The 2008 world champion’s mid-summer run of two wins and two second places has given way to bad luck and a series of errors
The image was striking. An hour before the start of the Japanese grand prix the 24 drivers were led to a priceless array of classic sports cars in order to be paraded around the Suzuka circuit. There were Rolls-Royces and Mercedes, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Jaguars but, as the cavalcade set off, perched in the back of a three?wheeled Messerschmitt was the unmistakable figure of Lewis Hamilton.
It was one of those weekends when nothing quite worked out the way it should for the 2008 world champion, and now any hopes that this season will bring a second title must be as likely as one of Japan’s Shinkansen trains ever running late.
In mid-summer Hamilton put together a four-race run of two wins and two second places to lead the championship but in the six grands prix since the British round at Silverstone on 11 July he has stood on the podium just once, the top step at Spa. In a five-way title fight results like that do not a champion make, and Hamilton must now be ruing the errors and ill fortune that have blighted the second half of his season.
There was little he could do about the gearbox failure in Hungary, but an ill?judged passing manoeuvre on the opening lap at Monza and then not leaving Mark Webber’s Red Bull enough room in Singapore as he looked to make up a place were errors he could ill afford. Stuffing his McLaren into the barrier only 45 minutes into practice here on Friday was another black mark on what will be an interesting report card come the season’s end.
Today Hamilton found himself stymied behind his team-mate, Jenson Button, despite running on soft tyres and clearly having more speed.
He should never have been there having qualified as the third fastest, but he had to start from eighth on the grid after being docked five places for replacing his gearbox, damaged in the collision in Singapore.
Once he had pitted on lap 23 and his car was in clean air he was the quickest man on the track, but he was defenceless against Button when, on lap 44, his soft?tyred team-mate, now with a low fuel load, drove straight past him and into fourth place. It did not help that Hamilton’s new gearbox refused to engage third as the race wore on. The icing on this cake of woe for Hamilton is that he was also suffering from an ear infection.
There are three races left, starting with the inaugural Korean grand prix in a fortnight’s time, and none of the circuits left – Brazil and Abu Dhabi wrap up the season – look like McLaren-friendly tracks. To be fair, few have been bar Montreal. It has been Hamilton’s phenomenal talent and sheer will along with Button’s guile and craft that have kept the Woking team in the hunt.
The 2010 McLaren-Mercedes is a good car but it is no Red Bull, and it has not been developed as progressively as the Ferrari that Fernando Alonso has made such good use of in recent races. There is no doubt that Hamilton has made the car look better than it really is.
His drive in Australia was mesmerising before he got clattered by an over-excited Webber, and it was the Englishman’s dogged pursuit of Sebastien Vettel and Webber in Turkey that was the catalyst for the Red Bulls to crash into each other.
It might yet be that Hamilton can rescue his season and race with the No1 on the front of his car next year, but after yesterday it is long odds against. The never-say-die attitude and the racer’s instinct have not been enough, and on occasion have even been the Englishman’s own worst enemies.
Hamilton will have learned a lot from having the error-free Button on the other side of the garage this season and will no doubt put it to good use in 2011. But for the remainder of this season he will continue to go flat out – that is the man’s forte.
It is also his foible.