Lewis Hamilton has said he is taking nothing for granted in his bid to win a third Formula One world championship this year, after a commanding win at the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The British driver maintains he is fully focused on the task but did admit, as he approaches matching his hero Ayrton Senna’s achievements, he is finding it hard to comprehend just how far his career has taken him.
Hamilton won at Spa with a serene drive from pole position, which his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, who was slow off the start line, could not match. The Englishman leads Rosberg by 28 points with eight rounds to go and is in terrific form. Hamilton has out-qualified the German by 10 races to one and now has six wins to Rosberg’s three this season.
Although happy with his position he insisted his focus was not yet on the title. “The confidence comes from naturally arriving on the weekend with a car that you know can fight for a win,” he said. “There is no driver that is going to say that is not a good thing. But I still arrive with an incredibly competitive team-mate who would easily take it from me. So I still have to have the right mental approach, I know I still have a serious job at hand right now.”
Nor was he ruling out a challenge from his team-mate. “Of course Nico is a threat,” he said. “On Sunday he was still quick, he was able to close the gap at times. For sure he will still be a threat but my qualifying pace now is how it should be, and as long as it remains that way it should feel good.”
The win in Spa, from Hamilton’s 159th start, put him equal with Senna’s podium tally of 80, which the Brazilian achieved in 161 races, while the British driver is now just two wins from Senna’s 41. If he scores them in the next two rounds, at Monza and Singapore, he will have done so in an identical number of starts as the driver he grew up idolising.
“It just feels very surreal,” he said. “I remember watching the races when I was five and remember the first time I drove in a go-kart and then watching Ayrton and wanting to one day be like him. I always said as a go-karter I wanted to do something similar to what he has done. To think that I am fighting for my third world championship, which he had and now I have the same amount of podiums as him. It’s almost like a crazy dream. What can I say, it’s bloody awesome man.”
His drive at the front of the pack had been trouble-free but behind him the fallout from Sebastian Vettel’s tyre blow-out continued. Vettel launched a scathing attack on Pirelli after the race when, in a bid to complete the race with just one change of tyres, his right rear exploded at almost 200mph having just exited Eau Rouge on to the Kemmel Straight, while in third place.
Vettel branded the failure as “unacceptable” and he was backed by the Ferrari team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene. The Italian stated that the team’s strategy, which saw the German take the medium (prime) tyres on lap 14 – needing to complete 29 more to reach the finish – was within the guidelines of the 40-lap lifespan on the rubber given by Pirelli.
The issue was exacerbated by another blow-out for Nico Rosberg in Friday practice that was blamed on an external cut. In Vettel’s case Pirelli responded strongly, stating that the 40-lap wear-life was a guide and was subject to change according to conditions. Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director, said the tyre had simply worn out. However the issue remained contentious, with questions as to why there was no drop-off in performance that would have been expected to precede any failure. Vettel had not indicated any such degradation and was doing similar lap times to others on the medium compound at the time.
Pirelli, which is required by the sport to provide rubber that degrades in order to make tyre changes and performance differentials occur, responded to a series of failures in 2013 by changing its construction. Somewhat beleaguered by this latest assault, it has now issued a statement declaring that its bid to enforce safety regulations for its rubber was ignored two years ago.
It read: “In November 2013, Pirelli requested that there should be rules to govern the maximum number of laps that can be driven on the same set of tyres, among other parameters to do with correct tyre usage. This request was not accepted. The proposal put forward a maximum distance equivalent to 50% of the grand prix distance for the prime tyre and 30% for the option. These conditions, if applied on Sunday at Spa would have limited the maximum number of laps on the medium compound to 22.” Vettel had completed 27 laps on the latter, with two to go, when the blow-out occurred and the causes of the failure remain under investigation by Pirelli.