Monday, 26 May 2014

Digging in for trench warfare

Things change very quickly in F1. To think that earlier this season, just about right up until Monaco qualifying session indeed, many of us (including some that should know better) were talking about a new equilibrium of Lewis Hamilton. That the previous combustible nature, the capacity to find rancour, seemed shed.

The atmosphere between the two
Mercedes drivers in Monaco was obvious
Photo: Octane Photography
Well scratch a lot of that. There was plenty of rancour around, and no little combustion too, in the case of Lewis and his teammate Nico Rosberg in both Monaco's qualifying session and race just passed. Starting off with Nico's trip down the escape road at the end of Saturday's session earning him pole rather incongruously due to subsequent yellow flags requiring Lewis to slow on his own effort, and projecting itself from there. The main problem being that Lewis appears convinced that Nico did it deliberately.

Quite what makes Lewis so convinced of Nico's guilt isn't clear, what he's seen that the stewards didn't and also not apparently seen by the likes of Merc dual bosses Niki Lauda and Toto Wolff (though with those two there may be some desire to keep schtum in order to proetct Nico from penalties potentially), as well as that passed a lot of the rest of us by too. Yet even after reflection and a cooling off period Lewis remained resolute, noting on race day: 'I wish you could have seen the data. I saw something late on last night and all I could do was smile.' Others in the paddock, including some ex-drivers, took his side also.

Data late last night or not however Lewis seemed equally convinced long before, immediately after the qualifying session as could be discerned both from his body language and his words to the media, and this perhaps doesn't reflect well on his case. At that point the only evidence he had was that the detour down the escape road happened at all, which in itself wasn't really relevant given Nico's intent is the key factor in this. Beyond that bare (and irrelevant as mentioned) fact he had no reason to suspect Nico of foul play. And call me Mr Old Fashioned, but I believe it's important not to assume guilt - particularly of serious misdemeanours - without compelling evidence. It at least leaves open the possibility that Lewis rushed to judgement. It also leaves open the possibility of what Thomas Kuhn called 'adherence to a paradigm' - in other words that once one becomes fixated that something is so they tend to interpret evidence encountered as being in support of it, even if it's not supportive.

However further light was shed when it was also revealed that Monaco qualifying, escape roads and all that, wasn't the start. It was simply the point at which tension that had been building anyway was released; the mistrust between the two was well underway. Lewis apparently used an MGU setting he shouldn't have done in the Spanish race which helped him defend his place against Nico. Nico it transpired later had apparently done similar himself before that in Bahrain. One is put in mind of Mahatma Gandhi's maxim that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. The similarities between F1 and the primary school playground are often striking.

Hamilton was left to follow Rosberg in Monaco
Photo: Octane Photography
Yet even with this Lewis seemed on Sunday rather exasperated with his team too, particularly on the matter of strategy wherein it's Merc's way to give the lead driver first dibs. Lewis in response to this both during the race and after it stopped about a syllable short of accusing his team of doing the dirty on him.

Quite why he felt this way isn't clear. It could be down to Wolff and Lauda firmly and immediately nailing their colours to the Nico's defence mast after qualifying. But as intimated they could hardly not.

Most F1 drivers have a competitive paranoia of course; it can be beneficial in some ways. But as Marc Priestley, ex of McLaren and now of the fourth estate, stated on Twitter after the Monaco race it's also not smart to aim your fire on the wider collective you're a part of: 'it frustrates (a) team when drivers think they've been had over'. Lewis who on Saturday evening referenced the Senna-Prost battles at McLaren of the late 1980s might do well to remember that then it was Prost, not Senna, who went down that avenue, and it contributed to him being ostracised in the team on his way towards the exit door. Not for nothing Wolff gently admonished Lewis in public afterwards.

