Lewis Hamilton has criticised Mercedes’ decision to not invert its two cars earlier during the closing stages of the Japanese Grand Prix.
After struggling throughout Friday, Hamilton was satisfied to secure fifth in qualifying, 0.3s ahead of team-mate George Russell.
However, a stuttering getaway from Charles Leclerc ahead caused a chain reaction that saw Hamilton make contact with Sergio Perez’s Red Bull, ending up on the grass and slipping to seventh by the end of the first lap.
Hamilton would have to contend with minor damage for the remainder of the race, eventually battling through to retain his starting position by the chequered flag.
But the seven-time World Champion predicts that he could have challenged Leclerc for fourth without the incident on the blast to Turn 1 that hampered his pace thereafter.
“Yeah P5 is the best that I can do today I think, I think if I hadn’t been hit at the beginning maybe we could have been fighting for fourth, but the Ferraris were pretty quick,” he reflected.
“I think at the start I got a little bit of damage to my front wing, but more so the clipped wheels the front was hit so much. All of a sudden I was getting lockups on the right front, which I hadn’t had all weekend. So I think the corner weights were probably a little bit out there.
“But given that I was, I’m grateful to finish ahead of a Ferrari.”
Hamilton’s issues with front-locking saw him collect a moment at Degner 2, allowing Russell to size up the sister Mercedes on the approach to Spoon Curve.
Russell, however, was rebuffed as both cars drifted wide outside of the extremities of the track. Despite Russell then appearing to seize the high ground at the final chicane, Hamilton was able to get back ahead down the start-finish straight to retain position.
“Yeah, it was definitely aggressive, but I think it was good racing,” Hamilton documented.
“Honestly I shouldn’t really have been in that position but as I said I think I picked up a little something on the right front and it just kept slipping the front end right on the last corner and Turn 9 and then it wouldn’t turn through the hairpin.
“All weekend I’ve been good through the hairpin and then just I was turning and nothing was happening. So I definitely struggled on track with the balance.
“But yeah it was a good, good battle, a little bit aggressive, but as well he needed to get positions.”
While Hamilton followed the optimal two-stop strategy predicted pre-race by Pirelli, Russell endeavoured to make it to the end by only completing a solitary pit stop.
But he rapidly fell back into the clutches of the chasing pack on fresher rubber, including Hamilton, who was concerned about Carlos Sainz closing behind on newer-aged tyres.
Russell was eventually instructed to allow his team-mate through – but Hamilton believes that Mercedes could have handled the situation in a more efficient manner.
Pressed on whether he thought the team should have inverted the cars earlier, Hamilton replied: “Yeah we should have swapped around earlier, and I should have got as far ahead as possible to keep the gap as big as it could get to the Ferraris.
“I think if we had inverted maybe George would have had a better time holding it behind, but because he was trying to fight me and damaging these tyres, trying to hurt him and then it just I think it just made it more complicated.
“The fact is, we’re not fighting each other in a team championship. As drivers, it’s not important where we are. What’s important is that we finish, one of us finishes ahead of the Ferrari to keep the position so today we really needed to work as a team.”
Upon being instructed to allow Hamilton past, Russell suggested allowing him to retain track position until the final lap to preserve his position from Sainz.
Mercedes turned down that query, with the Brackley side instead telling Hamilton to slow down to offer his team-mate DRS to defend as Sainz had successfully managed to win in Singapore last weekend.
Although Hamilton followed out the order, Sainz still blasted past Russell, leaving Hamilton to maintain that he didn’t think it was a “good idea” at all to attempt the tactic.
“When they suggested it me, I knew that they obviously thought of it from the last race and it made no sense,” he underlined. “I needed to get as far clear ahead as possible and I was on my way.
“I was around two seconds ahead and they asked me then to give George the DRS and I had to come off the gas, down the straight to get point eight behind. Then he got DRS but then he got overtaken, which was gonna happen because he was on a one-stop and we were on a two, but then he [Sainz] got past him and he was right on my tail.
“So yeah, not ideal. Made it very, very hard for the last couple of laps, but I think as a team we’ve got to be grateful for it. Fifth and a seventh is better than sixth and a seventh.”