Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mistakes mounting up for Hamilton

After his worst run of results in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton came to Suzuka looking for a strong start to a weekend that could make or break his challenge for the world championship.

If you think that sounds a touch melodramatic, then bear in mind the words of one McLaren leading official who told me on Thursday evening: "If he fails to score here, it's game over."

Having failed to finish three of his last four races and watched Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso overtake him in the standings, the last thing the 2008 champion needed was an early accident in practice.

But halfway through the first session, on his first proper run of the day, that's exactly what happened.

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He locked up his front right wheel heading into the second right-hander at Degner,thought he could catch the car but ended up bumping along the tyre wall and ripping off his front left wheel as well as damaging the McLaren's new rear wing.

Hamilton emerged unscathed but his distress was evident as he leaned back in the shadows under the bridge below the 130R corner. After looking steadfastly ahead, his helmet then slumped forward as if he was consumed by disappointment and disbelief.

He managed to avoid the television cameras and photographers awaiting his return in the paddock by taking a back entrance but you could see he had a face like thunder when he eventually appeared and marched into the back of the garage.

The big concern was that the chassis would need replacing, which would have ruled him out of the entire second session.

As it was, the repairs were so extensive - new gearbox, floor, and front and rear wings - and took so long that Hamilton was able to complete just four timed laps on the track in the dry.

That was crucial for race set-up because heavy rain is expected throughout Saturday, which would throw a whole set of variables into final practice and qualifying.

Hamilton is aware that could level the playing field and, depending on how severe the conditions are, the lost time could be rendered irrelevant, at least in terms of grid position.

But his reluctant, smiling admission after practice that he was "probably pushing too hard" en route to his crash will be seized on by his critics as another example of his excessive aggression behind the wheel costing him his title chances.

Indeed, that opinion was already being voiced in the paddock. "I see Hamilton and McLaren are throwing it away again under pressure," said a rival technical director.

Collisions in Monza and Singapore, and this latest incident certainly don't help his cause.

With only four races remaining, now is the wrong time for Hamilton to start making mistakes like Alonso, Webber and Sebastian Vettel have done earlier in the season.

Unlike in Melbourne, Valencia and Spa - when Hamilton found trouble but came through it - he's currently being punished for the sort of bold moves that make you look a hero when they work, and a novice when they don't.

Had he backed off and played the percentage game, say his critics, he would still be leading the championship. Understandably, Hamilton doesn't accept that view, and will continue driving as only he knows how.

"The fact is I'm not going to drive around in the position I was in and hope to finish the race. That's never been in me," he said in a BBC interview to be broadcast during the BBC One qualifying show.

"I want to fight for a win and I hope people respect that. Sometimes it is too aggressive and that's why it catches you out."

"Every now and then, you try to pull it back a bit and hope it works. Fingers crossed this weekend will be an improvement to say the least."

So far, not so good.

At a demanding track where he has raced just once - in 2009 - he has hardly scratched the surface of the programme that he and his engineers hoped to complete.

But his performance last year, finishing third, was one of his finest drives and is reason for optimism within the team.

"He likes it here, loves the track and will be competitive," said one engineer. "You can't take away what makes him the champion that he is."

Hamilton also received support from a rival team principal involved in the title battle.

"You must try to get your drivers as calm as possible, but it in the end it doesn't matter what you say to them because as soon as they get on the track, it all goes out of their heads," he said.

Another criticism levelled at Hamilton is that he's missing a management figure in a role previously filled by his father.

One team manager told me that Hamilton would benefit from having an independent sounding board outside the team environment, somebody on hand with advice on when to push and when to take it calmly.

McLaren's team principal Martin Whitmarsh would dispute that.

He made a point of sitting down with Hamilton after Monza and Singapore to discuss both incidents. And he did the same again after Friday's crash.

It's a point picked up by one last year's title contenders, Rubens Barrichello.

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"The mental preparation is so important, more important at this stage than the driving," Barrichello said.

"He's clearly got the team support in a good way. But I'm not sure he has the car."

And there's the rub for Hamilton.

He acknowledges that the team are working flat out to improve the car. Another new rear wing is arriving overnight in time for qualifying, with engineers happy that the upgrade added performance.

But he knows, just like McLaren know, that Red Bull remains the fastest car. Ferrari have been quicker too.

So if he's to achieve a second world title, he needs something special from within himself to make up for a lack of performance.

"We've been over-delivering for a long period of time during the year," he said.

"We've not been at the front where we've been absolutely faster than everybody else. We've just done generally better jobs than other teams."

"Clearly now it's down to pace as well as no mistakes, and hoping that we're edging ourselves closer to the others."

Suzuka has decided some classic title contests. Hamilton has to believe - and demonstrate - that he's not about to be counted out this weekend.


Jose Dolhem Martin Donnelly Mark Donohue Robert Doornbos Ken Downing Bob Drake Paddy Driver

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