A brake failure in qualifying and five-place penalty for changing his gearbox left him starting in 20th. To make matters worse, team-mate and championship rival Nico Rosberg was on pole.
The German would surely cruise to an unopposed win; Hamilton needed to finish as close behind as possible.
He set about doing so as soon as the safety car came in at the end of the third lap. By the end of the race, he finished in third—but the manner in which he reached that position drew criticism from some fans and praise from others.
Twitter was ablaze during the race with fans debating whether he was going about things in the right or wrong way.
@LiteralF1 oh no, an experienced racing driver took a chance and made a great overtaking move. How dare he.— Mike Brearley (@Michaelb34135) July 20, 2014
Didn't understand how Hamilton didn't get penalised inspite of numerous dangerous overtakes #F1— Mud (@Mud_Gooner) July 20, 2014
People who think Hamilton is being dangerous are watching the wrong sport, go watch darts or snooker😴— Jack (@Jack_e1) July 20, 2014
Two incidents in particular sparked debate.
The first came on the 13th lap. Hamilton was 10th, behind Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo. Raikkonen got a good exit from Turn 4 and went to the inside of the Red Bull, while Hamilton used his greater straight-line speed to go down the inside of both of them.
Hamilton braked very late, locking both front wheels. He made contact with Raikkonen but still made the corner, overtaking two cars in a single move.
The second incident occurred on Lap 30. Now up to seventh and having just stopped for fresh tyres, Hamilton came up behind Jenson Button. The McLaren took a very wide line into the hairpin, and Hamilton, thinking Button was giving him room, went for the inside.
But he wasn't. Button turned in, and Hamilton hit the side of the MP4-29, damaging his front wing.
It would eventually cost the Mercedes man a chance of coming in second.
A close examination of footage of the Raikkonen-Ricciardo incident reveals Hamilton braked the merest blink of an eye after the Finn. This allowed him to pull alongside through the rest of the braking zone.
It also left him really needing to stand on everything to stop in time.
He locked up but never truly looked out of control or in any danger of missing the corner.
Contact occurred because Hamilton was moving slightly to the left under braking, while Raikkonen moved slightly to the right. It cost the Ferrari man a sliver of his front-wing endplate.
It was a robust and daring move, with two of the best drivers in the world going toe-to-toe into a deep braking area. But reckless and worthy of criticism it was not, and the race stewards agreed. Furthermore, per Crash.net, Raikkonen himself had no complaints.
That's because he's also a racer. He'd have gone for the gap as well.
The second incident, with Button, also happened at Turn 6 but was very different. Hamilton was not close enough to attempt a normal pass and was lined up to follow the McLaren through the corner.
However, Button took an extremely wide line. At the time, Hamilton was significantly quicker; he had closed the gap by 3.6 seconds in the previous two laps alone.
Button had let Hamilton by with no fuss during the previous race at Silverstone because he didn't want to waste time fighting a battle he could only lose.
Hamilton, believing he was getting another free ride here, went to take the inside line. But as we know now, Button wasn't letting him through—he closed the door, and Hamilton drove into the side of his MP4-29.
Button spoke to Sky Sports immediately after the race and was critical of Hamilton's driving, suggesting he took too many risks and would be better off waiting for easier opportunities. But he later took to Twitter after watching the incident again, retracting what he'd said:
After watching the race back think I overreacted with my feelings about Lewis's move. I can understand why he thought I was giving him room.— Jenson Button (@JensonButton) July 20, 2014
Another simple racing incident.
Hamilton also touched Adrian Sutil earlier in the race, but that minor collision passed by without complaint from anyone.
Perhaps years of "avoidable accidents" and penalties have conditioned some of us to consign any sort of daring move to the reckless bin. Maybe it has even conditioned some drivers to avoid attempting risky moves because the punishment for errors is so severe.
But not Hamilton, and though his moves were risky compared to a boring DRS drive-by, they were by no means reckless or out of place. They were not uncontrolled lunges or moves performed without due care.
Neither of the men on the "receiving end" had any complaints.
And neither manoeuvre carried the level of risk that Fernando Alonso's awesome move around the outside of Sebastian Vettel at Copse during the British Grand Prix did.
Speed = 293km / h Gear = 7th Risk = High Adrenaline = Max Possibility that I will repeat = unlikely http://t.co/1I0dIVqmJj— Fernando Alonso (@alo_oficial) July 6, 2014
Jackie Stewart once interviewed Ayrton Senna and pointed out how frequently Senna was involved in collisions. It prompted one of the Brazilian's most famous quotes, seen in this video and recorded by ESPN.co.uk:
By being a racing driver you are under risk all the time. By being a racing driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, we are competing to win. And the main motivation to all of us is to compete for victory. It's not to come third, fourth, fifth or sixth. I race to win as long as I feel it's possible. Sometimes you get it wrong, sure, it's impossible to get it right all the time.
The sport has moved forward since then, and the financial stakes are undoubtedly higher, but the core message remains as true today as it did all those years ago.
Racing drivers are there to race, to beat the other guy. Sometimes a passing move is a risk-free, drive-by DRS job; other times, a bit of late-braking and risk-taking is necessary.
Of course, they'll get it wrong from time to time. They're not flawless racing robots; mistakes are inevitable.
But we watch F1 for the spectacular, the special, the brilliant. Drivers who bring that to the table in an intelligent, controlled manner should be applauded for what they do and encouraged to keep on doing it.
Even if, as Hamilton did, they take the odd risk and lose a few scraps of bodywork along the way.