Hamilton feeling the heat after latest crash
If Lewis Hamilton upset the odds during the early hours of this morning by storming to pole beneath the expected deluge in Japan, he probably has an unheralded and very sleepy mechanic from Woking to thank for his success. Chances are, however, that he did not.
A third crash in as many race weekends, midway through morning practice, ate into almost all of Hamilton's precious testing time yesterday, raising further questions about his aggressive driving.
It also meant a 3.0am wake-up call for the unfortunate soul who was scrambled by McLaren bigwigs to bring some emergency spare parts out here. The cavalry was due to touch down in Nagoya at 8.30am local time, well ahead of qualifying if not morning practice.
Hamilton's latest prang could not have arrived at a more unfortunate moment.
After three DNFs in four races, the last two the result of aggressive overtaking manoeuvres that failed to come off, the 25-year-old has seen a three-point championship lead melt into a 20-point deficit. He is a man under intense pressure.
Insisting that he cannot, and will not, curb his attacking instincts, Hamilton set out yesterday with fire in his belly. Too much fire.
A careless error piling into turn eight, Degner, meant he missed the apex at the next corner, skidded into the gravel trap and collided with the barriers, damaging the left-hand side of his car.
As he stood under the bridge at this famous figure-of-eight circuit, his helmet still on to shield his face from the cameras, clearly cursing himself, Hamilton knew exactly what he had done. So did his team principal.
He had been sloppy.
"Lewis was experimenting too early in the weekend," said Martin Whitmarsh in what for him constitutes heavy criticism. "They say bad things come in threes, so hopefully it's over and done with."
Hamilton held his hands up to his error. "I was probably pushing too hard, too early," he said. "It wasn't even that big an off. It's just unfortunate that the gravel is very slippery at that point."
How ironic that a day before, Hamilton had said how much he enjoyed these unforgiving run-offs and the challenge they presented.
In Hamilton's defence, his team-mate Jenson Button proved how easy it was to do by going off at exactly the same corner moments later, although he managed to halt before the barriers.
It won't stop the intrigue. Even before yesterday's accident Flavio Briatore, the former Renault team principal currently serving a time-out for his involvement in a race-fixing scandal, had ratcheted up the pressure on Hamilton, questioning his relentlessly gung-ho approach.
"It's not conceivable to throw away a season in this way," Briatore said.
"His overtaking attempt on Webber at Singapore couldn't end up any other way. Two retirements in two races are heavy. And it's the second time it happens, because he also made decisive mistakes in 2007 (when he lost out on the world title by a single point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen). Had he kept calm and waited, he'd still be in the fight now."
Of course, Hamilton still is in the fight. Just. But yesterday's mistake was more than unfortunate. In this era of no in-season testing, McLaren had been at great pains all week to emphasise just how important Friday practice was to their race weekend.
A new front wing, rear wing and F-duct -- not to mention various engine modes -- needed to be put through their paces as they try desperately to close the performance gap to Red Bull and Ferrari.
Repairs to Hamilton's car meant he missed all but nine minutes of the afternoon session, which was dominated by Red Bull, as the morning had been.
"On the positive side, he was going very quickly before he crashed," Whitmarsh said. "We would have liked more time testing, but we have data from Jenson's car.
"But Lewis can, after a day like today, come back and bang, be right on it. We all know he can. That is part of his make-up and a bit that we don't want to change."
See, even Whitmarsh is buying into the theory that Hamilton has a fundamental flaw in his approach. In fact, a quick glance at the statistics shows that Hamilton has not had significantly more self-induced accidents than any other driver of his era.
In 67 races, Hamilton has had just six DNFs which were not due to technical issues. Only Fernando Alonso, with five at the same stage of his career, can claim better.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, a spate of them has lost him ground in the most closely-fought title race in living memory.
He cannot afford any more slip-ups.(© Daily Telegraph, London)