Why Lewis Hamilton's start to 2019 should set off alarm bells

Lewis Hamilton is not a man who needs a head start in Formula One these days, but the five-time world champion has had exactly that in 2019.

Two wins in the opening three races -- one incredibly fortunate, one incredibly dominant -- have helped him into the lead of the championship. His nearest rival, six points back, is Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Somehow, it is Red Bull's Max Verstappen in third position ahead of the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, sitting on 37 and 36 points respectively. That's hardly insurmountable -- Vettel led the championship at this point in the previous two seasons -- but seeing Hamilton in such a commanding lead over the two red cars before we've even reached May is concerning for anyone with a good memory of the recent past.

Hamilton has been blessed with some of the best F1 cars of recent times, and this has hardly seemed fair given the level of form he has been able to reach on several occasions since 2014. We saw a great example of this last year, when former teammate Nico Rosberg remarked: "I don't know if this is the best Lewis has ever driven, but when he's competing at the level we are seeing right now, only a completely flawless performance is going to beat him most weekends, and that's tough when you're on the back foot or you're worried about making more mistakes."

Making matters worse for anyone wanting a fair fight is that mistakes are being made, just by his main rival. It's hard to remember the last time Hamilton made any blunders similar to Vettel's. Seriously, have a long think about any significant error Hamilton has made recently -- there aren't any.

Now do the same with Vettel... Even if you ignore Bahrain, he gave us a long list to choose from in 2018 and a few the year before.

The Hamilton of old is long gone: at McLaren the Englishman seemed capable of beating the entire world one day and then beating himself the next. As has been well documented, Hamilton is a different breed of man and driver at Mercedes, allowed to do what he likes away from the confines of an F1 paddock as long as he delivers when he returns to it. He's been more than happy to oblige, although in recent years the most obvious weakness in his arsenal has been at the beginning of a new campaign.

While Hamilton's race starts have been tardy in recent times, so have his starts to seasons. Over the past three years, he's not hit anything like the form we saw at the beginning of 2014 or 2015 and has needed a spark or a moment to kick him into gear.

Several examples spring to mind:

  • In 2016, he didn't win until Monaco, when Red Bull blundered on Daniel Ricciardo's pit stop and handed Hamilton the victory. Hamilton won six of the next seven races and nearly wrested the title out of Rosberg's hands until a cruel engine failure at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

  • In 2018, Hamilton went three races without a win, but it would have been four had Bottas not suffered a puncture while leading in the closing stages of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. A handful of wins followed until Hamilton got lucky again in July when Vettel crashed out of the lead of the German Grand Prix -- Hamilton won that and seven of the 10 races that followed and waltzed to the title.

Hamilton raised an apologetic hand to Leclerc as he passed him for the lead in Bahrain this year, knowing it was a tough moment in the youngster's career -- he was equally respectful to Bottas after inheriting the Azerbaijan win last year. But Hamilton thrives on that winning feeling and becomes more comfortable with each one, as if each one bleeds into the next. Barring his luckless 2016 campaign, which was littered with reliability issues and collisions that contributed to him losing that year's championship, since 2014 Hamilton has never gone more than three consecutive races in a calendar year without a race victory. Even in that 2016 season, he only won in clusters -- the run mentioned above after Monaco and four straight at the end of the year.

In more recent times Hamilton has downplayed focus on the championship, whether it's been April or October, insisting instead that his focus is always on the next race weekend and the next chance to be perfect. That is clearly paying dividends and looks set to continue in 2019.

After China, he said: "I've not even looked at any of the points, so I can't tell you what numbers we have. It's far too early to even look at those, but I'm grateful that we've had great reliability and we continue to deliver on the weekends. You see the key this year, as it was last year, is delivering near-perfect weekends, weekend in, weekend out."

Although Hamilton and perfect weekends seem to go hand in hand right now, the same can't be said for Vettel. The German's current form is quite remarkable when you reflect on the golden years of his career. This was a man who used to seem untouchable, who could dominate weekends with some of those Red Bull cars like it was second nature.

Much like when Hamilton drove through the wreckage of the Vettel, Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen crash on the opening lap of the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix to win against the odds, when Vettel was at his highest ebb, he seemed to have a significant amount of good fortune in his back pocket to back that up. That was most apparent the day he won his third championship -- he was spun around by another car on the opening lap of the 2012 finale in Brazil yet somehow wasn't knocked out of the race and didn't suffer significant car damage. He recovered to claim the points he needed to deny Fernando Alonso.

Contrast that to the Vettel of right now and it's hard to imagine the German having any similar lucky breaks fall his way. That's not to say they won't, but in F1, fortune seems to favour the in-form rather than just the brave.

Things might just flip around for Hamilton or Vettel this year, and Bottas or Leclerc might prove capable over the next 18 races of challenging the most dominant driver of the modern era for the championship. But recent history suggests Hamilton is already finding the sort of groove that can quickly turn a promising season into a one-horse race -- all the more reason, then, to want Ferrari to put Hamilton and Mercedes on the back foot with a return to form in Baku this weekend.