Why is Lewis Hamilton so much better in 2017?
The 10 moments that shaped Lewis Hamilton's best-ever season
"This is the best Lewis Hamilton - both on and off the track - that I have worked with."
So said this week a man with ultimate authority to make such a claim - Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, the leader of F1's current superpower.
The stats, not to mention the consensus within the paddock, back up Wolff's argument. Hamilton has won six of the last seven races to all-but secure a fourth world championship. "His performance at the moment is just staggering," said Sky F1's Pat Symonds. "He's almost driving above himself at the moment."
But Hamilton's best-ever season begs an obvious question: why now?
Here are ten critical moments that have inspired Hamilton to new heights in 2017...
The kitchen chat with Wolff
Rewind just 11 months and Hamilton's relationship with Mercedes was, if not frosty, somewhat cloudy. While the F1 year had ended with another title double, Hamilton had been beaten to the Drivers' Championship by team-mate Nico Rosberg - with whom he had barely been on speaking terms - after repeatedly complaining during the season that his engineers had been swapped to the other side of the garage. 25 precious and pivotal points were lost when his engine blew in Malaysia. " "Something just doesn't feel right," said Hamilton. A week later came Snapchat and meltdown in Japan. A blistering on-track recovery followed but it wasn't enough to stop Rosberg taking the crown.
And to make matters worse, far worse, his tactics in the season-ending Abu Dhabi finale were publicly rebuked by the Mercedes pitwall. Then it was revealed Hamilton had threatened to quit Mercedes mid-way through the campaign.
In hindsight, there was a lot at stake when, at his own instigation, Hamilton sat down for a Saturday night chat around Wolff's kitchen table in early December. Home truths, it seems, were said by both parties.
And then, presumably, both Wolff and Hamilton realised how much they needed the other.
The relationship was patched up, sorted out, solidified, strengthened. "We just had an amazing meeting...we are going to be the strongest partnership next year," Hamilton told his social media followers. the next day.
Nor, almost a year later, has he forgotten the meeting's significance. "Going to see Toto at the end of last year was crucial in terms of solidifying longevity within the team," he told reporters last week in America.
The departure of Nico Rosberg
So just how bad had Hamilton's relationship with friend-turned-foe Rosberg become prior to Nico's unexpected retirement? The more we hear about it, the worse it sounds. "Ultimately nobody knows what happened within the team apart from the people that are in the team who would be able to tell you how the dynamic was," Hamilton said last month. "For sure it was uncomfortable".
By the end, it seems, the Rosberg-Hamilton rivalry had descended into outright animosity. "It affected Lewis mainly," admitted Mercedes chief Niki Lauda. Wolff, meanwhile, famously described Rosberg as "the vicious one" in April when he reflected on the new-found harmony within Mercedes - and the impact on his lead driver.
The arrival of Valtteri Bottas, with an altogether more placid personality than Rosberg's, changed the dynamic within Mercedes and transformed Hamilton. "Lewis developed in a very impressive way as a personality over the winter," reflected Wolff. "He came back a different person."
Beating Vettel in Spain
Remarkably, despite the pair cumulatively winning seven of the previous nine titles, 2017 marked the first occasion when Vettel and Hamilton were pitched into direct championship-contending conflict. Vettel won two of the first three races and, after Bottas prevailed in Russia, the wheel-to-wheel battle between Vettel and Hamilton the F1 world had been craving finally arrived at round five in Spain.
After being forced off track by his rival when he first attempted to overtake for the race's lead, Hamilton wasn't to be deterred, sweeping past Vettel's Ferrari for a critical victory that set the tone for the season and scored a huge psychological advantage. Vettel would never be able to wrestle it back.
'Sebastian' becoming 'Vettel' after Baku
The early-season love-in between Lewis and Sebastian (April: "There's no bromance but we have a hugely respectful competitiveness") was never likely to last the season but nobody could have predicted the spark for its implosion.
"Dangerous", "disgusting" and "disgraceful" fumed Hamilton after Vettel rammed his Mercedes behind the Safety Car in Baku.
