With just 11 points separating Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton at the top of the drivers' standings going into the Belgian Grand Prix, this weekend was about more than the resumption of the Formula One season.
Eleven points, after all—in an era when 25 are handed out for a race victory—counts for nothing when there are eight grands prix remaining and 200 more points to play for.
The four winners' trophies collected by Rosberg, the championship leader, and the five claimed by Hamilton prior to the month-long summer break were all pleasant additions to their respective trophy cabinets but little more than money in the bank in the grand scheme of things.
The title, with so little between the Mercedes drivers, was always bound to be won and lost in the second half of the campaign, with the final eight races representing a reset—a season within a season, if you will—rather than a conventional resumption of battle.
Among the benefits of such a finely poised championship battle, for both Hamilton and Rosberg, who have been just as evenly matched in their struggles as they have been in their brilliance, is that any mistakes made in the opening 11 races were rendered irrelevant.
And with a four-week gap between the Hungarian and Belgian grands prix, they have had plenty of time to identify and work on eradicating any weaknesses in their performances which have prevented them from operating at their best and have therefore stopped them from having a tighter grip on the crown.
For Hamilton, the Achilles' heel—particularly in recent months—has undoubtedly been in qualifying.
Since the 29-year-old's last pole position in the Spanish Grand Prix almost four months ago, every qualifying session for the No. 44 Mercedes has been marred by a problem of some sort.
And although his eliminations from Saturday sessions in Germany and Hungary, where he suffered technical issues, were out of his control, he did himself few favours in qualifying in Canada, Austria and Britain.
The latest disappointment in a worrying trend for the 2008 world champion, of course, came at a damp Spa, where he—after looking comfortable in both Q1 and Q2—ran wide at the La Source hairpin on his first run in Q3 before repeating the trick on his second attempt and dipping a wheel on the grassy exit of the Stavelot corner for good measure.
The former McLaren driver claimed that a braking niggle was at the root of his failure to beat Rosberg, telling Jonathan Noble and Pablo Elizalde of Autosport:
This is a circuit where you have to have confidence in the brakes. You could see in Q3 when I was going straight on as the left brake wasn't working for some reason, I don't know why.
It went into glazing. When it glazes it is very hard to recover, you have to put the brake balance forward. It's not that easy to clear it.
I am not disappointed today. If you look previous years P2 is best place to start here. I started from pole here last year and got overtaken by [Sebastian] Vettel.
I think it gives you the most opportunity at the start—I am happy to be up there.
Despite securing his first front row start since the Canadian Grand Prix and finishing second to Rosberg, the pole-sitter, by a margin of just three tenths of a second, according to the official F1 website, Hamilton, out-qualified by the German for the seventh consecutive event, has once again failed to extract the most from what is comfortably the best car on the grid.
He is arguably the fastest driver on the grid in terms of one-lap pace. He is a qualified specialist in wet weather conditions. And at Spa, a true drivers' circuit, his position as an elite racer should be clearer than most other venues on the Formula One calendar.
Yet he cannot seem to string that one, perfect lap together.
The regularity of his failures in qualifying means it is no longer surprising when he overcooks a corner or takes an off-track detour. And if it has become predictable for the sport's onlookers, just imagine how it must feel within the cockpit.
The experience of driving a Formula One car requires a driver to live on his instincts in normal circumstances, but that translates to hypersensitivity when there are doubts present in his mind.
An expectancy that something, somehow, will go wrong is no way to approach a situation as highly pressurised as a qualifying session—where one lap is all that counts—and it means a driver is likely to perform with increased levels of tension and will therefore be unable to compete at his best regardless.
At times, you suspect that Hamilton is almost waiting for the front end to suddenly lose its bite, the rear end to catch him out or to look in the mirrors and see plumes of smoke.
It is a vicious circle and must have a huge effect on the confidence of Hamilton, among the more emotional and self-critical drivers on the grid.
Hamilton, clearly, still stands a tremendous chance of adding to his tally of wins, but any victory at Spa, like his win from sixth on the grid at Silverstone last month, will only conceal more pressing concerns.
The Belgian Grand Prix weekend has marked something of a fresh start in the 2014 Formula One season, but some things, it seems, have stayed the same.
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