How the sound of radio silence betrayed Hamilton's emotions in Baku

Lewis Hamilton drove back to the pitlane in virtual silence after the Azerbaijan GP Adam Cooper looks at the in-car footage for an idea of what the Baku error meant to the defending champion

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 06: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP looks on from the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on June 06, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Hamilton's silence spoke louder than any words could

Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

The 2021 World Championship is turning into a classic encounter between two great drivers at their very top of their respective games, and two mighty teams that are pushing everything to the limit.

At last weekend’s Azerbaijan GP we saw the emotions coming to the surface. Team bosses Toto Wolff and Christian Horner indulged in a war of words via TV as the “bendy wing” controversy rumbled on, and then during and after the race we saw just what this fascinating contest is taking out of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

In an extraordinary twist neither man made the top 10 in Baku as misfortune struck first one, and then the other.

“Initially Hamilton said nothing at all on the radio”

In the Dutchman’s case he was a completely innocent victim of tyre failure but Hamilton’s trip down the escape road at the restart was triggered by him inadvertently activating the “magic” brake button that deploys bias to the front for tyre warm-up purposes on formation laps and so on.

It was more of a flukey bit of finger trouble than a pukka mistake, but at the end of the day it was self-inflicted. There’s no doubt that Lewis has had some sleepless nights since Sunday.

The worst outcome for him prior to that restart was going to be an 18-point gain on Verstappen for second place – and for a couple of seconds before he sailed straight on it appeared that he might relieve Sergio Perez of the full 25. Instead he was left with nothing.

Lewis Hamilton Azerbaijan

Hamilton switched the “magic” on, and went off at the restart

Grand Prix Photo

A look at a replay of the onboard footage of those last couple of laps is very revealing. You may have heard some of the radio messages in the live TV coverage, but not necessarily in the full context.

After Hamilton went sailing straight on at the first corner he performed a U-turn and re-joined the track just as the tail-end Haas pairing of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher went by.

Initially Hamilton said nothing at all on the radio. It was over 40 seconds later, just as he turned into the tight Turn Eight left-hander before Baku’s historic castle, that he finally said, “I’m so sorry, guys.” “Don’t sweat it, Lewis,” engineer Pete Bonnington replied.

Told that he had to lift and coast for temperatures, Hamilton dropped back a little from Schumacher towards the end of the lap. With his racer’s instinct kicking in he drew up behind the Haas on the long run to the pits and had a look to the right, before slotting back in behind.

Crossing the line to start the final lap, still in 15th and last place, he realised that there was little to be gained. In effect he gave up, backed off, and by his standards, coasted around. He eventually crossed the line 3.3sec behind the two Haas drivers, who took the flag side-by-side.

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He then slowed and commenced the lap back to the pitlane at little more than walking pace, still saying nothing at all. Curiously, there was no motivational message or any comment from Toto Wolff, just at the time that you would think Hamilton needed some support.

In the absence of any interjection from the boss, a few corners into the lap a somewhat hesitant Bonnington said: “Well done this weekend mate. Some real positives to come out of it. Err… yeah, obviously disappointed, but we’ll bounce back from this one, no sweat.”

Hamilton still said nothing as he cruised around. He stretched out that lap from taking the flag to stopping in parc ferme to a remarkable 4min 20sec – arriving a full minute after Mazepin.

Having switched off his power unit he remained in the car for another minute, looking straight ahead, still in total silence. It was only after Bonnington eventually told him to change a steering wheel setting “if you’re still sat in there” that Hamilton finally said in a strained, gentle voice, “Did I have the magic on?”

“Ah yeah bud, just knocked that on,” said Bonnington. “We’ll have a look at it in a bit.”

After a long pause Hamilton added: “I could have sworn I turned it off.”

“Yeah you did, but knocked it on with the upshift,” his engineer replied. “We’ll have a chat later.”

Finally, after sitting in the car for a full two minutes, Lewis popped his belts and began the process of climbing out.

Toto Az

Toto and team had few words of support for Hamilton over the radio

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

So what is the relevance of all this? Only that it provides a little insight into the powerful emotions that must have been coursing through Hamilton as he tried to process what has just happened, and the potential impact on his World Championship challenge.

He knew that one way or another, he’d made a mistake – Bonnington at least confirmed that a fluke nudge from his gloved hand, rather than a procedural lapse on his part.

He simply needed that time, on his own, in the one place where he can get some sanctuary, in order to put himself into the right mode to face the media – and his team.

