Lewis Hamilton believes he is driving the best of his career after winning the US Grand Prix to put himself in a strong position to win a fourth Formula One world championship in Mexico on Sunday.
The Mercedes driver took victory in Austin with a dominant run but acknowledged it is the battle with title rival Sebastian Vettel, who finished second in Texas, that is pushing him to the limit.
Hamilton won with a composed and controlled drive from pole but had to work for the victory after being beaten off the line by the Ferrari driver, who took the lead up the inside into turn one.
The Ferrari might have had a race pace advantage over Mercedes at the previous three grands prix but problems in those races – a first-lap crash, starting from the back and a spark plug failure – meant Vettel had been unable to prove it. However in Texas, he admitted they had no answer to the pace of the Mercedes.
Hamilton passed him for the lead up the inside of turn 12 on lap six, from where he was able to control the race to the flag. Vettel won four titles with Red Bull and is a canny defender but could do nothing to resist. Hamilton revelled in once again going wheel-to-wheel with his rival.
“Competing with a four-times world champion you know you’re competing against the best,” he said. “You are competing against someone who is really on form generally, you are both on a knife-edge and one of you is going to falter. I love that challenge of trying not to be the one who falters.
“I feel this year I’ve found a good step mentally in not making mistakes, rarely making mistakes. Not locking up and missing apexes or going off track. That’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
Hamilton has been strong all season despite occasionally struggling with the balance and set-up of the car but has also enjoyed excellent reliability. He has finished every race, and his lowest placing was seventh at Monaco. His ninth win in Austin extended his points lead over Vettel to 66. A finish of fifth or above at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City will ensure his fourth world championship and make him the most successful British driver, with one more title than Sir Jackie Stewart.
Mercedes have already wrapped up their fourth consecutive constructors’ title, only the fourth team to have achieved the feat, alongside Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull. Hamilton, who recently adopted a vegan diet, acknowledges his car’s performance but believes he is now at a personal high point.
“I feel the best I’ve ever felt physically and mentally,” he said. “I think all year I’ve felt very strong mentally but I think physically I’m now taking also a big step and that’s really the decision I made to change my diet. The best decision was obviously moving to this team, the second best was changing my diet.
“Ultimately you’re always trying to live and drive to your potential. Sunday was the greatest day because I felt like I was able to be in that zone.”
Hamilton joined Mercedes in 2013 from McLaren. The team’s executive director, Toto Wolff, agreed that the Briton was driving better than ever.
“I have worked with him for five years and I have never seen him operate at that level,” Wolff said.
“The raw pace, understanding the tyres and the ability of the car that was difficult sometimes is not easy. The sustainable performance on that level I haven’t seen before.”
Three races remain but Hamilton is likely to wrap up the title in Mexico and while the 32-year-old will be focused on sealing the drivers’ championship there, he is also looking forward to continuing his rivalry with Vettel on the track.
“During the race there were times where I just thought: ‘Wow, this is so awesome,’” Hamilton said.
“That is probably when I’m behind Sebastian because I’m in a real fight, a fight with Ferrari. This is what I dreamt of, growing up watching Michael Schumacher race. I hope these next couple of races we can have more of that.”