McLaren team principal believes Lewis Hamilton’s win in German Grand Prix will end talk of a runaway Sebastian Vettel world title
Two weeks ago, after his cars had qualified fifth and 10th for the British Grand Prix, Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, took the unusual step of beginning a press conference by admitting his team were simply not doing well enough and that they were in no position to fight for the world championship.
At the Nürburgring on Sunday, as Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag, there was a shift in this position, McLaren creating their own Doppler effect, as they sped past. The championship was centre stage again but for entirely different reasons. It is not just the cars that move fast in Formula One.
For Whitmarsh the victory was crucial: “Before Ferrari’s win two weeks ago and ours today everyone was talking about a runaway championship. Ferrari are going to be strong for the rest of the year I’m very sure, and hopefully we will as well and can make this another fantastic championship like we had last year.”
His celebratory optimism is understandable: McLaren needed the win and deserved it, lacklustre performances are not down to a lack of effort in F1 and Whitmarsh’s team are certainly not wanting for that. But last year the championship went down to the wire – the final race in Abu Dhabi. Can it realistically go that far again or even be won by a driver other than Sebastian Vettel?
Coming off a fine drive in Germany, energised and enthusiastic again, Hamilton is the obvious contender to challenge the current leader for the nine remaining races.
John Watson, who won McLaren’s first victory for four years in 1981 and finished third in the world championship in 1982, believes Hamilton certainly has the talent as a driver. “He is a racing driver,” Watson said. “He is a racer, he thrives on that, he wrings the neck of the car. He drags every ounce of performance out of it.”
But Watson noted that what defines the best is also something Hamilton must cope with: “The mark of a great champion is a driver who’s not in the quickest car, winning the championship.”
The talent is there to take the championship then, but so is the mathematics. Simply put, Vettel’s lead over both Hamilton and Fernando Alonso is almost insurmountable.
Even if Hamilton were to win all the remaining races, Vettel would have to finish third or worst in each to concede the title. A far-fetched enough concept, not including the endless permutations thrown up by non-finishes and Alonso. Equally, given Red Bull’s ruthlessness with team orders at Silverstone, if there is any threat at all, expect Mark Webber to be told to move over, sharpish.
“Lewis’s chances are very slim,” said Watson. “The only thing that can have a bearing on that would be something that would stop Vettel from competing in the next three or four races and that’s very unlikely.”
Which brings us to drivers overcoming a huge deficit to take the championship, perhaps most famously in 1976 when James Hunt trailed Niki Lauda by 35 points and the Austrian had his terrible accident at the Nürburgring. “In 1976, Niki was leading the world championship by a very, very comfortable lead, then he had that accident and was out for three races,” recalled Watson.
Lauda withdrew from the final race in Japan because he could not control the tear duct in his injured eye and Hunt won the championship by one point. “And that’s the unpredictable, the unforeseen, the thing that you can’t anticipate,” said Watson. “Not that I would wish anything of that nature on anybody, but those are the factors that are more than likely to have an effect on the outcome of the championship.”
On every level, Vettel is still holding all the cards and sensibly Hamilton is staying focused on the job in hand: “Coming into this weekend, I was quite realistic and I am still realistic at this moment,” he said. “I am taking things race-by-race.”
Whitmarsh said: “We are never going to be satisfied, even with a win. We are not going to be satisfied until we are winning all the races. We are going to keep pushing and it is going to be a great championship.”
But as Watson acknowledged: “The thing about people like Michael [Schumacher], people like Lewis and Alonso, is that they make events happen for themselves.” We will all see what happens, this Sunday, in Hungary.