.

Verstappen, meanwhile, has won a record 14 times this season and heads to Interlagos hoping to extend Red Bull’s winning streak to nine consecutive races.

Hamilton, however, is coming off consecutive runner-up finishes to Verstappen that have buoyed Mercedes. And he finished second to Russell in Saturday’s sprint race to give the team the front row Sunday.

“Even though we’ve had the most difficult year this year, I feel that we have climbed mountains together as a team,” Hamilton told The AP recently. “It’s been one of the most beautiful experiences to see everyone working so hard. And you know, we just had two seconds in a row, and that feels like wins for us.”

Hamilton last November won in Brazil to start a three-race winning streak that sent him into the Abu Dhabi finale tied with Verstappen for the championship. Hamilton dominated the entire race until a late caution scrambled the finish and the since-fired race director broke from protocol in his rulings.

It allowed Verstappen to pass Hamilton for the win and the championship, and Hamilton vanished from public view immediately after the race. He told the AP that two month period after Abu Dhabi was the hardest he’s ever had to work on his mental health.

“It was one of the hardest times of my career, for sure I struggled,” Hamilton told the AP, explaining how he surrounded himself with immediate family, put down his phone, and avoided social media and all news. He also went to the beach with his niece and nephew and let them bury him in the sand.

“So I get up every day and focus on being present and making the most of the time that I had and creating memories. It was to keep myself in a happy place and not focus on racing.”

Hamilton has not won since that three-race streak ahead of Abu Dhabi, which wasn’t really what he expected when he re-emerged at the end of January to begin preparations for 2022. Mercedes wasn’t aware it had taken a wrong turn in the development of its car and would need the entire season to undo the damage.

“You just pivot. Instead of how do we get on top of this car and fight for the championship, it was `OK, we’re most likely not going to be fighting for the championship, so how do I steer this ship that’s going in the wrong direction? How do I keep this team motivated?”‘ explained Hamilton. “We have dug deeper and become a stronger, more complete team. So I know that when we build the car that I dream of, next year, I know as a team we are more solid and have a better foundation than ever before.”

That Hamilton isn’t planning to retire anytime soon is not a surprise to Russell, who has found his fellow Englishman to be the consummate professional and teammate. Russell said Hamilton is dedicated to turning Mercedes around.

“He’s definitely not lifted his foot off the throttle pedal, and he’s definitely the last few races performing probably better than ever,” Russell said. “For me to have the opportunity to be his teammate, to go directly head-to-head with him and grow on this journey that we’re on together, because it really does feel like a journey that the two of us are on, along with the rest of the team, in trying to bring Mercedes back to winning ways.

“I think we’ve got a really, really great relationship, transparent relationship and yeah, be great to be teammates for a number of years to come.”

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.”