Echoes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna


In Singapore – where a 41st Grand Prix victory would have put him on par with his great hero Ayrton SennaLewis Hamilton blithely claimed to be unaware of the fact, and that took a bit of believing. Even though these days Lewis’s somewhat surreal way of life appears to touch motor racing only at Grand Prix weekends, it seemed unlikely that he was ignorant of his – and Ayrton’s – tally of victories.

Still, that was what he said, and if he suffered a rare retirement in Singapore, at Suzuka normal service was resumed: in equalling Senna’s total – and getting quite teary about it – Hamilton consummately claimed his 19th victory for Mercedes in the two years of the ‘hybrid’ era, during which time all his rivals have won 14 between them.

Given the massive performance advantage Mercedes has enjoyed over the last couple of seasons, it is no surprise that Nico Rosberg – with eight wins – is next up. Although Daniel Ricciardo took three for Red Bull in 2014, and Sebastian Vettel has had three for Ferrari this year, usually Lewis and Nico have gone into a race with only their team-mate to worry about. Of such things do Grand Prix drivers dream.

Last season Rosberg won five races, to Hamilton’s 11, despite having much the best of it in qualifying. This time around, though, Lewis has made far fewer mistakes when going for ‘the lap’, and has dominated Nico on Saturday as well as Sunday.

Invariably the two of them have continued to qualify 1-2, with the first corner effectively deciding the outcome of the afternoon. It was just so in Japan, where Rosberg needed to win if he were to keep alive the slenderest of world championship hopes. From pole he got away well, but an overheating engine compromised his acceleration, so that the two Mercs arrived at the first corner side by side.

They continued that way into the second turn, too, and indisputably Hamilton – on the inside – had ‘the line’, and was always going to come out ahead. As it was, he ran his car out wide at the exit of the corner, and in the process left no race track for his team-mate, who duly went off. Whether or not Lewis needed to behave as he did has been the subject of much debate since the race. Always adept at playing the wide-eyed innocent, he claimed that understeer had carried him wide.

Rosberg didn’t make a song and dance about it afterwards, merely murmuring that he “had to avoid a collision”, but his stone expression spoke volumes. Perhaps he was remembering the Hungaroring in 2014 – when he was similarly ushered off the track by the other Mercedes.

The situation between them has diluted echoes of Senna and Prost. Time and again, when they were McLaren team-mates in 1988 and ’89, Alain was put into a position where, “I backed off, or we crashed – two McLarens out on the spot…” Ayrton, of course, always got a big laugh when he put this down to, “Prost whining again…”, but many in the team privately acknowledged they had cause to be grateful to Alain.

Hamilton has frequently spoken of his childhood adoration of Senna, of trying to model his driving on that of his idol, and while I don’t suggest for a second that he would deliberately spear his rival off the road at 150mph (as occurred at Suzuka in 1990), clearly he has bought into the ruthless approach that served Ayrton so well for so long. As Mika Häkkinen once said to me, with only the faintest of smiles on his face: “The one thing you could never accuse Senna of was being a team player…”

1990 Japanese Grand Prix report by Denis Jenkinson – click here

In using the full width of the track at the exit of Suzuka’s second turn, Hamilton left no space for Rosberg, and in going off the track Nico lost two further places. Job done. I don’t have a problem with what Lewis did – it’s been around as long as cars have been raced – but I trust that, if Nico is ever similarly uncompromising with him, he will not squawk about it.

The question is, though, will that ever happen? While there may be a steely side to Rosberg, undoubtedly his approach to racing is more Prost than Senna – and on top of that, there must remain in his mind what happened at Spa last year: early in the race his front wing touched Hamilton’s tyre, giving Lewis a puncture and putting him out of the reckoning.

It was a tiny misjudgement, easily made, but it had massive repercussions – on the podium Rosberg was roundly booed by mouth-breathers in the crowd, but that was only the start of it. The Mercedes hierarchy responded as if the world had come to an end, and Nico was made to feel like a schoolboy in disgrace. There are those who suggest he has never been quite the same driver since.

“Spa last year was definitely a turning point,” says Martin Brundle. “Lewis is very streetwise, and he came out of the post-race team meeting, and said, ‘Nico admitted he’d done it deliberately…’

“While I reckon Nico was trying to make a point – that he wasn’t going to pushed around any more – there’s no way any driver deliberately runs into the car in front of him: it might give the guy a puncture, but it’s guaranteed to damage your front wing.

“What Lewis said was… something of a play on words, and I think he realised he could turn a negative into a positive – he’s brilliant at playing the victim, just as Ayrton was. He’d seen and heard Rosberg being booed on the podium – which clearly ripped the guy to shreds, as it would most people. Nico’s demeanour over the next few races was almost cowed.

“I think Lewis has a killer instinct that Nico will never have – and I also think the instinctive reaction of Toto (Wolff) and Niki (Lauda) straight after that race at Spa, with the adrenalin flowing, was very telling. No attempt to calm things down – just condemnation of Nico, who’d further increased his points lead, of course…

Compare more F1 drivers here

“Remember the championship decider at Abu Dhabi – and all the engine problems Nico had? Afterwards one of the senior team members said to me, ‘That was our worst nightmare – but at least it wasn’t Lewis’s car…’ They knew that both their world championships would have been absolutely buried in a flood of negativity if that had happened to Lewis. I never doubted they wanted him to win the championship.”

In the end, of course, you can argue that at Suzuka Rosberg could have given up the corner earlier, and simply fallen into line behind Hamilton. And you can also surmise that Nico might have been in the lead at that point, had he – in the style of contemporary Formula 1 – simply chopped Lewis on the run to the first corner. Perhaps it would have worked for him – or perhaps, in the words of Alain Prost, the two cars might have been ‘out on the spot’. In Formula 1, as in everything else, history unfailingly repeats itself.

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