The pressure-cooker intensity of the tightest Formula One world championship in recent years is surely now beginning to tell. Under dense, grey, lowering skies at the Turkish Grand Prix, the weight of expectation lay heavy on Lewis Hamilton.
In a race that could not have been a more straightforward pole-to-flag win for his teammate Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton was left angry and frustrated with his Mercedes team as vital world championship points slipped from his grasp.
Hamilton’s task at Istanbul Park was never going to be simple. He started from 11th after taking a 10-place penalty for fitting a new engine. Going into the meeting he led his title rival Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by just two points.
With Verstappen starting in second behind Bottas, minimising the points loss to the Dutchman was Hamilton’s objective. Ultimately Verstappen’s second place to Hamilton’s fifth has swung the title fight six points in Verstappen’s favour with six races remaining.
Verstappen’s eight-point gain was the fallout of Mercedes’ pit strategy failing to meet Hamilton’s ambition. Late in the race when the team insisted he pitted from third place against his judgment and he emerged in fifth, Hamilton was furious. “Fuck, man, why did you give up that place? We shouldn’t have come in,” he said.
More was to follow as his frustration became clear when he was blunt with race engineer Peter Bonnington, with whom he enjoys a close, friendly relationship. “Leave it alone man,” the world champion retorted abruptly when Bonnington passed him information on his gap to sixth place.
Afterwards Hamilton would not rule out the consideration that the decision might yet cost him his record-breaking eighth title. “Time will tell,” he said. “If I had stayed out you don’t know if I would have held position but I am a risk-taker so I would have wanted to take that risk.”
Mercedes in contrast do not enjoy rolling the dice and if anything are positively risk-averse. Such has been his ability to come back through the field and so often inspired have Mercedes’ strategy calls been in the past that many believed this was a race the world champion could still win.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas celebrates on the podium with drivers’ championship leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull. Photograph: Francois Flamand/LiveMedia/Shutterstock
Hamilton surely entertained the idea especially with the wet conditions. Last year in Istanbul he recovered from sixth to win with a remarkable display. His form for coming back was known and while Bottas and Verstappen scampered off into the lead, all eyes were on Hamilton.
He duly scythed through from 11th with familiar alacrity and no little verve, putting him up to fifth by lap 15 but it was in the latter stages that the tense to and fro between Hamilton and his team began.
In a relationship that is marked by a strong sense of comradeship and mutual respect, rarely if ever has Hamilton shown such clear dissent at the decision-making by his pitwall crew, led by chief strategist James Vowles.
Hamilton had stayed out on the intermediate tyres to make it up to third place with nine laps remaining behind Bottas and Verstappen who had both pitted for fresh rubber 13 laps before. A podium place behind Verstappen would have been an immense result after the penalty, dropping him to just one point behind the Dutchman.
As he has many times in the past Hamilton found grip and pace while staying on his used rubber. Mercedes had called him in earlier but he insisted he could stay out until the team won out, overriding their driver.
Their desire to ensure a finish over perhaps a tyre failure or the grip finally giving up and Hamilton haemorrhaging places, was given precedence over the thoughts of the man behind the wheel.
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At the last round in Russia Hamilton had overruled a direction to pit only to then follow the instruction, which was proved entirely correct as he went on to win. Here it was less cut and dried. Team principal Toto Wolff insisted that Hamilton’s times were dropping as he lost grip.
Wolff conceded that the team had made a mistake, in that they should have brought Hamilton in earlier and given him at least the chance to battle for the places again, but that having stayed out their decision to then stop had also been predicated on a cautious desire not to suffer a tyre failure.
“The whole season swings back and forth, we make mistakes together, we win together,” he said. “We have had much bigger swings in the past with lost opportunities and this one today was a very, very close call. We decided for one thing and it went wrong.
“The championship is going to be very tight until the end. DNFs will also be a consideration and that was a consideration today and not three, or four or five-point swings.”
Mercedes and Hamilton will be considering the ‘what-ifs’ of this scenario into a no-doubt extensive debriefing, and as Wolff conceded work on the communication between team and driver. Hamilton wants this title badly and while it is unlikely he will have lost it here he knows he will only win it if he and the team are in real harmony.
“You have to rely on your team and accept the choices that they make and hope that it is the right one,” he said. “I listened to the team today, could we have stayed out? Who knows. It was a risk either way.”
Sergio Pérez was third for Red Bull, Charles Leclerc fourth for Ferrari, with his teammate Carlos Sainz in eighth and Pierre Gasly in sixth for AlphaTauri. Lando Norris was seventh for McLaren, Lance Stroll ninth for Aston Martin and Esteban Ocon tenth for Alpine