Back in 2007 at the Hungaroring Fernando Alonso (initially) cost Lewis Hamilton a shot at pole position by infamously waiting in the pitlane with the other McLaren stacked up behind him, just long enough to prevent it getting out on track in time for another lap. On that occasion Alonso’s actions were deliberate and aimed solely at Hamilton. Nine years later at the same venue these two were again at the centre of the qualifying story and again Alonso cost Hamilton a likely pole. This time Alonso’s spinning across the track at Turn 10 in the dying moments of the final session was not targeted at Hamilton (though suspicions were voiced by other drivers and team personnel that the spin may not have been accidental and came just after a mistake that would likely have seen him out-qualified by team-mate Jenson Button) but Lewis was the first car upon the scene, forced to brake in avoidance. He thereby lost what had been shaping up into the likely pole lap. Those subsequently arriving at the waved double yellow flags for the Alonso incident were not compromised quite so much – including Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg who in lifting off fulfilled to the letter what the sporting regulations demanded, but on a drying track lost little enough time that he could still attack the remainder of the lap to secure pole.
The reverberations of the circumstances of that pole lap were felt most intensely inside the Mercedes team as Hamilton subsequently took matters into his own hands, much as he’d done here back in 2007. Hamilton unilaterally, without his team’s knowledge, chose to visit race director Charlie Whiting and the stewards to question whether Rosberg had properly respected the regulations about double waved yellow flags. Originally the incident was not under investigation, but Hamilton’s insistent questioning of Whiting throughout the evening may have been what led to Rosberg being called back to the circuit by the stewards from a team event in Budapest. They accepted his explanation and he retained his pole position.
Mercedes’ Paddy Lowe later described Hamilton’s actions as “regrettable” but the mood in the team Saturday evening was rather more intense than might be suggested by that innocuous word. Having one of its drivers unilaterally pushing for the other Mercedes to receive a penalty – potentially putting at risk the team’s one-two position on the grid – angered both Lowe and team principal Toto Wolff. It was a new dimension to the internal struggle between their two drivers as they fight for the world title, one which took it beyond boundaries the management found acceptable. The team’s interests were potentially being compromised by Hamilton pushing for his own and we understand that Lowe and Wolff were giving serious consideration to suspending him for a race. The timing of the forthcoming German Grand Prix – Mercedes’ home race – just a few days later and the huge controversy such a move would have created there is believed to have been a deciding factor in the team stopping short of such drastic action.
All the controversy swirling around him only seemed to bring out Hamilton’s best. He beat a somewhat passive Rosberg off the line in Hungary and proceeded to dominate the race, leaving Nico to fend off the challenge of Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull for second. Seven days later at Hockenheim Hamilton again overcame Rosberg’s pole position advantage within a few seconds of the start to record his sixth victory in seven races, putting him at the head of the championship by 19 points as F1 headed into the summer break.
Back in 2007 Hamilton’s actions in Hungary went very much against his team’s interests: initiating the dispute with Alonso by not respecting team instructions during the fuel burn-off phase that was then a feature of qualifying, then following it up with a visit to the stewards to complain of Alonso’s impeding in the pitlane. It was the moment he transformed himself from McLaren protégé to an independent driver looking after only himself – and it left team boss Ron Dennis seething. Yet amid the turbulence he’d created, Hamilton turned up the next day and delivered a flawless victory. In comparable circumstances this year he was similarly unaffected by the discord he’d created in Mercedes – as those clean sweeps at the Hungaroring and Hockenheim showed. In fact it’s as if his performances are somehow enhanced by conflict around him. As someone whose paranoia antenna is very easily alerted, he seems to need something to fight against. Alain Prost once made a similar observation about how Ayrton Senna operated. Jochen Mass has talked about how his team-mate James Hunt always responded positively in his performances to off-track drama. “That made it very difficult for me,” said Mass, a much more reflective and sensitive fellow. One can imagine that it’s similarly difficult for Rosberg. No matter that Nico is mentally strong and capable of bouncing right back, turbulence and team censure bother him. Yet they seem just grist to Hamilton’s mill.
Asked about his actions post-qualifying in Hungary, Hamilton, with wide-eyed innocence and with Rosberg sitting right next to him, neatly deflected the question to the safety issue – which was brilliantly done because it is very difficult to argue with the general point he made. “Well the stewards need to come up with some kind of solution,” he said, “In the whole 23 years of my racing, it has been if it’s yellow flag, you slow down and if it’s double yellow flag, you be prepared to stop and Nico was doing the same speed at the apex as I was doing on the previous timed lap. If there happened to be a car that was spun or a marshal on the track, it would have been pretty hard for him to have slowed down in that case, so that’s why… and the fact that he didn’t get penalised for it means that we need to be careful because the message we’re sending not only to the drivers here but also to the drivers in the lower categories is that it’s now possible for you to lose only one tenth of a second in a double waved yellow flag section which is… one of the most dangerous scenarios… They need to clear that up because before it was two tenths that you were meant to lose with one yellow flag and half a second with two yellow flags. It wasn’t the case yesterday and there was no penalty, so going into the next race, we could be battling for pole position and we see double yellow flags and we know we only have to do a small lift and lose one tenth of a second and we’ll be fine and go purple in the sector. So that’s why it does need to be clarified and I’m sure Charlie and the stewards are going to do so because it needs to be clear.”
Rosberg, with sarcastic congratulation to Lewis for his speech responded with: “What you have to do with a double yellow is significantly reduce your speed and make sure you go safe. I went 20kph slower into that corner; 20kph is a different world in an F1 car, proper slow. It’s completely… everything is safe. That’s how I did my speed and lifted off 30 metres before my braking point, so I was just rolling in there, 20kph slower until I got to the apex. Then of course when you’re in the apex, I would have a much tighter line because
I went in slow and then so I could accelerate out again. So definitely
I significantly reduced my speed and that’s what it says you need to do and that’s why for the stewards that was completely acceptable. It was very, very obvious what I did, very clear and of course on a drying track you’re going to get massively faster every lap. It’s not like the track was consistent. On a drying track, it’s irrelevant what the sector time was because you’re going to get so much quicker every time you go out there because there’s wet patches and when they dry, you just go so much quicker. And so in that segment, I was slower, where there was the yellow flag but of course in the big sector, yeah, I’m quicker because the track is getting quicker and I’m pushing in all the other corners.”
As a direct result of this controversy, the FIA had revised the convention from Hockenheim. Henceforth, in a similar situation, the session would be red-flagged, meaning there’d be no incentive for drivers to keep pushing. But much more interesting than such arcane matters is the psychological battle between the two title contenders and how it’s continually morphing and developing even as they go into their third year of having only the other as their single realistic rival.