For a brief while in the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, it seemed that Red Bull might challenge Mercedes’ lead in the team standings of the 2016 Formula One (F1). But Lewis Hamilton simply pulled away, leaving the two Red Bull drivers—Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo—to joust for podium finishes.
Then, on lap 40, Hamilton’s Mercedes engine let go. As the car exhaust caught fire, the two-time defending champion let out a cry of disappointment on the radio. Stepping out of the car, Hamilton was down on his haunches, knowing that his bid for a third successive world title—fourth overall—had just gone up, literally, in smoke.
He later spoke about a peculiar fact in an interview with the channel Sky Sports. “It was a brand new engine. I can’t believe that there are eight Mercedes cars (on the grid) and only my engines have gone this way. Something just doesn’t feel right.”
Hamilton has been dogged by a string of technical issues in five (of 16) races this season. This is apart from the clutch issues he has suffered in four races, which compromised his performance at race starts. While his teammate Nico Rosberg too has faced clutch issues, out of the 43 engines Mercedes has supplied this season, Hamilton’s engines are the only one to have faced problems.
That smoking engine in Sepang might have turned this year’s drivers’ championship firmly in Rosberg’s favour. Hamilton needed a strong response after the listless Singapore Grand Prix two weekends ago. From taking a dominant pole to leading for nearly 75% of the race, he had done everything right.
Rosberg, meanwhile, was enduring a tough race. He had suffered a spin at the first corner, and was last after the first lap. Desperate to make amends, he ended up ramming into Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari while overtaking on lap 38, and was given a 10-second time penalty.
Had Hamilton won the race, he would have wiped off the eight-point deficit and Rosberg (who would have hypothetically finished fourth) would have led the championship by five points. Instead, Hamilton now trails Rosberg by 23 points, and needs miracles in the last five races to deny his teammate the chance of winning the 2016 title.
“I still have faith and hope. (But) it feels a little bit like the man above, or a higher power, is intervening a little bit,” Hamilton said, later retracting his controversial statement.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper : A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest