Hamilton equals Clark with fifth British pole
Mercedes driver averages over 150mph in qualifying Grosjean’s claims that he was impeded are rejected
A torrid week for Lewis Hamilton was rescued yesterday by his fifth pole position at Silverstone, equalling the record of the great Jim Clark, although few of his flying laps have stirred such fractiousness as this.
First Romain Grosjean, the Haas driver, protested bitterly that he had been impeded and that the triple world champion should be penalised. Then Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, rounded on the Frenchman with a withering rebuke, saying: “Look at his track record. He is lucky to be in Formula One.”
With a stunning lap of which perhaps only he was capable, and where the average speed exceeded 150mph, Hamilton propelled himself to the front of the grid for today’s British Grand Prix for the third year running. It was the perfect tonic after a week in which he has found his relationship with motorsport fans in this country questioned, given his decision not to appear for the Formula One Live event at Trafalgar Square and to take a twoday holiday in Mykonos instead.
Barely had the cheers subsided, though, than Hamilton, a human magnet for controversy, found himself at the centre of a maelstrom once more. Grosjean claimed he had been blocked during the third phase of qualifying, on the run-in to Club corner, suggesting that the stewards’ failure to sanction Hamilton was because they were cowed by his fame. “We are in a position where we fight as hard as the boys at the front, and I was impeded,” he said. “Maybe if it was another driver, there would have been something. It does feel sometimes that there are two types of decision.”
This cut little ice with Wolff, who depicted Grosjean as a mewling malcontent with nothing better to do than to cause trouble. “There are some who just moan all the time,” he said. “Before Grosjean demands penalties for other drivers, he should look at his past.”
There was some merit to this argument. Barely a race goes by without Grosjean, a man with an acute persecution complex, grousing to the Haas garage about the smallest difficulty over the in-car radio. But the strength of Wolff ’s response was a reflection of a strained few days for Mercedes.
Wolff, who insists that he approved of Hamilton’s break in Greece before last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, had the awkward situation of trying to justifying his driver’s absence to the London crowds amid loud jeering. Hamilton is now just one shy of emulating Michael Schumacher’s benchmark of 68 career poles, and Wolff said: “The question about whether a three-time champion knows how to prepare himself for a race is an insult.
“The way I operate the team, I give him freedom to organise his days in the way that he wants. And if he thinks that staying away from the F1 environment, being with his friends, helps him to extract his best performance at Silverstone, then so be it.”
He was not finished, inveighing against reporters and even Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner, who had taken great relish in exposing Mercedes’ predicament, saying on stage: “It’s great for all the drivers to be here – or most of them.”
Wolff replied, acidly: “Christian is always trying to put a bit of mischief into the situation. We flagged the risks that it could be seen as not right to attend the event in London. There were three boos out of maybe 20,000 people in front of us, no more. I was there, I saw it. If the superstar is not there, most people are not happy. I wouldn’t be happy if I was going as a fan and I see that he is not there. But he took a decision for the championship. The way he has been treated in certain media is wrong, and not fair. Before his home race, and after rough weekends in Spielberg and Baku, treating the local superstar in this way is absolutely against how I see things.”
Intrigue in the paddock remains intense about Hamilton’s state of mind, amid murmurs that he was irked by Wolff ’s alleged attendance of his archrival Sebastian Vettel’s 30th birthday party. Wolff refused to confirm or deny, saying merely that he wished to protect his private life. But the driver whom he has called F1’s one true “rock star” was back in exuberant form yesterday, having rediscovered the pace that allowed
How they qualified at Silverstone
him to out-qualify Vettel by more than half a second.
Hamilton, who could win a fourth successive British Grand Prix this afternoon, said: “I grew up watching Nigel Mansell with all the home support, thinking, ‘Wow, I wonder what that feels like?’ I have been truly privileged to come here for the past 10 years and receive the same love.”
He was also adamant, contrary to the protests from the Haas camp, that he had not compromised Grosjean’s lap. “I was starting my lap, trying to get the space,” he said. “As I was about to get on the gas, I looked in the mirrors and there was a car coming. If I was in the way, I apologise. I had no indication from the team, but I don’t think he was that close when I pulled away.”
With each grand prix that passes, Hamilton is entering increasingly rarefied air. In Canada, he matched Ayrton Senna for poles, and at Silverstone he is drawing parallels with Clark, the media-averse Scot who died aged 32 in a Formula Two accident at Hockenheim. The two could hardly be more polar opposites: Hamilton the party animal, who spends much of his time off the track in music studios or on fashion catwalks, versus Clark the introvert, who preferred to retreat to his Borders farm than confront the cameras.
Victory today would re-energise his title campaign, after he slipped 20 points behind Vettel in Austria due to a five-place grid penalty, from which he could only rally to fourth.
So far, fortune is on his side. The two Ferraris of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are distant in his rear-view mirrors, while the Red Bull of a Daniel Ricciardo suffered a turbo problem. This time, too, it is Valtteri Bottas, his Mercedes team-mate and potentially the third man in this season’s shake-up, who has received the same punishment for using a replacement gearbox. The Finn starts back in ninth, while Hamilton has clear air in which to prove beyond dispute that Silverstone is his turf.
Quick getaway: Lewis Hamilton (above) celebrates his pole position; and (left) exits the Mercedes garage to take part in the third qualifying session at Silverstone