Lewis Hamilton’s earnestness was in keeping with the serious, even sombre mood at the Suzuka circuit as he prepared for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.
He is 49 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel and leads his most serious rival and team-mate, Nico Rosberg, by 41. But since Vettel’s victory in the last race in Singapore, and his own retirement, the Briton would not discount any of his rivals.
“For me, everyone is a threat and they have been since Malaysia [where Vettel won the first of his three races],” Hamilton said carefully. “Everyone that wins is a serious threat, Sebastian, Kimi [Raikkonen], Nico.”
He seemed confident that the tyre problems that plagued Mercedes’ weekend in Singapore, and his own mechanical failure, would be overcome. “I have all the confidence in the world with the team,” the 30-year-old said. “We’ve had a run of 20-odd races where we’ve had no reliability issues and the car’s been good every weekend, and then we had one particular track, with the highest downforce, and bumpy and unique in its own way. Now we are at another which is like the others we’ve had all year long.”
He still looked solemn. But no one seems to be smiling, despite the fact that this is one of Formula One’s grandest affairs, a well supported race at one of the sport’s most vividly fast venues. Instead a feeling of loss and incipient departure, seized the mind in the grey dampness of Friday afternoon. The regular rainfall, it felt, mixed with the waters of the River Styx as it coursed through the motor homes and garages of uncertain teams.
The most poignant of all the sadnesses is the memory of Jules Bianchi, who sustained fatal injuries at this race last year. At his team, Manor, his death three months ago is still an open wound. They are grieving in private, they say, though the mourning regularly spills over into the entire paddock.
But as well as thoughts of Bianchi, there are deep concerns about what will happen to F1 between now and the end of the season. Lotus, who struggled to feed their mechanics after being locked out of their own hospitality area this weekend, are wondering whether they will drift into extinction when they come up in court again for unpaid bills on Monday. They are waiting, perhaps forlornly, to be rescued by Renault, and time is short.
Red Bull are still threatening to walk out on the sport at the end of the season because they have not got an engine, and would take Toro Rosso with them, though this is a familiar pose, and there are still high hopes of a power-unit deal with Ferrari.
Meanwhile, Jenson Button seems on the brink of an emotional retirement, leaving a money-haemorrhaging McLaren team without one of the sport’s best and most popular players.
There was such a feeling of disconsolation and anxiousness in the paddock, even of guilt and betrayal, that it almost added up to a Graham Greene novel. There, was, thank goodness, some black humour too. Jolyon Palmer, the Lotus reserve driver, tweeted an image of himself sitting in a squeezed room, with a makeshift seat and a packet of Doritos. The caption read: “Only an install lap in the rain this morning. Now just kicking back and enjoying the @Lotus_F1Team VIP hospitality!”
Romain Grosjean, the team’s lead driver, posted another picture of his team sitting on makeshift and perhaps symbolically wobbly chairs. But Grosjean is set to sign for the new team Haas, with an announcement expected early next week.
The Lotus freight arrived late because of a cash-flow problem, and they are a team living from hand to dry mouth. It felt awful at the end of last season when Caterham and Marussia battled for survival. If names such as Lotus and Enstone were to depart the scene it would be catastrophic. As with the possible loss of the Monza track, that would spell Formula One lite.
It is almost a year since some teams threatened to boycott the US Grand Prix in Austin amid calls for a fairer distribution of money. And we could, one senses, be not too far from another crisis.
It usually happens when the circus departs Europe for the more expensive fly-aways. The F1 chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, who will be 85 next month, and who was not in deal-making Singapore even though many people expected him to be, may soon have to juggle and bargain afresh.
This article was written by Paul Weaver at Suzuka, for theguardian.com on Friday 25th September 2015 22.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010