All of this has to be seen in the context of the death of Mansour Ojjeh, announced on Sunday morning. Hamilton has always remained close to the McLaren co-owner and his family, and it can’t have been easy to head into a race with such a personal loss on his mind, and then have his afternoon unfold the way it did.

To his great credit, Hamilton was able to compose his thoughts and find something to say when he went over to meet the TV cameras. Not obliged to attend the FIA top three press conference that he is accustomed to being at, he then came over to where I was standing with a handful of print media colleagues.

After explaining the brake button issue he talked about the bigger picture. He had earned just seven points, for seventh place and fastest lap in Monaco, over the two street events.

“I think it’s been an incredibly difficult two weeks, or two races,” he said. “And I think today it’s obviously a painful experience. I think today was really a stroke of bad luck. But Max had bad luck too, and these sorts of things happen.

Max Verstappen Azerbaijan

Hamilton was unlucky, but fortunately for him, so was Verstappen

Grand Prix Photo

“So naturally sorry to all the team and we’ll just regroup and try and come back stronger. But I think there’s lots of positives to take from the weekend in terms of where we recovered to get back to.”

What he was referencing was the way the team dug itself out of a hole just before qualifying, finally finding a set-up that Hamilton could work with – good enough to help him earn second place on the grid.

“I think naturally you can see clearly the Red Bull is the quickest at the moment,” he continued. “Very, very hard to keep up with them today. And so to have been in the mix, and in that position, was really an amazing experience.

“And it’s quite a humbling experience actually to come away with nothing after all the hard work. But these things happen.”

It could have been worse of course, for at least Verstappen failed to score, having been set to extend his advantage over Hamilton by 11 points, rather than one. But that did little to alleviate Lewis’s pain.

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“It’s irrelevant, it doesn’t really make any difference to be honest,” he said. “These lessons are sent to try us, and it’s just quite difficult also because I lost a friend this morning, and so just a mixture of emotions. But we live to fight another day.”

The performance of race-winner Perez also gave Hamilton food for thought. The Mexican has taken time to find his feet at Red Bull, and he still needs to up his game in qualifying.

However in Baku he played the perfect wingman role for Verstappen as he sat in second place. Fighting two Red Bulls is not going to be easy.

“I mean, their car is incredibly fast, so I think undoubtedly the two of them together will make it difficult,” Hamilton conceded. “That’s what we expected at the beginning of the year. So we’re going to just keep our head down.”

He put on a brave face, but it was clear that he was hurting. Yes, he’s endured some bad races even in dominant seasons, and been left frustrated. But a zero score in the middle of such a fight, while knowing that Verstappen and Red Bull are not going to fade away, was hard to take.

After Hamilton departed, Verstappen came over, chatting first to the Dutch media before switching to English. He’d had a little longer than Hamilton to come to terms with the direction his afternoon had taken.

Sergio Perez Azerbaijan 2021

Look who’s arrived – Perez’s upturn in form means Hamilton now has two Red Bull to think about instead of one

Grand Prix Photo

The kick he aimed at the deflated left rear Pirelli – an image that went around the world – gave some indication of his initial feelings. Hamilton’s subsequent failure to score took some of the anguish away, but certainly not all. He knew that Mercedes had dropped the ball in Baku and that RBR should have been able to take full advantage.

“I am still upset and disappointed, because we should have opened up that gap more in the championship,” he said. “Yeah, it was unlucky for me, and then, of course, I had a bit of luck that Lewis then didn’t score points.

“But nevertheless, of course it’s not what you want today. We should have just had a comfortable win here. Especially as it seemed like on the street circuits compared to Mercedes we had a bit of an edge on them. Which is good.

“But that’s why I wanted to outscore them more. Because I know when we go back to normal tracks, they are very tough and very difficult to beat.”

“We should have just had a comfortable win here” Max Verstappen

Verstappen was a good team player after the race, making sure he congratulated winner Perez at the first opportunity.

“I think Checo is getting more and more comfortable in the car, which is, of course, good for him and for the team,” he said. “I think he had a very good weekend, and he did everything he had to, because he had a good start, then he was behind me, we cleared the guys.

“And yeah, it would have been a one-two for the team, which would, of course, would have been an amazing result.”

Six races into this fabulous 2021 season and it’s Verstappen 105, Hamilton 101. Three back-to-back races in France and Austria are coming up fast, with up to 78 points up for grabs, including those for fastest laps, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how the championship will look when we head to Silverstone in mid-July.

This is a battle for the ages – let’s enjoy every minute of it…