Never one to shy from a fight, Lewis Hamilton reminded Formula One that prematurely counting him out is an error with serious consequences. After a titanic battle in the mountains of Styria with his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, he emerged triumphant and defiant in the face of an angry reception from the home crowd.
The British driver’s psychological hold over his German rival now far outweighs the 11-point deficit he has in the world championship standings but the manner of his win – after a last-lap collision with the race leader, Rosberg – may have far wider ramifications for Formula One.
The Austrian Grand Prix was tense enough but it was the final lap that defined the race and possibly the season. The overtaking move and collision between the two Mercedes at turn two on lap 71 promoted the chasing Hamilton to victory and Rosberg to an unfortunate fourth place. The stewards found him to blame for not leaving “racing room” and he was given a 10-second race penalty that did not affect the outcome but the cost to the team was a one-two finish that would have been their third on the trot in Spielberg.
Although struggling with his brakes, it is unclear whether Rosberg turned late deliberately into the corner in an attempt to take out his team-mate as it appeared. The debriefing is likely to be long and unpleasant.
Hamilton had no issues with his own uncompromising approach. “I was just thinking I want to overtake this guy with my every breath,” he said. “I’m smiling now because I did everything I could in the right way. I’m fighting for a world championship. So I’m going to keep fighting and hopefully through these experiences there will be no more, they’ll be a blip in the mist and we’ll keep racing.”
Mercedes were deeply unhappy that, despite their dominant position in the constructors’ championship, points had been lost and as a consequence the spectre of team orders has returned to F1.
They have always made the point that they allow their drivers to race and it has not been an idle boast but this incident, coming after the pair took one another out in Barcelona on the opening lap earlier in the season, appears to have been a step too far.
Before Barcelona they had a serious coming together at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2014 after which Rosberg was admonished and the pair have fought fairly since. Two incidents in one season has provoked a strong reaction, with the team looking for a third constructors’ title and facing their strongest challenge of the past three years from Ferrari despite a lead of 103 points.
The Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, was furious, describing the collision as “brainless”. He added: “They need to take the consequences. Can you imagine a DNF like Barcelona? We’re looking like a bunch of idiots and it’s disrespectful to 1,500 people who worked their nuts off on the car. Talking has not brought us any further. We have to recommend team orders.”
Austria has a curious hold over the psyche of the sport with regard to team orders, it seems. At Spielberg in 2001 Ferrari ordered Rubens Barrichello to pull over to let Michael Schumacher take second place. The next year ignominy followed insult when the team ordered Barrichello to do the same for the win when Schumacher already had a huge lead in the title race. It was a PR disaster for the sport and team orders were banned the following year. Preventing them being used proved impossible and in 2011 they were once again employed.
The events in Austria on Sunday threaten F1 on almost the same level as did Ferrari’s ruthlessness with Schumacher. Mercedes’ advantage over the rest of the field is still palpable and they are, even with an improving Ferrari and Red Bull, the class act in terms of pace. The double knockout of Spain is the only grand prix they have not won this year. It leaves a two-car battle that is an attraction only because Hamilton and Rosberg have been allowed to fight each other. The implementation of team orders – even regarding holding station after a certain period of the race has been completed – would be a terrible advertisement for the sport and anathema to fans. It is, however, on the table as Wolff has made clear.
The critical incident occurred at the end of a remarkably tense fight. Mercedes had begun Hamilton on a one-stop to counter the threat from Ferrari and Rosberg on a two-stop. They switched the strategy for the British driver mid-race and it gave Rosberg, who had taken the lead with the undercut at the first stop, the advantage but never by more than two seconds.
The German will have had the fat lady warbling in his headphones as the denouement approached but he also had a problem with a brake failure. He had kept the gap to Hamilton fairly stable but the world champion had the legs in the form of better tyres, better anchors and the steely-eyed commitment to his cause.
This was the stuff of which legends are made and weaker men broken. Down but not out, Hamilton went round the outside at two, Rosberg went to squeeze him –just as Hamilton has done to the German, notably in Canada and Austin – and braked very late. Hamilton went wide but the contact cost the German his front wing and the place as Hamilton returned to the track undamaged to hare off for the flag. Rosberg then lost further places to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s engineer, Peter Bonnington, said to him: “That’s not the result we were after.”
Rosberg insisted Hamilton had turned in on him but it is hard to give his claims credence. The stewards certainly saw it otherwise and Mercedes, although refusing to apportion blame, may be equally unforgiving on both drivers. How they deal with it before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday will be of the greatest import long after the dust has settled in Styria.
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