SUZUKA, Japan — Something is “not good” in Lewis Hamilton’s state of mind.
And with Nico Rosberg, his teammate at Mercedes, winning four of the last five races, you don’t have to look far to understand what is bothering Hamilton, a three-time world champion. Rosberg’s victory Sunday at the Japanese Grand Prix left Hamilton in a distant second place, 33 points behind, with just four races remaining this season.
Mercedes has been the dominant team of the last two years, and on Sunday it clinched the season’s constructors’ title, with Rosberg winning from the pole position and Hamilton finishing third, with Max Verstappen of Red Bull finishing second. But the battle between the Mercedes teammates, and especially Hamilton’s state of mind, overshadowed everything else in Japan over the weekend.
“Just the whole weekend went really well from the word ‘go.’ The start went well, and everything went well,” said Rosberg, with a dejected Hamilton standing beside him.
Rosberg sped off to a perfect race start, led to the finish and grabbed his ninth victory of the season. He has 313 points this season to Hamilton’s 280. His first victory in Japan was the 23rd over all of his career.
Hamilton’s problems began at the Malaysian Grand Prix the previous Sunday, when he lost a certain victory when his engine blew with 15 laps remaining while he had a comfortable lead. In the heat of the defeat, he said that “someone” clearly did not want him to win, and his words were interpreted by many to mean he felt there was a conspiracy against him.
On Thursday, Hamilton, a Briton, played with Snapchat on his smartphone during the official news conference before the weekend’s race, apparently oblivious to his job of the moment. He was roundly criticized for that, especially in the British media.
Then, a few hours after he missed out on pole position on Saturday to Rosberg by just .013 seconds, he walked out of a media session in his team’s hospitality suite before it even started. He arrived and said immediately that he had something “not good” on his mind, that he did not like what many in the media had written about his Snapchat episode and that he would not answer any questions before he left.
“The other day was a super-lighthearted thing,” he said of the Snapchat escapade. “And if I was disrespectful to any of you guys, or you felt I was disrespectful, it honestly was not the intention.”
But the veiled apology then turned into an attack against certain journalists and a refusal to answer questions.
Then came the terrible start to his race Sunday, when he dropped from second to eighth position by the first corner.
“I had wheel-spin,” he said afterward. “I’m not really quite sure, I’ll have to see what the engineers say.”
But he apologized over the radio to his engineer right after it happened, as if it was his fault, and he later said he made a mistake.
In contrast, Rosberg sped off to a flawless race with virtually no competition. Once Hamilton got down to racing, however, he made a fabulous climb up the pack to finish less than a second behind Verstappen, despite a tough defensive move by the Red Bull driver on the penultimate lap.
After the race, the Mercedes team lodged a protest against Verstappen’s move to block Hamilton on that lap.
Hamilton’s race starts have been his weak point this year. After the Italian Grand Prix, when Hamilton dropped from the pole to sixth place on the first lap and ultimately lost to Rosberg, he said that the title this year could come down to starts.
His troubles at the start could also be linked to the pressure that Rosberg is putting on him.
“Starts are usually about your head, not just your clutch,” Martin Brundle, a commentator on British television and former driver, said on Sunday.
Rosberg and Hamilton have known and competed against each other since they were teenagers racing go-karts, with Hamilton always beating Rosberg. But this year, Rosberg has been his equal or better, both statistically, with nine wins to Hamilton’s six, and mentally.
Rosberg isn’t ready to count Hamilton out, though. “I know that Lewis, when he has difficulties like that, he will come back, fully motivated,” Rosberg said Thursday. “He’s going to come back as strong as ever.”
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