The 2020 Russian Grand Prix was no classic, but Lewis Hamilton’s inability to convert pole to victory was another illustration that the only team capable of beating Mercedes is Mercedes itself.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have melded into a near unstoppable racing force. Uniting in 2013 and winning their first double title the following season, no team and driver combination has been able to dethrone Formula One’s most potent coupling since.
Ferrari came close in 2018 but ultimately driver error and dead-end development undid the Scuderia and Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing has never truly contended.
Resultantly Mercedes has enjoyed the equal longest run of constructors titles in history, equalling Ferrari’s streak of six. This year it will surely go one better before doubling its advantage next season.
Hamilton’s similar run of success is blemished only once, having lost the 2016 drivers championship to teammate Nico Rosberg, and in some ways that defeat is instructive.
Like so many of his Mercedes losses, the perpetrator has come from the inside.
And so it is that Hamilton, starting from pole at the 2020 Russian Grand Prix and aiming to equal Michael Schumacher’s record 91 grand prix victories, managed to lose the race to teammate Valtteri Bottas.
The Briton was favourite to convert despite the hurdles to be overcome, namely starting on the non-preferred tyre and the extra speed rivals Bottas and Max Verstappen would gain from starting in his slipstream, but his outlook really soured about half an hour before the lights went out.
Leaving his garage on a reconnaissance lap, the Briton stopped at the exit of the pit lane for a practice start, returning for a second go before finally assuming pole position ahead of the race.
Unfortunately the location he’d chosen to practice his launch — well past pit exit, near where the lane rejoins the track proper — was far beyond the designated area as set out by the rules.
He had radioed his pit wall for permission and got the all clear, but his engineer, not watching the monitors at the time, didn’t realise how far Hamilton wanted to travel before the Briton returned for a second practice start.
The stewards took a dim view of the misunderstanding and slapped Hamilton with a five-second penalty for each error and the team €25,000 for not paying attention.
So it was painfully ironic that Hamilton held first place off the line despite the slipstream and managed to coax extra life from his soft tyres once the lights went out. Everything had fallen into place to claim victory, but the 10-second penalty was fatal.
Mercedes and Hamilton had defeated themselves, and not for the first time.
In Austria the team came close to failure by underestimating the aggressiveness of the kerbs. Its badly calibrated tyres handed Verstappen victory at Silverstone. At Monza the rookie error of stopping for tyres while the pit lane was closed — despite official communications and warning lights on track — cost Hamilton an easy victory.
Now, in Russia, the team made a transgression so unusual Hamilton hadn’t even heard of it.
“They’re trying to stop me, aren’t they?” a despondent Hamilton told British TV after the race. “But it’s okay. I just need to keep my head down and stay focused and we’ll see what happens.”
But Hamilton misplaces blame, and perhaps deliberately. Whereas responsibility for these rare mistakes must be shouldered internally, it’s adversity that time and again has proven his and Mercedes’s greatest motivator.
Hamilton still leads the championship by 44 points and remains one win shy of equalling the all-time record. Expect the team to be at its unbeatable best to next weekend in Germany.