Vettel, controversially, avoided further sanction from the FIA after a belated apology and was allowed to keep his points. But it was Hamilton who seemed more comfortable with the relationship turning into a rivalry. A small but telling insight: Hamilton hardly ever referred to the Ferrari driver, previously known as 'Sebastian', as anything other than 'Vettel' and 'him' after Baku. The irresistible impression was that gloves were off post-Azerbaijan and it was Hamilton who relished making it personal.
Missing London Live
Remember the fuss? Less easily recalled is Hamilton's run of form prior to F1's demonstration run on the streets of the capital - just one trip to the podium, albeit for a win, in the previous four events. Perhaps there wouldn't have been quite such a furore but for the manner - partying in Mykonos - of Hamilton's absence, but in the final reckoning it was the thrashing he meted out against Vettel and Ferrari a few days later which decisively silenced the critics.
"If you don't know my preparations are on point by now, you never will," Hamilton retorted in the wake of a dominant victory which featured the fifth Grand Slam of his career. The London Live no-show has been a non-story ever since.
Beating Vettel at Spa
Given that Vettel was still in the lead after the Belgian GP, the first race following the summer break, Hamilton's victory ahead of his Ferrari rival at Spa didn't feel especially significant at the time. But in hindsight it was critical: denying Vettel any post-break momentum on one hand and turning the title back in Hamilton's favour on the other.
The Mercedes driver's refusal to yield to what appeared to be a faster Ferrari, lulling Vettel into attacking at the top of the hill, also highlighted how well Hamilton well coped with pressure in 2017 and what a canny driver he had become. "I was waiting for him to have an error and he probably was waiting for me to have an error," Vettel admitted. "The quality was very high. I never really had a chance."
Knocking a crushed Bottas out of the title race at Monza
It has been a season of two halves for Mercedes newcomer Bottas. Unexpectedly competitive before the summer shutdown, the Finn spent the August holiday within 19 points of his illustrious team-mate. Six weeks later, however, and over 70 separated the Mercedes drivers.
If there was a single on-track session which encapsulated the gulf that emerged it was at a wet and occasionally wild Monza when Bottas was beaten in qualifying by over two seconds by Hamilton. 2.279 seconds to be precise - a landslide in F1's terms.
The outcome had immediate historic significance: Hamilton set a new all-time record for F1 pole positions that Saturday. But it was also a critical point in the 2017 title race. Three title contenders became two and, as Hamilton surged up and away, a bewildered Bottas collapsed to what he would term "the most difficult time of my career".
Winning against the odds in Singapore
Ferrari ought to have won in Singapore. The track favoured their car. Pole position was secured from the lead Mercedes by over half a second. It was in the bag. Except that a race win is never, ever in the bag until it is won and Ferrari had lost Singapore by the second corner.
Hamilton was the grateful beneficiary, claiming his unlikeliest win of the season with a triumph that amounted to a 40-point swing in the title race. He never looked back - and Vettel has never really had a look-in since.
Winning in defeat in Malaysia
Sometimes in sport it's possible to win even in defeat. So it was at Sepang when Hamilton lost out to Max Verstappen but still won round 15 of the title battle as he edged further ahead of Vettel in the standings.
Perhaps Vettel's own disastrous 'squeeze' on Verstappen two weeks previously in Singapore was on Hamilton's mind as the Mercedes driver, lacking pace all weekend, offered no defence against the charging Red Bull. But perhaps it was also a smarter, mature Hamilton at work, mindful that not every battle has to be won to win the war.
"I could have closed that door - but I didn't want to risk anything," Hamilton later reflected. "I had everything to lose".
No feature on Lewis Hamilton would be complete without an example of Lewis doing things very differently. And his unexpected disclosure in late September he was going vegan was certainly that.
Inspired by concerns about his health and the planet, Hamilton turned to a plant-based diet after watching a documentary called 'What The Health'. And two months later, he said he had never felt better. "I feel the best I've ever felt physically and mentally," he said. "The best decision was obviously moving to this team. The second best was changing my diet."