Lewis Hamilton has admitted that he is going to face an uphill battle to win this year’s Formula One world championship. He acknowledged in Austria that the penalties he expects to incur from having to change engine components later in the season will make the task of catching and overhauling his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, an increasingly difficult task. The British driver has taken a fifth power unit for this weekend’s race at the Red Bull Ring, the last free replacement before grid penalties are imposed.
Hamilton trails Rosberg by 24 points with only eight races gone and a further 13 to come but early technical travails, not least two identical failures of the MGU-H energy recovery system in Russia and China, that have hit him harder than his team-mate mean he is almost certain to be penalized at some point, which will cost him grid positions. Depending on the complexity of the power unit changes required, he may have to start some races from the back of the grid.
“I am starting with my last engine this weekend, so that means I will have at least one race where I will start dead last and most likely two,” he said. “So two more fresh engines. The worst thing is I am the only Mercedes driver to have that. For sure its difficult for the team and especially since we are the Mercedes team and if there are 40 engines you would expect us to have the best of the 40. That’s the way it goes and I have to do the best I can with the one I have now and the ones that follow.”
The three-times world champion had already expressed his frustration with the failures earlier in the season, when he had predicted penalties would be inevitable, but was frustrated that he has since collected a greater share of the bad luck. His team-mate, who also takes a new power unit here, is on only his third and Mercedes supply three other teams, Williams, Force India, and Manor, who are similarly yet to come close to the penalty threshold.
“It’s not easy to look at the table and see eight Mercedes drivers and everyone else is on a normal plan, everyone is on a second engine and has four left and I have one left,” he said. “It doesn’t feel great but there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t fully understand why it’s happened but I hope that Mercedes grows from it and they learn from the faults.”
Hamilton has already come back from poor positions this season, finishing seventh from 22nd on the grid in China and second from 10th in Russia and has recognized that he must try and ensure the punitive grid positions are imposed where the damage will be minimized.
“I will find out where I take those penalties,” he said. “I will try to find a circuit where I feel like I can get furthest up and maybe a track where I can catch up and even challenge for a win. That’s my thought process. I have to go into it thinking I can still win it.
“There could be safety cars and all sorts. I try to have an optimistic view on it, but it’s not that easy to overtake in some places so the percentage chances of Nico winning and me finishing further back is higher. But I will try to minimise, firstly, the engines I will take.”
The exact nature of the penalties will be decided by rules which are not designed for casual inspection. Hamilton has now used five of two (turbo and MGU-H) of the six components of the power unit. Using a sixth of either would trigger a 10-place penalty, with a further five places for each of the other subsequent components over the fifth at the same race. Another full power unit change, however, would see him start from the back of the grid.
The Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, believes he will be penalised but that the team will attempt to keep the damage to a minimum. “The likelihood of getting a penalty is high,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable he will get a penalty at a certain stage and it really pisses me off. I wouldn’t say [he will need] two [more engines]. The guys are so revved up around [the powertrain director] Andy Cowell, so motivated to sort it out, that I have zero doubt they will do so.”