There are ways Lewis Hamilton could celebrate his 300th Formula One race with a win: the three cars in front crash, go technical or lose their strategic marbles.
Other than that cocktail of good luck, his chances are zero. Nada.
That was the stark reality facing the Mercedes star on his landmark weekend after qualifying for the French Grand Prix put him in the slow lane to nowhere.
Lewis Hamilton had hoped for an improvement in pace from his Mercedes car this weekend
He was fourth best, which is tolerable in this year of strife, but his near one-second deficit to Ferrari’s pole man Charles Leclerc is enough to bring on an ulcer.
Hamilton’s plight is rendered all the more gut-churning because Mercedes were anticipating an improvement on the silky smooth Paul Ricard track. Upgrades offered hope. Design flaws were being understood and ironed out.
So the theory ran, until the wheels turned on Friday afternoon. And the evidence of practice was reinforced by qualifying, which determined that champion and leader Max Verstappen would share the front row with Leclerc. Sergio Perez was third best.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took his seventh pole of the season from title rival Max Verstappen
Hamilton was at least helped by Carlos Sainz starting from the back of the grid for taking on a new engine after his car went up in smoke a fortnight ago in Austria.
To add to Mercedes’ misery, George Russell was only sixth best after Lando Norris in a refurbished McLaren interposed himself between his two fellow Brits.
As this latest setback unfolded, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff watched on impassively from the garage. He has learned to treat every fresh dawn as false until it is proven otherwise. He later admitted the day’s events had been a ‘slap in the face’.
Mercedes rookie driver Nyck de Vries took the cockpit during first practice and finished ninth
Hamilton has not engaged in hoopla about making it to 300 races and joining only five other long-toothed protagonists with that distinction: Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button. There is too much work to be done for that distraction, and, anyway, it is success not longevity that lights up Lewis’s eyes.
Post-qualifying he was rational, calm, determined — though not resigned. The fact his name appears above Russell’s no doubt served as healing ointment.
‘I thought we’d be within three-tenths, but you do a lap and are told it is 1.7 seconds off, and you are like, “What?”,’ said Hamilton. ‘And then you do a really good lap and you are 1.1 seconds off and you are like, “Wow”.
‘There is nothing I can do in my power to change that. Everyone is working as hard as they can. Each weekend we come with little upgrades but sometimes it doesn’t make a difference. That is difficult for everyone.
‘Where I am focused on is trying to understand this car more and working closely on telling the team the bits I do want on the car next year and the bits I don’t.
‘We are further back than I thought we would be. I was hoping at the next race in Budapest we could close a couple of tenths and be in the fight, though if it is anything like this, it is going to be a while before we win. But it is not impossible.’
Max Verstappen star saw his lead cut to 38 points after Leclerc’s win in Austria a fortnight ago
Over at the hospitality suite, Wolff was also phlegmatic. Asked about Hamilton’s triple century and whether the 37-year-old, who has 18 months to run on his contract, might notch another ton of races, Wolff joked: ‘We talked a few weeks ago about how long our partnership can go and the number discussed was five to 10 years, so we can get to 400.’
If there is no firm improvement, another decade would be about as welcome as a stretch in Pentonville.
While it is doom and gloom at Mercedes, a light has switched on in Leclerc’s season. The title fight is live.
Carlos Sainz and Ferrari must accept a 10-place grid penalty after taking new engine parts
It did not look as if it would be a few weeks back as Ferrari conspired to be their own worst tormentors with engine gremlins and strategy failings. But the Monegasque won at the Red Bull Ring, three months after his previous win in Melbourne on April 10. And Saturday a pole that showcased the best of teamwork, with Sainz gifting a slipstream to help Leclerc establish a three-tenth advantage over Verstappen for his seventh pole of the season.
The pair tried the same towing manoeuvre on the previous flying lap, but the coordination went awry. They nailed it when it counted.
There are just two races remaining before the summer break and victory here and in Budapest next week would be a real boost for Leclerc. He is 38 points adrift and slicing that to under 25 — one win’s worth — must be the immediate target.
Fernando Alonso is the only other active Formula One driver to reach 300 race starts