Hamilton's troubles continue as Rosberg wins Japanese F1 Grand Prix
The lost weekend of Lewis Hamilton, like that of Ray Milland in the film noir classic, is likely to result in an epic hangover. A he really had to win to stand a realistic chance of retaining his Formula One world championship was lost as his team-mate Nico Rosberg took an increasingly strong grip on the 2016 title.
However, after two shattering defeats for the British driver in the space of eight days, the investigation that Mercedes will inevitably hold to discover what went wrong for Hamilton in Suzuka is likely to be careful with his sensibilities.
The Mercedes head of motorsport, Toto Wolff, hinted as much when he said here on Sunday evening: “I am on the same flight [home]. I think just after such a race, it is not the right moment to really put the finger where it hurts.
“We need to calm down and find out what happened, regroup and my learning from the last couple of years is that 24 hours later things look different. Our main emphasis will be on building him up and enjoying the ride home before Austin.”
Besides, Wolff was hardly in a postmortem mood after seeing his team nail their third constructors’ title in three years, while Rosberg closed on his first drivers’ championship.
Hamilton has caused Mercedes much embarrassment recently, however. After the Malaysian Grand Prix, of a race he was dominating, he gave ammunition to the many conspiracy theorists on social media when he said that someone did not want him to win the tile. Then in Suzuka press conferences on Thursday and Saturday – followed by an overreaction by the driver – there were signs of a mental fragility not seen since his meltdown year of 2011. And again on Sunday evening there was more controversy when he appeared to go against an appeal decision made by his team.
Hamilton remains Mercedes’s – indeed Formula One’s – major asset and his team will be anxious that all is well with him going into the final four races of the season, starting with the US round in Austin on 23 October. So they are likely to speak to him.
Wolff said: “I saw a Lewis in Malaysia that was on a roll, dominating, then we let him down with the engine failure. During the week he was OK – then all these things around the press conference, then yesterday.”
Hamilton, of course, has had rotten luck, plain and simple, with three engine failures, in China, Russia and Malaysia. There are also signs, though, that Rosberg’s greater strength and consistency this season is beginning to get to him. After all, Hamilton has been beating Rosberg on a regular basis for almost two decades and the prospect of losing the 2016 world championship to him will be hurting him grievously.
Then there is the technical issue of his bad starts. For the fifth time this season Hamilton made a wretched getaway, immediately dropping from his second place on the grid to eighth. That followed other awful starts in Australia, Bahrain, Canada and Italy. Rosberg, it seems, has no trouble with the extra demands on clutch control that are being made this season.
“The clutch is not perfect,” says Wolff. “It’s difficult to handle and we have tried to optimise it. I have never driven the clutch, so I can only tell you what we analyse. It is difficult to handle it in the right way and both drivers have worked on it and gone as far as changing the way their gloves are in order to release it.
“It is very complicated to deploy and then there is the random factor. We are also more in the spotlight if it goes wrong [because Mercedes are usually running at the front].”
Hamilton still had a decent couple of days in Japan, even though Rosberg dominated all three practice sessions as well as qualifying and the race itself. The British driver was as close as 0.013sec to Rosberg in qualifying and on Sunday he clawed his way up to the field in a valiant effort to make up for yet another disappointing beginning and almost came second. That will not be helping the hurt he is feeling, knowing that the championship is now beyond his control.
Rosberg, meanwhile, just cannot stop winning. This was his ninth victory of the season (while Hamilton has six). There was a growing sense in Japan that Rosberg deserves the world title this year. Certainly he will if he wins more races and goes on to take the championship by a healthy margin of more than 25 points, which seems likely now.
“It’s been an awesome weekend, for sure, the whole weekend had gone great from the word go,” he said. “It’s been very, very special, especially on this legendary track. It’s beautiful to win here.”
If Hamilton was imploding in Japan, Rosberg hadn’t noticed. “I haven’t seen any ‘self-destruction’,” he said. “The Lewis that I have seen was massively motivated and focused. Anyways, it is about getting the best out of myself and not focusing on Lewis’s state of mind.”