How McLaren are still deciding World Championships from the back of the grid

Lewis Hamilton leaves the garage on Saturday of the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix.

“This is your last bite at the cherry,” Lewis Hamilton was told by race engineer Pete Bonnington in the final minutes of Monaco Grand Prix’s Q2 session.

For once, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton were under extreme pressure to just get out of Q2 as the Briton was struggling immensely to generate any grip.

Half a minute later, Hamilton had set two personal best sectors and looked set to squeeze his way through to Q3.

But, as Hamilton crossed the second sector split, he was forced to abandon his hot lap and any chance of slipping his Mercedes into the Top-10 Shootout due to yellow flags for a stricken McLaren-Honda of Stoffel Vandoorne.

Martin Brundle was quick to point out the consequences in the World Championship as Hamilton will now start 11 places behind his main World Championship rival, Sebastian Vettel – who qualified on the front-row behind team mate and pole sitter Kimi Raikkonen.

Lewis Hamilton drives past the wrecked McLaren-Honda of Stoffel Vandoorne, who’s incident caused yellow flags meaning Lewis Hamilton was unable to set a faster time.

“[U]nfortunate,” was the words Hamilton used to describe the incident. He, himself, admitted had Vandoorne’s crash not happened, he could’ve been in Q3, despite also feeling, “I would have struggled to make it into the top five with the pace that I had.”

Crucially, however, it’s Vandoorne’s incident that’s put Lewis Hamilton more out of position then he was already set to be. It’s undeniably an eerie example of McLaren still affecting the World Championship despite finding themselves currently 10th and last in the Constructors Championship.

But, Vandoorne’s done this before; ironically just two weeks earlier at the Spanish Grand Prix.

After Mercedes had played second fiddle to the dominant Ferrari all weekend, the defending World Champions decided to use contentiously devious tactics throughout the race to keep Lewis Hamilton at the front.

The first example of this was using Valtteri Bottas as a mobile chicane to hold up Sebastian Vettel after his first pit stop. Despite this, Ferrari still looked capable of prevailing with a decisive race win.

However, Stoffel Vandoorne crashed himself out of the Spanish Grand Prix when he came together with Felipe Massa on Lap 33. During the ensuing Virtual-Safety-Car period, Mercedes rolled the dice at pit Hamilton; Ferrari didn’t.

Stoffel Vandoorne pulls off into the gravel on Lap 33 of the Spanish Grand Prix after breaking his suspension racing Felipe Massa.

Vettel’s stop just laps later under green flag racing meant he loss upward of six seconds to his Mercedes rival.

When Vettel came out of the pits, Hamilton was now alongside and had the faster tires. Thus, the Briton stormed away with a race win that had previously looked rather dire. Again, it was solely Stoffel Vandoorne’s crash that allowed Hamilton to stay in contention and grab a win that Ferrari previously had a firm grip on.

Even before that race, in Russia, Fernando Alonso managed to inadvertently swing the pendulum in the favor of Mercedes by having a characteristic power unit failure on the formation lap.

Because a stricken McLaren was completely immobile as the cars reformed the grid for the race start, Charlie Whiting appended another formation lap for the drivers. Due to the limited fuel loads in the cars, an extra formation lap minuses one racing lap off; this took the Russian Grand Prix from 53 laps to 52.

Fernando Alonso gets out of his broken McLaren-Honda on the first of two formation laps during the 2017 Russian Grand Prix.

Come the final lap of the race, Sebastian Vettel in P2 crossed the line with a 0.908 second gap to race leader Valtteri Bottas ahead. After being held up by traffic, Vettel’s gap had dropped outside of the 1 second threshold by the first sector split.

However, the race wasn’t over. Over the final two thirds of the lap, Vettel again closed the gap down to 0.760s as Bottas’ tires appeared to be on the brink of giving up. One can only speculate how the race may have played out if that extra formation lap hadn’t been appended…

Ironic, really.

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Steven Walton is an 18-year-old Journalism Student at the Ara Institute of Canterbury. He previously attended St Andrew's College in Christchurch, where he excelled at History and Classical Studies. Steven is the Editor-in-Chief at Green Flag F1 and spends most of his days living, breathing, and immersing in the Formula 1 world.

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