Formula One 2014: The season so far – Part 4
Lewis Hamilton had just claimed a fairytale home win at Silverstone, one that, with Nico Rosberg failing to finish, had allowed him to jump right back into contention for the title.
But would his newfound luck hold? And was the British Grand Prix win the first in a run of victories that would see him close the slim four-point deficit to Rosberg and set him up to seize the championship lead from the German for a second time?
In the final part of our ‘Season so Far’ feature, we review the German and Hungarian Grands Prix.
What had appeared to be a genuine turning point in Lewis Hamilton’s campaign and perhaps a shift in momentum back in his favour in the title race, turned out to be nothing more than a freak stroke of fortune as Lady Luck resumed her snubbing of the Briton at the German Grand Prix.
With a little over seven minutes of the opening session of qualifying still to run, a brake failure pitched Hamilton into the barriers lining the Hockenheimring’s stadium section.
With the shunt bringing an early end to his afternoon, Hamilton was set to start fifteenth but dropped five places to twentieth on the grid after Mercedes elected to change his gearbox.
Meanwhile, at the front, team-mate Rosberg took an unchallenged pole and Hamilton’s title hopes suddenly looked bleak again.
On Sunday, the race was barely one corner old when the Safety Car had to be deployed. Williams’ Felipe Massa had run into McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen at the first corner, in a collision that flipped the Martini-liveried car onto its roll-hoop.
The car scraped along the ground upside down, kicking up sparks, before righting itself.
Massa was unhurt in the accident but was forced to retire on the opening lap for the second straight race.
As the race resumed, Hamilton scythed his way through the field yet again, pulling off some audacious overtaking moves. It wasn’t all clean however and the Briton made contact with Kimi Raikkonen and former team-mate Jenson Button and was extremely lucky to get away with nothing more than minor front wing damage.
As minor as it was though, the resultant loss of downforce meant his Mercedes was using up its tyres at a quicker rate and forcing Hamilton to make an extra stop.
In the end, he crossed the line third right behind Valtteri Bottas, the Williams driver scoring his third straight podium finish.
Hamilton very nearly grabbed second off Bottas towards the end, but his tyres had lost their bite and the Finn was able to keep him at bay.
Despite his best efforts at damage limitation, the gap to Rosberg, which stood at 4 points heading into the race, had now widened to 14 points.
Pole position: Nico Rosberg; Race winner: Nico Rosberg
Despite his luckless season so far, Lewis Hamilton was the favourite heading into the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The 2008 world champion had won the race on the outskirts of Budapest four times in seven appearances, a record matched only by Michael Schumacher, and was bidding to become the first driver to win at the Hungaroring for a fifth time.
He had claimed his first win for Mercedes at this race a year ago and was hoping to repeat that feat this season.
But instead the 29-year-old was left reeling from the cruelest blow that fate had yet dealt him.
On his outlap in the opening session of qualifying and still without a time on the board, Hamilton was forced to park up his Mercedes with the rear of the silver car wreathed in flame.
And as he walked away, head down, from the smoky remains of his blackened Merceds, pausing mid-stride to look back in disbelief before slapping the barrier in frustration, resigned to starting dead-last from the pitlane, team-mate Rosberg drove to yet another pole.
After two hot, dry days of running, rain arrived on Sunday. A brief shower in the build up to the race partially drenched the track, with puddles of water gathering in some parts of the circuit even as other parts remained bone dry.
Conditions were extremely tricky and Rosberg led the way at the start as the cars tiptoed their way around on the first lap.
Hamilton charged out of the pitlane, but his brakes cold, spun under braking for turn 2, sliding off into the run-off and lightly tapping the barrier with his front wing. But there was no damage done and the Mercedes, which had been rebuilt overnight, was soon back in the race.
Even in the tricky conditions, Rosberg’s Mercedes seemed to have the edge over the opposition with the German creating a nice little gap to Valtteri Bottas’ Williams and not even ten laps into the race, yet another Rosberg win seemed inevitable.
But just then, a heavy shunt for Marcus Ericsson in the Caterham brought out the safety car and turned the race on its head.
The timing of the safety car worked out badly for the top four, including Rosberg, who had passed the pitlane entrance when it was deployed.
As a result, they had to spend an extra lap trunding around at safety car speeds costing them time and crucially track position to the cars that had been able to dive into the pits.
This put Rosberg, who lost a further position at the restart, within striking distance of Hamilton, who had been among the cars that pitted at the opportune time.
From this point on, Mercedes were no longer in the pound seats and the race, unbelievably, started slipping out of their grasp.
It was eventually Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull who crossed the line to win, the Australian pulling off two brilliant overtaking moves on Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to seize the lead in the dying laps of the race.
Unlike in Canada, when the Mercedes had run into reliability problems, here they had been beaten fair and square.
Yes, they had the quickest car and had it been a straightforward race, they probably would have romped home to another dominant win.
There was definitely an element of luck – especially with the timing of the first safety car – to the fact that they didn’t.
But having said that, the same set of circumstances and all their accompanying head-scratching variables were presented to all teams and the fact of the matter is that Red Bull and Ricciardo did a better job within those circumstances.
Tensions between Hamilton and Rosberg also rose during the race as the team ordered Hamilton, who was ahead of his team-mate at this point, to move over for the German as he had another stop to make.
It was an unfathomable decision, given the two were locked in a closely-fought battle for the title, and while Rosberg’s extra pitstop would have dropped him behind Hamilton anyway, he would have caught up to the Briton sooner on his fresher tyres and had more opportunities to pass him.
Hamilton refused — rightly so — and only just kept Rosberg at bay, crossing the line a mere half second ahead of his rival.
And so as we head into the second half of the season, the championship remains finely poised. Rosberg leads Hamilton by 11 points and who will come out on top is anybody’s guess.
Pole position: Nico Rosberg; Race winner: Daniel Ricciardo
Images courtesy Octane Photographic