At one point on Saturday morning, Lewis Hamilton was not even sure he would be able to race in the German Grand Prix, so bad did he feel with an illness that has been bothering him this weekend at Hockenheim and which took a turn for the worse overnight.
His Mercedes team had prepared the car for the possibility that they might have to sub the world champion out of qualifying and replace him with reserve driver Esteban Ocon.
So to take yet another pole position was a bigger achievement than it might at first look in a season that so far has passed in a blur of silver.
“I was really not expecting to be able to fight for pole today,” Hamilton said. “I felt pretty bad this morning and there was a moment when we weren’t even sure we would be doing the weekend.
“But I have never missed a race weekend in my life and for us competitors you can’t miss a single race.
“I haven’t even been in most of the [engineering] meetings; I’ve just been sleeping and then waking up and getting in the car. But the team have done such a great job in terms of the processes we went through and I was really happy with the car in my last lap.”
It’s not entirely clear whether Hamilton would have been able to take pole had Ferrari, who went into qualifying as favourites, not shot themselves in the foot again, with the cars of both Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel going out with engine problems that left them 10th and last respectively.
But Hamilton was so pleased with his performance, despite his discomfort, that he reckoned he would have had a chance either way.
“It would have been close between us and the Ferraris,” he said. “I am not convinced they would have been much quicker than us, if at all. Leclerc was doing some good times over the weekend but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Hamilton would not say what was wrong with him, simply saying he was “a bit under the weather”.
Team boss Toto Wolff said: “There is a flu going around in the paddock and he was not feeling great.” And Mercedes said he had been off colour since earlier in the week.
Hamilton added: “It has been a real challenge and tomorrow is going to be worse.
“Just doing 12 laps today – and yesterday in practice – was so hard. I don’t know how tomorrow will go.
“I will try to sleep as much as I can and just try to recuperate and make sure I have got as much energy as possible. If it is super-hot like yesterday or even like today it could be really bad, but if it’s a little bit cooler like it’s forecast to be, it might it ease it up a little bit. But where there’s a will there’s a way. I won’t give up, that’s for sure.”
Another Ferrari fiasco
Ferrari should have had at least two wins so far this season – and arguably could have had as many as four – yet halfway through the year they remain on zero. And qualifying at the German Grand Prix showed exactly why.
They went into qualifying looking favourites but, remarkably, the cars of both Leclerc and Vettel broke down. And from looking like they could have locked out the front row, they start in the midfield and right at the back.
Vettel did not even manage a single flying lap – his intercooler developed a problem as soon as he left the pits at the start of the first session. It was the second time in three races the German’s qualifying has been hit by an engine problem. And he said it felt “very bitter” for it to happen at his home race.
Leclerc made it through the first and second sessions – quickest on soft tyres in the first; second behind Lewis Hamilton in the second, when both switched to mediums, because they wanted the more durable tyre to start the race – only for his car’s fuel-pump drive to fail and force him to miss the top-10 shootout.
It’s unknown exactly how things would have shaken out had the Ferraris made it into the final part of qualifying to dispute pole with Hamilton. But as Leclerc said: “Mercedes were very quick but we definitely had the pace to challenge them at least. It’s a shame.”
So the Italian team have another failure to add to what is becoming an embarrassingly long list this year. It’s worth going through them, to underline what might have been.
- Leclerc lost victory in Bahrain when his engine went sour in the closing laps
- Vettel spun while racing Hamilton in Bahrain and turned a second place into a fifth
- Leclerc crashed out of qualifying in Azerbaijan when looking a certain bet for pole
- Ferrari made a strategic error that led to Leclerc being knocked out in the first session of qualifying in Monaco
- Vettel made a mistake while leading in Canada and went off track, leading to the penalty that cost him the race
- Vettel had a problem with the air pressure line to the engine in qualifying in Austria, where he could have joined Leclerc on the front row
- And now both cars have had engine problems in qualifying in Germany
On top of that, Leclerc made a series of small errors in qualifying in the early races of the season, until turning around his form after Canada.
There is also a question mark over whether Ferrari made a mistake in choosing to start Leclerc on soft tyres rather than mediums in Austria. Had he been on the mediums, he may have been able to stop later and hold off Max Verstappen’s late charge to victory for Red Bull.
And that’s without even going into the questionable wisdom of their employment of team orders – largely to favour Vettel – in all of the first five races.
All told, it makes for grim reading, especially as their title challenges in 2017 and 2018 also unravelled as a result of a combination of reliability problems, driver errors and operational issues. And it underlines both the seriousness of the malaise at the team, and their apparent inability to do anything about it.
After qualifying, Wolff told Sky: “Ferrari have an illness that they need to cure and we need them so we can have a competitive championship.”
Wolff later said he had got himself “lost in translation” with that comment, and that he had been thinking of the German “die Seuche” which has a double meaning.
He explained: “It means illness but it [also] means having lots of problems all the time – you don’t seem to be getting yourself out of problems; it is nothing to do with an illness. When I said it, I felt like I probably said the wrong thing.”
The semantics, though, were largely irrelevant. Either way, Wolff had summed up the situation well.
Leclerc was his usual modest and humble self, pointing out that he had made his own mistakes this year so he could hardly question the team.
But he did add: “I feel for the team. One car is difficult, two cars is very, very unlikely and very difficult for the team. We need to understand the issues to try to not to reproduce them.”
The problem is, there are precious few signs as yet of the team being able to achieve that ambition.
Hamilton v Verstappen looks tasty
Had Leclerc – and Vettel – been up at the front as well, the race would have been set up nicely, for a fight between the dominant figures of the older generation and the two men who look most likely to take their place over the next few years.
But one man of each generation remains, and that means there is the chance of the first straight fight for victory between Hamilton and Verstappen. Which is a mouth-watering prospect.
Hamilton says his position in the championship will not affect his desire to battle Verstappen hard, despite the Dutchman’s take-no-prisoners reputation.
“I’m here to win,” he said. “So we battle. I approach it with respect. He’s experienced enough now that I don’t think I’ll have to approach it with caution. And for sure I’ll be pushing.
“But every time I approach it I am always trying to make sure I keep position and don’t collide with anyone. I will try to stay as far away from his possible.”
Verstappen did not sound that convinced that he would be able to take the fight to Mercedes. He’s concerned that the need to start on soft tyres after an engine problem in second qualifying could hinder him, against the Mercedes on mediums.
“I don’t know at the moment how much a fight we can put on,” said Verstappen, fresh from his monumental battle with Leclerc at Silverstone two weeks ago. “We have a different strategy but we will always give it a go.
“It doesn’t matter to me who it is [I’m fighting with] – if it’s Lewis or Charles. Of course I know Charles a bit better because we were racing a lot in the younger years in go-karting but it doesn’t matter. As long as you are fighting for victory that’s a positive thing.
There is also a chance for rain, in which both men excel.
“I love the rain,” Hamilton said. “So if it rains, no problem.”