Lewis Hamilton heads to his home event in desperate need of a victory to rejuvenate his championship bid, the Briton again coming home second to team-mate and standings leader Nico Rosberg at the Austrian Grand Prix.
Having lined up ninth following a qualifying error, Hamilton salvaged his weekend to cross the line seconds adrift of Rosberg, but victory and the recouping of a vital seven points was there for the taking.
Tardy pitstops – which some might read a little too much into, didn’t help his cause, but failure to overtake a competitive Valtteri Bottas earlier than he did – undercutting the Finn following the latter’s final service, left him too much to do in too little time.
Gradually paring the advantage ceded to Rosberg courtesy of his non-finish at Australia, Hamilton assumed the standings lead following victory at Spain, his fourth in succession, with most believing it would remain this way for the balance of the season. He hasn’t headed the standings since.
True, the deficit to Rosberg following Austria is only 29 points with eleven events remaining – an argument could be made for twelve considering the polarising double-points finale at Abu Dhabi. True, a Hamilton victory and Rosberg failure to score at Silverstone would reduce the margin to the same 4 points as it was post-Monaco.
Yet the psychological damage inflicted by the German at the past three events has struck a profound blow to the Briton’s quest for his first title since 2008.
The events of Canada were largely out of Hamilton’s control, but the race has the potential to determine which path Mercedes opts for in the back half of the season.
Indeed, Mercedes will keenly monitor the outcome of the final three events prior to the traditional summer break. Should Hamilton fail to reduce, at the least, stabilise the deficit to Rosberg following Hungary, it will be the Silver Arrows’ prerogative to back the German’s bid for the crown.
And what more incentive does Hamilton require to ensure this isn’t the case than the next three outings?
The first two serve as an intriguing aside, as much a part of the wider, long-term picture, relating to intensifying “mind games” being conducted between the duo.
At Silverstone, on home soil – no less a venue which doubles as one of Mercedes’ home events, Hamilton will carry the support of a nation, almost expecting him to be first to the chequered flag. Rosberg claiming a second successive victory there would not be received well.
After this, it’s on to Germany – this occasion at Hockenheim, where Hamilton will be desperate to deny Rosberg the satisfaction of success in front of his own compatriots. It goes without saying that in their utopia, Mercedes executives would want a German driver in a German car on the top step of the podium at the German Grand Prix.
The final stop at Hungary holds happy memories for Hamilton. He boasts four victories from seven attempts, so it is probably the one out of the three where he should be most confident of coming out on top. In contrast, Rosberg has scored points at the venue just twice from eight outings with a best return of fourth place.
Then, the majority expect Hamilton to prevail most weekends, yet Rosberg each weekend this season has continued to deliver. Nothing is certain.
A quick breakdown for Hamilton’s objectives would be: victory at Hungary, and one of Silverstone or Hockenheim – assuming Rosberg continues his trend of finishing first or second. Anything less could be deemed fatal to the Briton’s aspirations.
Two victories to Hamilton, and the gap is contained to the equivalent of a victory. Two Rosberg victories, and the margin would balloon closer to forty points. Three victories to Rosberg, handing him an equivalent two-victory buffer, and it would be as good as game over. The simple calculations below spell out the permutations.
HAMILTON 1st x 3. ROSBERG 2nd x 3 = ROSBERG 8 point lead
HAM 1st x 2, 2nd x 1. ROS 1st x 1, 2nd x 2 = ROS +22 pts
HAM 1st x 1, 2nd x 2. ROS 1st x 2, 2nd x 1 = ROS +36 pts
HAM 2nd x 3, ROS 1st x 3 = ROS +50 pts
There’s yet a lot of water to go under the bridge, but it can’t be emphasised enough that these three races serve as the definitive component of the season as far as titles are concerned.