CHINESE GP--JAMES ALLEN'S VERDICT
Formula 1, bloody hell.
Just like Nigel Mansell, Lewis Hamilton is making it difficult for himself.
The tension will be unbearable in Brazil in two weeks' time and there is every chance of him losing the championship, all because of a shocking own goal by the McLaren team today.
In a spooky replay of last season’s title climax, both the main championship contenders have now suffered a retirement in successive races, Alonso in Japan, Hamilton in China.
Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen, who was always going to win this race from the moment he walked into the circuit on Thursday, moved into contention as well.
McLaren's big mistake
It was a calamitous decision by McLaren not to bring Hamilton in for new tyres in the laps up to lap 31.
It reminded me of Nurburgring 2005 when they left Raikkonen out on a badly flat-spotted tyre in the closing stages and he lost the race.
This was worse as there was still a long way to go in the race and it was painfully clear from Lewis’s lap times that he was in terrible trouble.
From doing 1m43s laps on lap 25 he slipped to 1m50s on lap 27 and his next three were in the 1m55s.
In other words he was 12 seconds a lap slower than he had been five laps earlier. He lost seven seconds to Alonso in one lap alone.
The reason why he was in trouble is that Lewis took more out of his tyres in the first part of the race than his rivals, building an impressive lead over Raikkonen, Massa and Alonso.
But he paid a heavy price because his tyres went off before theirs did.
The McLaren is harder on its tyres than the Ferrari anyway, but Lewis took more out of them than Fernando in the opening stint.
In reality Fernando was the guy he was racing today, not Kimi.
Lewis had a 20-second lead over him when the tyre trouble struck, almost a pit stop in his pocket (a stop is 20s plus the stationary time of around 7s) so he could afford to act quickly, once the lap times went off.
He lost all of that advantage over the next few laps anyway while the team dithered and tried to second-guess the weather.
I wonder whether there was paralysis on the pit wall, no one daring to take the decision to bring him in.
With another year or two of experience, Lewis would have made the decision for them.
Racing the wrong man
Up until lap 25 things were going beautifully.
He had nine seconds in hand over Kimi when he made his first stop on lap 15.
Kimi halved that margin by staying out four laps longer.
Lewis matched his lap times for a few laps, but then it became obvious that his tyres were going off savagely. He could hardly turn through the corners.
The team was monitoring the weather, believing that more rain was on its way. They did not want to bring him in for dry tyres only to have to pit him again a few laps later for wets if started raining.
But the critical point, surely, was that the cars who had pitted for dry tyres already, particularly Massa, were a long way behind and anyway they would be in the same boat as him if it began to rain again.
On that basis the worst that could have happened if it had rained after he switched to dry tyres is that he would have finished third.
As for the two cars who posed a threat, Kimi was always going to be hard to beat as he had nothing to lose, so Lewis’s crew should have just thought about Fernando.
He was on the same worn wet tyres as Lewis, albeit his lap times were four or five seconds a lap faster in the three laps before Hamilton’s retirement.
But all three men were going to have to pit soon anyway.
So he would almost certainly have beaten Fernando anyway, even if it had rained again, and, as I say, the worst thing that could have happened by bringing him in on lap 28 or 29 is that Lewis would have finished third – six points in the bag, Raikkonen would have been out of title contention in Brazil and Alonso would have needed to win with Lewis not scoring a point.
Instead he got no points here and the pressure on him will be insane in Brazil.
Okay, he only needs to finish second to be guaranteed the championship, but that is easier said than done.
I can see a situation where he and Fernando run into each other at the start, like they almost did at Spa, and Kimi wins the world title.
It’s a real possibility and one Alonso would not mind too much.
May I remind you of 1999: Eddie Irvine was four points ahead of Mika Hakkinen going into the last race – same margin as Lewis has – and he lost.
Okay this is Hamilton, not Irvine, but today shows that you should never start planning the celebration events until the job has been finished.
An intense Interlagos
Also the pressure on the McLaren team will be insane in Brazil.
Everyone will be asking about whether they are going to ‘nobble’ Alonso’s car and they will have to handle that.
I’m told that when Lewis went out, a huge cheer went up in the press room from the non-British media.
Lewis is not popular because the foreign media believe that there is an English conspiracy for him to win, as I mentioned on Friday.
It was very obvious that by hedging their bets the team was losing him the race.
I understand that Bridgestone advised them to bring him in, but they did not listen.
Maybe they thought that they knew what they were doing, but this was a moment for pragmatism.
Ten seconds per lap slower than he had been surely was enough to persuade them that it was folly to delay.
[highlight]Apparently Ron Dennis said after the race something along the lines of ,”We were not racing Raikkonen, we were racing Alonso.”
As Alonso is actually in a McLaren too this is a terrible Freudian slip and shows where loyalties lie.[/highlight]
As for Lewis’s slide into the gravel trap, I think that what happened there was that he was tucked up behind another car’s rear wing on the approach to the pit lane entry.
He did not judge the speed and distance as well as he would have done if the way had been clear. So he arrived a bit too hot at the sharp bend in the pit lane and slid off.
But he should never have been in that position in the first place.
Yes it was his first mistake of the year, but 80% of the mistake today was the team’s and only 20% can be attributed to Lewis for the actual slide.
The gambling game
The timing of that rain shower and the switch to slicks was crucial to the outcome of the race.
David Coulthard and Mark Webber both lost potentially great results because of wrong choices and extra stops.
It worked out brilliantly for Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel.
Kubica was leading on the right tyres and fuelled to the finish when his hydraulics went – a repeat of Nick Heidfeld’s problem on Friday.
Kubica could well have won the race today, or at least finished on the podium.
Vettel did a brilliant job to get fourth place, bouncing back from his humiliation in Japan.
He rode his luck and was lapping very quickly once he got onto dry tyres.
In fact the whole Red Bull/Toro Rosso thing has really moved forward in performance lately. I think that they – particularly Red Bull – will take a big step forward next year.
Bad news for Williams, Toyota, Honda and maybe even Renault.