Champion Hamilton falls behind in F1 title race
Rosberg has 33-point lead after Japan win
Did Lewis Hamilton press the self-destruct button in Suzuka?
The defending world champion fell 33 points behind Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg after a calamitous weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix.
With just four races to go in the 2016 Formula One season, Hamilton is now facing a tough task if he is to reverse his fortunes and win a fourth world title.
Sunday’s race at Suzuka seemed to seal the Briton’s fate, but an earlier series of social media posts had set the tone for Hamilton’s bumpy ride.
After losing pole position to Rosberg by just 0.013 seconds in qualifying, he had started second on the grid and had to get the jump on his rival at lights out.
Instead, Hamilton went backwards.
Starting on the side of the grid still damp from heavy rain did not help but the racing superstar also spun his wheels and by the time he clicked into gear his rivals had streamed past and he was in eighth.
On a must-win weekend, he had made the worst start of his year.
Hamilton’s troubles had, in reality, started a lot earlier than lights out on race day.
The three-time world champion, who is proud of a social media following which totals more than seven million on Twitter and Instagram combined, set the tone for the weekend during his appearance in Thursday’s FIA media conference.
Hamilton was chosen to make a mandatory appearance in the televised question-and-answer session with global journalists because an engine blowout had cost him almost certain victory at the Malaysia GP four days earlier.
There were plenty of questions that needed answering.
But Hamilton, positioned front and center, was mostly absorbed in his mobile phone, posting annotated photos of himself and Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jr on Snapchat.
In one, Hamilton appeared as a goofy rabbit while Sainz Jr., sat in the row behind, was portrayed as a cartoon deer.
His bizarre behavior led to accusations that he lacked respect, while others defended him for reaching out to his fans on social media rather than paying attention during a media conference where the journalists didn’t ask any pertinent questions.
There were four questions to Hamilton, one of six drivers in the media conference, two of which were about his use of social media.
British journalist Barry Glendenning writing Sunday blamed “bottomless reserves of childishness” for the 31-year-old multimillionaire’s “charmless” antics.
Hamilton took to Twitter to defend himself. “Today was meant to be fun, not at all disrespectful. Some people take themselves to (sic) seriously. I had a blast, highlight of my day!”
The dust, however, had not quite settled on “bunny-gate” and, after failing to snatch pole position from Rosberg, Hamilton pulled the plug on his media session with the press.
“I don’t really plan on sitting here many more times for these kind of things,” he told reporters in Suzuka before walking out.
When Hamilton climbed into the cockpit of his Mercedes Silver Arrow for a race he simply had to win, he appeared unsettled on and off the track.
After getting swamped off the line, Hamilton only started to find the fire in his belly after his first pit stop. When he came back out in seventh he pulled off a string of predatory passes to move to fourth.
In the final stint, Hamilton was zoning in on Max Verstappen’s Red Bull for second but when he attempted to dive past he was forced to take a detour down the escape road as the teenager defended hard.
Mercedes initially said after the race they would appeal against Verstappen on the grounds that he had moved under braking, which is not allowed under the sport’s rules.
The team later withdrew the appeal and Hamilton again explained on Twitter, in a tweet that was later deleted: “There is no protest from either myself or Mercedes. One idiot said we have but it’s not true. Max drove well, end of. We move on.”
The “idiot” in question was never unmasked, which may have been just as well as the British-based German team was celebrating wrapping up a third constructors’ championship in a row in Japan.
There are those who say that if Hamilton wins the 2016 world championship it will be the best title of his illustrious career.
The 31-year-old memorably won his first world title in 2008 with McLaren by a single point at the final corner of the final race in Brazil. He has won two titles more since moving to Mercedes in 2013.
In Japan, Hamilton joined Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher as only the third driver in F1 history to clock 100 podium finishes.
Social media faux pas and dodgy starts aside, he has had some rotten luck in 2016.
As well as his catastrophic blowout in Malaysia, there were more engine gremlins in China, Russia and Azerbaijan. Those problems meant Hamilton had to swallow a 55-place grid penalty in Belgium for changing engine components.
A series of poor starts and a sensational first-lap collision with Rosberg in Barcelona, which took both Mercedes out of the race, have also contributed to Hamilton’s hard luck.
Hamilton, F1’s biggest star, has also made it clear that he has other things going on in his life, among them a modeling career as a brand ambassador for cosmetics giant L’Oreal.
The 2016 title race between the two Mercedes teammates has been a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat duel. First Rosberg was 43 points ahead, then he was 19 points behind, and suddenly, after an amazing run since the summer break, the German is 33 points ahead again and seemingly unstoppable.
In 2014 and 2015, Hamilton out-muscled his teammate to the title. He was faster, he was stronger, he was tougher. In the final race of a brilliant 2014 season in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton took a double-points victory as Rosberg’s car limped across the line with engine problems.
Rosberg’s ability to close out a title – a longed-for first-ever title to match his father, 1982 winner Keke Rosberg – remains unknown.
The 31-year-old father-of-one goes into the final four races of the season knowing all he has to do is finish second in every race and the title is his.
The result in Japan also put the title out of sight of any other driver. Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo is now 101 points behind Rosberg which means, with a maximum 100 points now on the table, only a Mercedes driver can be crowned world champion.
Rosberg has stuck to his mantra of focusing on one race at a time throughout the entire season. That philosophy has helped him steadily regain the championship lead thanks to first-time wins at classic F1 tracks in Belgium, Italy and Japan.
But now the pressure is beginning to lift, dare he dream of the title? And if he does, does he have the courage to maintain a steady hand at the wheel to the finish?
Hamilton now returns to the scene of his 2015 title triumph in Austin, Texas, for one more roll of the dice at the US Grand Prix on October 23.
The maths says he is not out of the title running, but his chances of conjuring a great escape may now depend on if he can add it all up in his own head.