In The Driver's Seat

Lewis Hamilton faces big questions over 'the small things'

What positives can you possibly take home with you when you've finished only fourth in a Grand Prix, behind two of your biggest rivals, and 36.3sec behind the winning car which was the same as yours and was driven by a team-mate in only his fourth race alongside you?

That will have been one of many questions flooding through Lewis Hamilton's head after a relatively disastrous race for him saw Valtteri Bottas drive brilliantly to score his first Formula One victory in only his fourth race with Mercedes.

Perhaps Hamilton will have reflected on the comment made by Sebastian Vettel, whom Bottas beat by six-tenths of a second after withstanding tremendous pressure that began to build up over the final 15 laps.

"At the end of the day we can talk about my race," the Ferrari pole-sitter said. "But today is Valtteri's day. He drove a fantastic race, he had incredible pace. I could not keep up with him in the first stint. Also, if you look all weekend where he's been compared to his team-mate, you know, he's done a superb job.

"It's his day and he deserves to win today. Sometimes you just have to forget about everything and admit that somebody was better, and he was. Because he drove better than all the rest of us. It's not easy to swallow. I would have loved, obviously, to come back and win, but that's the way it was today."

Hamilton, like third-placed Kimi Raikkonen, was also gracious about Bottas, and remember that recently when he was asked if the world championship fight was now a three-horse race after Bottas had taken pole position in Bahrain, it was Hamilton who pointed out that it always had been.

Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas leading the race in the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday ahead of Ferrari duo Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, and his team-mate the three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

You can bet that the Briton flew out of Sochi asking himself all manner of questions, having taken with him only 12 points as his rivals netted 25, 18 and 15 respectively. He has said that he relishes the prospect of fighting with other teams, the more the merrier, and of course he does because he's a warrior. But the way things are this year, you don't want to be doing that too often.

In Bahrain, it was also Hamilton who had spoken of how it will be the small things that determine success this year, such is the intensity of the competition.

The set-up of his Mercedes was very similar to that of his team-mate's, and both struggled at times keeping the supersoft and ultrasoft Pirelli tyres within their limited working temperature window. If they fell out of it, it was extremely hard to bring them back. And that played havoc with the balance of the car.

Mercedes were in terrible trouble with that, but made a big step forward on Saturday, though not enough to stop Ferrari locking out the front row of the grid.

Admitting that he had one of those weekends when the bear eats you, rather than you eat the bear, Hamilton said that he struggled with that more than his team-mate did. But why, if the set-ups were so similar?

Since Hamilton likes a trace of oversteer he likely had the differential set slightly 'looser' than his team-mate. Perhaps that was the small thing with a big effect last weekend. His expression soon after the race suggested that he was still mystified.

"It was down to what you do with the electronics," he said, alluding to the settings that each driver can choose to suit their individual style.

So while wing and suspension and engine settings might be similar, they can play with things such as brake balance and differential settings. The more you lock up the diff, for example, the less a car might spin its wheels and will thus have better traction, but will want to understeer.

Since Hamilton likes a trace of oversteer he likely had the differential set slightly "looser" than his team-mate. Perhaps that was the small thing with a big effect last weekend. His expression soon after the race suggested that he was still mystified. The intense scanning of telemetry will start later in the week, before Barcelona kicks off the European season.

But you could argue that he did have three positives that he could take away from his bruising visit to Russia.

The first, naturally, was that the Mercedes is still a winning car despite the massive competition from Ferrari, who dominated practice and qualifying.

The second was that Bottas' car, at least, had found the race pace on the softer-compound Pirellis that had hitherto been the exclusive preserve of Ferrari in the three previous races.

And the third was that in winning, Bottas had garnered seven crucial points for Mercedes and prevented Vettel and Ferrari from banking them and moving more than 13 points ahead in the title fight. Just like the small aspects, such things will count a lot this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Hamilton faces big questions over 'the small things''. Print Edition | Subscribe