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In The Driver's Seat

The curious case of Hamilton's buttons

Okay, imagine you're out driving your car in traffic, listening to your favourite song, and suddenly the radio goes on to the wrong station… Simple to correct, right? You twiddle a knob and, hey presto, calm is restored as the right music plays again.

So what was the problem that European Grand Prix winner Nico Rosberg was able to fix so quickly, and which stymied and frustrated his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton for at least 12 laps and cost him the chance of making amends for his qualifying shenanigans and finishing a lot higher than fifth? And, in the process, seeing the gap to Rosberg that his two recent wins had whittled down to nine points expanded to 24.

As is always the way with these things in Formula One, nothing is ever simple and straightforward.

Let's deal with Rosberg first. During the race, he selected the same engine mode that Hamilton had been using, and immediately suffered a similar loss of power. For him, it was simply a matter of returning a rotary switch to the position in which it had been; problem solved.

Hamilton had been using that mode for some time, and only around the 25th lap did his power begin to deteriorate.

It would be wrong to make F1 less technical, so it makes sense to adjust the regulations slightly so teams are able to communicate more with their drivers when such problems arise.

"It derates everywhere, which surely isn't helping," he told his engineer Pete Bonnington over the radio. "Is there no solution?" When Bonnington told him they were working on it, he retorted: "You guys need to pick up the pace."

In the cockpit, he was frantically doing the equivalent of readjusting the radio as he encountered the derating - when you get lower than maximum electrical deployment in the powertrain - except that the switch he was adjusting was a rotary one with 16 different engine settings, each of which then had a subset of another 20 possible adjustments. And he had been trying the adjustments for so long that he had lost track of where the original starting point was.

Oh, and while he was doing all this, he was racing the best drivers in the world and trying to stay competitive with them at 350kmh, while avoiding concrete walls on one of the most demanding street tracks in the world.

Small wonder, then, that the conversation with Bonnington became tense at times, as the frustration he felt in not being able to ask simple questions of his crew - because of the ban on too much specific radio information being exchanged between pit wall and driver - mounted and began to boil over.

An inside source at Mercedes explained: "Lewis' car was in that mode for some time, and he had tried many ways to alter the settings with the switches on his steering wheel. When Nico had the problem, he had just switched to that troublesome mode, so it was easier for him to switch straight back, whereas Lewis had understandably lost track of where he had started. There are hundreds if not thousands of permutations and he had been running through them for 12 laps.

"So his situation was more complicated. He had had the setting from the start of the race and it was not obvious that it was this setting that was causing the problem. The fundamental problem is on our heads as it was a configuration not working properly, not the driver's fault.

"For one of the drivers, Nico, it was like trying to do a crossword with some clues, for the other, Lewis, like trying to do it without any.

"The radio rules complicated things drastically; without this, the problem would have been solved immediately."

Afterwards, Hamilton said that the restriction on radio communication, introduced last year and tightened up further this season, had damaged the spectacle in the first race held on the exciting new Baku City Circuit, as because of it he had been held back from fighting for the victory by a technical issue, rather than by the sort of driver aid that the ban was intended to stop.

Others, including McLaren's Fernando Alonso and Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene, furthered the call for modifications to the rules, after Kimi Raikkonen's unsuccessful fight with Force India's Sergio Perez for the final podium slot was also hampered when his team were unable to give him answers about how to alleviate a problem with his car's energy recovery system.

It would be wrong to make F1 less technical, so it makes sense to adjust the regulations slightly so teams are able to communicate more with their drivers when such problems arise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'The curious case of Hamilton's buttons'. Print Edition | Subscribe