By Michael Cords
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
Last week at Spa Lewis Hamilton started the weekend with a bleak outlook. Due to failures at China and Russia earlier this season, he was in need to replace components of his power unit. The resulting 55-place grid penalty
meant starting from the back of the field. By the end of the weekend Hamilton’s mood was decidedly changed as he took a fine third place. Coming into this weekend’s Italian GP Hamilton remained upbeat. The penalties now out of the way, he effectively has three fresh engines with which to battle teammate Nico Rosberg for the championship. “I think I now have more engines than most of the others, which is great. Now, the fight is really on for the second half of the season,” he said prior to arriving at Monza.
“It’s game on,” was Lewis’ declaration on Friday and he backed up his optimism by topping the free practice sessions on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Then he breezed through qualifying, easily the fastest in all three sessions to take a commanding pole position. Yet when the red lights went out he found himself staring at Rosberg’s rear wing as it sped away to an uncontested victory. After dropping to sixth on the opening lap Hamilton eventually recovered to second, but it was the second weekend in a row that his points advantage over Rosberg diminished.
So far in 2016 Hamilton has taken pole seven times but has only converted this to three wins. The 2016 Italian Grand Prix was the third time this year that Lewis sat on pole but Nico claimed the top step of the podium. This weekend should have been an easy win for Hamilton as the Mercedes advantage on this track was such that only Rosberg could offer a serious challenge. In such a straight fight Hamilton should come out on top as Rosberg has had little success in passing the Englishman on track. Wheel to wheel dueling is Lewis’ specialty and he almost always gets the better of his teammate. That is why converting pole to a lead into turn one is so important. Failing to do so plays into Rosberg’s key strength, which is to get into a rhythm at the front of the field. Left unaccosted for too long, he rarely makes an error at the front.
This was the situation at the first two Grand Prix of the year. Hamilton took pole at both, but finished the opening lap 6th at Australia and 9th at Bahrain. Though he recovered to claim podiums at both races, Rosberg walked away with maximum points and Lewis spent the next four months playing catch-up in the points standings. Once he did so, Hamilton opened up a 19 point lead and regular order had been restored. His fourth world title was there waiting for him. This brings us to the engine penalties at Spa and the poor getaway at Monza, and now only two points separate the Mercedes duo.
Immediately after the race Lewis commented on his lost opportunity, “It’s tough to take when you lose a race because of such a poor start. I’m happy with my performance this weekend but after such an incredible qualifying day yesterday it was disappointing to be unable to capitalize.” The team has been supportive but recognize the problems of their star driver as Mercedes Technical Director Paddy Lowe said, “[Hamilton’s] start was clearly a bad one…and that made it extremely difficult for him to compete for the win.” Team boss Toto Wolf acknowledged that Hamilton admitted on the radio the mistake at the start was his, though by Sunday evening rumors in the paddock pointed to a clutch problem. The existence of a mechanical issue may ease Hamilton’s mind but the points loss is all the same.
By all measure, Lewis is a faster driver than Nico and by this deep into the season should be stamping his authority at the top of the points table. That said, Nico is no slouch and is good enough to capitalize on any openings presented. While mechanical gremlins are out of his control, Hamilton can and must prevent further openings. On weekends of qualifying dominance, he needs to carry this over into the race and avoid giving his opponent a head start. The fresh power unit at Monza was an excellent opportunity to do so, but that opportunity is now gone. With seven races left, the title is up for grabs. If Lewis doesn’t take it then he'll look back on weekends like this as the reason why.