What happened to Hamilton in Russia?

[ngg_images source=”galleries” container_ids=”59″ display_type=”photocrati-nextgen_pro_slideshow” image_crop=”0″ image_pan=”1″ show_playback_controls=”1″ show_captions=”0″ caption_class=”caption_overlay_bottom” caption_height=”70″ aspect_ratio=”1.5″ width=”100″ width_unit=”%” transition=”fade” transition_speed=”1″ slideshow_speed=”5″ border_size=”0″ border_color=”#ffffff” ngg_triggers_display=”always” is_ecommerce_enabled=”0″ order_by=”sortorder” order_direction=”ASC” returns=”included” maximum_entity_count=”500″] 
Even triple-world champions have their off-days.

That was the take-away from a dismal Russian GP weekend for Lewis Hamilton, the Briton finishing a distant fourth behind both Ferraris and teammate Valtteri Bottas. For the first time in a long time, he simply didn’t have the pace to keep up – he finished over half a second off in qualifying, and 36 seconds off in the race, so what on earth happened?

To put it simply, he never got his setup right, and while it’s easy to say now, after Friday practice perhaps we should’ve seen this coming. Mercedes struggled from the get-go, their advantage on a supposed “power track” negated by their issues with getting the tyre temperatures into their necessary operating range, but even compared to Bottas, Hamilton was having a worse time of it.

It consistently took him an extra lap to get up to speed, while just keeping his car on-track was more of a struggle, his W08 (particularly in the final sector) more reminiscent of the skaters at the nearby Iceberg Skating Palace than the car that won three weeks prior in China.  

As such his issues in qualy and the race come as little surprise. Not only could he not expect to have his car up to snuff at the exact moment he needed it, but he couldn’t count on it being up to snuff at all. Not that it’s the be-all-and-end-all, but it’s quite interesting that Russia was the first race all season where Hamilton’s set-up lap for his final flyer in Q3 was slower than Bottas’, per FIA timing data.

That said, Hamilton’s race performance is hard to compare to his teammate’s, as his problems were compounded by the fact that unlike Bottas, he didn’t have the advantage of running in clean air.

Post-race Hamilton admitted he “was out of the race from the get-go” due to issues with overheating, keeping him driving with any meaningful proximity to the leaders. Fourth was the best he could muster – a perfectly underwhelming finish to a perfectly underwhelming weekend.

That said, his issues in the race do emphasise what we saw from Mercedes all weekend, i.e. that the W08 is a fragile beast, its window for operating at peak performance much narrower than that of the Ferrari, and something Bottas handles far better.

As the previous three races have shown, it’s not exactly something that will cost Hamilton every weekend, but when the Mercedes drivers do struggles with their setup require more on-the-fly adjustments (a track like Singapore comes to mind), Bottas might have the advantage.

Will it be enough to affect the championship overall? It’s hard to tell. Few would dispute Hamilton’s advantage in raw pace, but maybe this ace up his teammate’s sleeve is enough to make things interesting.