Lewis Hamilton Caught Between Defence & Attack in 2014 Abu Dhabi GP Qualifying

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2014

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 22:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP waves to the crowd next to Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP after claiming pole position during qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 22, 2014 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

It was shortly after his victory in September's Singapore Grand Prix that Lewis Hamilton announced his game plan for the remainder of the 2014 Formula One season.

The Briton's pole-to-flag win at the Marina Bay street circuit, coupled with the retirement of Nico Rosberg, his Mercedes team-mate and title rival, had allowed Hamilton to transform a 22-point deficit into a three-point advantage in the standings with just five races remaining. 

Despite returning to the top of the championship for the first time since May's Spanish Grand Prix, Hamilton was reluctant to alter his approach, telling Sky Sports' Pete Gill:

I still feel like I am hunting, I still feel like I am chasing—and that’s a good feeling.

This is game time. This is about hunting. In my head, I don’t think I am leading the championship. There are still five races left and all I’m going to do is what I’ve done in the last two races, which is just attack every session.

The predatory mindset clearly worked a treat.

Singapore was the second in a career-best run of five consecutive wins, which saw the 2008 world champion also triumph in Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States, taking the championship out of Rosberg's reach in the process.

AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 02:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium next to Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP following his victory in the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on November 2,
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The German, for his part, was a sitting duck for much of that period. He would steal a pole position here and there—as he did at the Suzuka and Austin circuits—and hold the lead for a time, as he did in all but one of those grands prix.

But the sight of the No. 6 car a few metres up the road was not a challenge to Hamilton's superiority—it was a target to aim at. 

Rosberg's attempts to run away at the front would only lead Hamilton into retaliation, elevating the British driver to an even higher level of performance.

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 05: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP leads teammate Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP during the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit on October 5, 2014 in Suzuka, Japan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Ge
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In a campaign that has seen the title protagonists push each other along in the never-ending quest for perfection, Hamilton's dominant streak was the most glaring example of one driver absorbing the energy of the other's performances.

That process, however, was brought to a halt a fortnight ago in the Brazilian Grand Prix, where Rosberg was the fastest in every single session and took points away from Hamilton for the first time since August's Belgian Grand Prix.

The race at Interlagos was the first time that we saw Hamilton, the leader, in action.

He spun at Turn 4 as he set about producing a fast lap in the hope of inheriting the lead from Rosberg, whose application of pressure had forced Hamilton into that predicament, at the pit stops.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 09:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP during the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 9, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by
Clive Mason/Getty Images

And when the No. 44 car did close the gap to Rosberg, Hamilton was more tentative than he otherwise might have been, refraining from muscling his team-mate out of the way as he did at the Circuit of the Americas seven days previously.

It was an indication that Hamilton, subconsciously or otherwise, was driving with something to lose.

As a result, he took fewer risks and was seemingly content for his points advantage to be cut to 17, rather than increased to 31, ahead of the double-points Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Having been out-qualified by Rosberg for the third successive race weekend, however, there is little doubt that the hunter has become the hunted.

Described as "edgy" by Martin Brundle during Sky Sports' television coverage of the session, Hamilton was comfortably beaten by his team-mate in two of the three qualifying segments, ultimately finishing 0.4 seconds adrift of Rosberg, as per Formula1.com, and only 0.2 seconds ahead of third-placed Valtteri Bottas.

His two runs of Q3 were marred by unforced errors, with Hamilton being too greedy at the penultimate corner, running wide and suffering a lock-up for the final turn on his first attempt before locking up into the Turn 1 on his final effort.

Although many a pole position has slipped through his fingers this season due to similar mistakes—think Q3 in Canada, Austria and Belgium—the sheer magnitude of this weekend means those errors, unlike the others, will not be simply forgotten as the race begins on Sunday.

With the knowledge that the runner-up position will be good enough to secure the championship regardless of what Rosberg does, Hamilton seems torn between fighting for the grand prix win—as he vowed to do in Thursday's FIA press conference—and settling for second.

And any indecisiveness could prove to be his downfall in the race. 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives  during qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 22, 2014 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Cl
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Fight Rosberg, and the risk of a repeat of their collision at Spa-Francorchamps, which led to Hamilton's retirement, becomes a distinct possibility.

Hold back, and send an open invitation to Bottas and Felipe Massa, his Williams colleague—not to mention any driver who may experiment with strategy to take advantage of double-points—to take the crown away.

While Rosberg's task at Yas Marina is relatively simple—take pole, win the race and hope for the best—Hamilton, the natural-born scrapper, faces a title-deciding dilemma.

He would be well-advised to devise a pre-race plan and stick to it—but no matter what his approach may be, it'll be easier said than done.

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