If one is to be brutal too Lewis has a bit of a previous for this sort of stuff. He's had his fallings out with team mates before (one in particular), as well as with his previous employer. To borrow again from Priestley on Twitter, Lewis 'left McLaren without many fans in the garage because of his attitude and arrogance, (it) won't take long for the same to happen at Merc I'm afraid'. Nico by contrast has spent most of his F1 career being entirely inoffensive. This of course may not necessarily be instructive in this case but it's nevertheless worthwhile to keep in mind as context. And whatever is the case - including whatever is the case with his team mate - Lewis would be best advised to keep his team onside.

Photo: Octane Photography
As for what stretches ahead, after the race Lewis wasn't keen on reconciliation. On the contrary he appeared intent to dig in further for trench warfare - he wasn't friends with Nico; he was of no mind to clear up the bad feeling any time soon. Nico meanwhile gave a convincing impression of one in a war that he didn't know he was fighting.

A look around internet forums has shown that many have in turn taken up arms - 'Lewis is a brat' and 'Nico is a cheat' being the two broad groupings. So all of the sudden what seemed likely to be a title fight that was a straightforward one between two drivers (whom we thought fairly matey as F1 pilots go) in by far the best car, now it looks likely that we'll have an embittered one. Niki Lauda meanwhile 'guarantees' the rift will be fixed, but you suspect it may even be beyond Niki's powers of persuasion. But only a churl wouldn't wish him luck; as we've seem plenty of times before such a feud can suck the life out of a team; give its garage a very haunted atmosphere.

To think too that just a few days ago most were dismissing the rumoured Fernando Alonso switch to the guys in silver to partner Lewis there as fanciful, on the grounds that Mercedes had no need to invite in the possible bother compared with what it had with its incumbents. Nico's latest deal with Mercedes has precluded that one presumably anyway, but who'd have thought that an Alonso-Hamilton pairing would so quickly become the one with the less froth in it.

Things change very quickly, as I said.


  1. Great article - I think Nico has scored a signirficant psychological victory with his win in the race and the controversy arising from his error in qualifying. Lewis has exposed his emotional weakness which will probably play havoc with the rational part of his makeup. Nico doesn't need to DO anything, he can simply watch Lewis fester. I think Lewis's relationship with the team will suffer if he continues to be so petulant. I appreciate that the team bosses have to balance talent against aggravation, you do not get to be where Lewis is without being hard and single minded, however there will come a time when they will have to explain to their "Employee" that his behaviour is unacceptable and contrary to his contract of employment. Don't be surprised if Alonso makes himself available as a replacement for Lewis. For me this has more resonance to Villeneuve-Pironi than it does to Senna-Prost - I just hope it doesn't end the same way.

    1. Agree Dominic. It struck me that whether Nico meant what he did in Monaco quali or not, in terms of his positioning etc he's payed a blinder, and done it essentially by sitting back and letting Lewis make all of the errors, and strain his relationship with the team etc.

      I agree too that that, if this continues, it'll be fascinating to see exactly at what point Mercedes step in. Think Toto Wolff's already said something like he won't allow anything that goes against Mercedes company values.

    2. Did you catch Toto saying that they need a new piece of equipment in their pit, a crystal ball! When I first heard this I thought it was a bit of a put down in response to Lewis's communications during the race, however having learnt about Barcelona/Bahrain engine settings, their Monaco "clear the air" session and then Lewis making comments about Data that made him smile I think Toto is probably close to losing his patience with Lewis. This one is going to run and run and I suspect the damage has already been done as far as team harmony is concerned. Lewis has been less than diplomatic in some of the broadcast transmissions between him and the pits during races this year, his engineer has been remarkably restrained in his replies.

    3. Yes, I think Wolff's words were a clear (if rather gentle) public admonishment of Lewis. As I say in the article, whatever Lewis does vis-a-vis Nico I think he needs to be careful to keep his team onside. In Monaco he got dangerously close to a 'me versus the world' attitude.

  2. I bet Alonso is watching this thing unfold with just a touch of glee.