SUZUKA // “Damage limitation” is an oft-used phrase to describe Lewis Hamilton’s 2016 Formula One season, terminology that fitted well with his afternoon’s work at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday.
He lost further ground to Mercedes-GP teammate Nico Rosberg in their duel for the drivers’ world championship at Suzuka, but it could have been a lot worse.
The triple world champion had an abysmal start to the race, falling from second on the grid to eighth by the first corner, and at that stage he faced the prospect of losing 21 points to Rosberg, who had converted pole position into the lead.
If the points standings had been finalised at the end of Lap 1 then Hamilton, who had started the day 23 behind Rosberg, would have been 44 down.
Fortunately for the Briton he still had 52 more laps to get himself out of his predicament, and by the finish was third, behind only Rosberg and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen.
A mixture of good pit strategy from Mercedes, some fine overtaking and strong raw pace when in clean air, allowed Hamilton to make up the ground.
More from the Japanese Grand Prix:
• Race report: Nico Rosberg moves a step closer to world title
• Talking points: Verstappen on the edge, 'what if?' for Raikkonen
• Comment: Lewis Hamilton has been here before; do not give the F1 title to Nico Rosberg just yet
It was a 10-point loss in the end; a 33-point deficit puts the championship destiny out of his control. Even if he wins the remaining four races Rosberg will deny him a fourth world title if the German finishes second in each of them. The glum look on Hamilton’s face afterwards summed up this scenario perfectly.
It was the 100th podium finish of Hamilton’s career, only Michael Schumacher (155) and Alain Prost (106) have more, but there was little joy for the man who had prevailed at Suzuka the previous two years.
He took the blame for his poor getaway, despite starting on the right-hand side of the grid that was still damp following overnight rain.
“I just got wheelspin,” he said of the second occasion in the past four races that he has lost multiple positions off the start line.
It has been a rough seven days for Hamilton, coming after he had lost out on victory in Malaysia due to an engine failure when he was comfortably leading. He fell out with international newspaper writers after giving monosyllabic answers during Thursday’s drivers’ news conference, preferring to focus on social media app Snapchat on his phone instead. He then declined to take questions in his media conference on Saturday, claiming to be upset by the reaction to his behaviour on Thursday.
Toto Wolff, the executive director of Mercedes, said pre-race that Hamilton should be allowed to “do his talking on the track” but this weekend will have hurt him considerably.
Rosberg was faster in all three practice sessions and then qualifying, and he made no mistakes during the race.
The momentum is with Rosberg; he has won four of the five races since the summer break and has outscored Hamilton 115-63 in that period. He is close to following in the footsteps of his father, Keke, the 1982 world champion, though he continues to play down his position.
“I’m well aware of the 33 points, of course, but it’s not something I’m focused on,” he said. “I just want to take it race by race. That’s what I did this weekend.”
Hamilton has come from further behind in the standings than this before. He turned around a 43-point deficit in six races to lead the title race mid-season, but he is now running out of time.
Fortune has sometimes gone against him this year with mechanical problems, but the issues that lost him ground at Suzuka were entirely of his own making.
If Rosberg has four more problem-free race weekends he will be world champion when the season concludes at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 27.
The Mercedes is the class of the field and only mechanical issues, bad starts, or unpredictable weather seem capable of derailing them.
Hamilton’s downbeat demeanour post-race did not scream of a man believing he can win a fourth world title, but all he can do now is refocus on winning next time out at the United States Grand Prix on October 23 to kick-start his flagging hopes.
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