Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in crisis with Red Bull in the ascendancy

Max Verstappen is as fast, as dogged and as relentless as the world champion and has a better car

Make no mistake about it, Lewis Hamilton’s defeat in France has all the hallmarks of a title-winning freight train coming off the rails.

And the signs are that world champions Mercedes are in crisis.

Recent history at Paul Ricard suggested this was as close as it gets to a nailed on victory for them. They have led all but one lap of the last two events there and triumphed from pole each time.

Their title challenge is picking up speed and after seven consecutive double championships, history may be about to turn its back on Brackley.

Defeat in France also comes ahead of a string of races likely to favour the Austrian outfit; back-to-back events at their home track near Graz, which is usually Hamilton’s Achilles Heel. He has won the race twice, of course, but always struggles there.

If you take the wily old champion’s word that the latest defeat was down to outright power, it makes Red Bull favourites for another three of the next seven – all speed tracks, including Hamilton’s home circuit, Silverstone.

If he were to lose there, at his citadel, where he has won a record seven times, it would be a catastrophe.

Unless things change, the world champions are staring down the barrel of a summer of continual pain.

The championship looks close but Mercedes have a difficult car and are struggling to keep up, caught in the eternal F1 vortex: more wing means grip but lost speed, less wing means speed without control.

The last Grand Prix also proved where the answer lies for Mercedes. No amount of Hamilton talent will make a difference.

His only fault was a lack of defensive action when Verstappen came thundering past to snatch the lead with a lap and half to go.

Former teammate Nico Rosberg called Hamilton’s actions unusually “soft” because he could have moved across in front of his rival to defend his position but did not.

I agree with Nico, but I’m willing to bet there was a good reason. Hamilton would have given anything for more cushioning when his tyres were down to the canvas at the finish of the race. Any kind of lateral movement could have spelled disaster.

It had only been a fortnight since Verstappen’s Pirellis blew while leading and an easy 25 points went begging.

As they prepare for Sunday, Mercedes battle a bewildering array of unknowns: why is the handling so erratic? The tyre wear so high? The speed so low? The strategy ineffective?

They swapped the two chassis between the drivers in France and that is always a sign of a desperate team or a paranoid driver. Although there is plenty of paranoia to go around between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, this was a team move.

The race data makes for horrifying reading at Brackley. Hamilton and Bottas were the slowest two cars on the entire grid through the speed trap, Hamilton clocking 320.7 to Verstappen’s 337.0kph.

When Sky TV interviewer Rosberg asked Red Bull boss Christian Horner if they would go after Mercedes' controversial front wing at the stewards, his old boss Toto Wolff snapped “Are you trying to stitch us up? We’ve paid you enough in all those years.”

Wolff will probably insist it was a joke but there was an edge to his words, a palpable tension in the way they were blurted out.

Certainly, Hamilton cannot simply use racecraft to battle his way out of this one. Verstappen is as fast, as dogged and as relentless and has a better car.

So the answer can only come from the drawing board. Mercedes will have to engineer their way out of trouble. And you wouldn’t bet against them doing that.

But there is an old F1 aphorism about race cars born bad: you can bring poise to a thoroughbred but you can’t make a donkey fast.

Without Hamilton’s remarkable talents, Verstappen would surely be long gone with six wins in seven GPs, rather than three. Instead the Dutchman is still within striking distance just 12 points up the road.

So Mercedes may be fretting but Hamilton can quietly smile to himself.

Wolff will reflect that Bottas, languishing in fifth, has failed to finish second this year, let alone win, and but for his British driver this could already be a very sticky season for the man sitting in the hot seat.

Mercedes will certainly have renewed appreciation of their star turn as the focus turns to renegotiating Hamilton’s record £39.8m salary in the next few months.

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