IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT

Hamilton conspiracy theories are the pits

Let's acknowledge the big grey pachyderm in the room straight away: Did Mercedes decide to favour runaway four-time winner Nico Rosberg at Lewis Hamilton's expense in Sochi on Sunday afternoon, just as the reigning champion was busily hacking down a 12.9sec gap to 7.5sec in 13 laps, looking all set to launch a late challenge to the German's pristine record in 2016?

Much was made in some quarters of the fact that Hamilton's falling water pressure seemed just a mite too convenient as he was asked to back off to save his engine, which then "miraculously" stabilised itself once the gap had opened up again.

Hamilton has apparently asked for a full report - as "nobody seemed to know too much about the odd readings from the PU (power unit)" that Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also reported on Rosberg's V6 turbo-hybrid engine.

Those same sources happily ignored all the work that Mercedes had put into Hamilton's car the previous evening and that morning, after it had suffered an identical energy recovery system problem to the one that had also stopped him after the second qualifying session a fortnight earlier in China.

The entire project had been guided by the need to avoid breaking parc ferme rules so that Hamilton could take up his 10th place on the grid rather than having to start from the back or from the pit lane.

The sabotage theories (suggesting Mercedes held Hamilton back) are nonsense. Why on earth would Mercedes want to favour one driver over another, let alone at this early stage of the season?

That meant using a spare engine first used in Melbourne, albeit fitted with a new turbocharger, control electronics and MGU-H energy recovery system, and also incorporating revised components such as the fuel system which had been homologated for the Russian race.

That in turn necessitated flying out a new system as there were insufficient spares at the track. It was flown in by chartered jet in the early hours, and the spare engine was then fitted with it so that it could be installed in Hamilton's Mercedes once it was released from parc ferme on Sunday morning before successfully being fired up in the garage.

"Hopefully all this illustrates the lengths to which we have gone to maximise his chances - a point that could usefully be made to those suggesting conspiracy or sabotage," a spokesman said, but the race problem apparently undid all that good work, in some minds.

Wolff said afterwards that insinuations on social media that they had favoured Rosberg by duping Hamilton into backing off needed to be tackled head-on.

Do I believe him? Yes, I do.

The sabotage theories are nonsense. Why on earth would Mercedes want to favour one driver over another, let alone at this early stage of the season? Could you imagine the potential fallout in sales if they were to do anything but play fair, and it became public knowledge?

With his fourth victory of 2016 and seventh in a row, Rosberg joins an elite fraternity comprising Alberto Ascari, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel - world champions all - who achieved the latter feat.

That's food for thought, and I'll confess here that early in the year before the season began, a little voice in my head said: "I think Nico could win it this year."

Will he? If he carries on like this, he's going to be very hard to beat, especially as rivals Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have had tough luck lately. Certainly the former has demonstrated the speed to beat him, but recently the luck has deserted him, it's as simple as that.

Rosberg is fond of saying that there are still a lot of races to go in this longest-ever season, and he knows that what goes around comes around.

He's certainly not looking for feathered birds to count just yet. Nor should we.

But we should all sit back and savour what lies ahead, as he tries to keep his roll going, and Hamilton (and Ferrari, hopefully), do everything they can to claw back his advantage. I have a feeling we are going to be very grateful that there are 21 races this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Hamilton conspiracy theories are the pits'. Print Edition | Subscribe