Why Lewis Hamilton Should Start from Pit Lane in 2016 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2016

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the media during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

As Lewis Hamilton made a stuttering start to the 2016 Formula One season, it didn't take long for the conspiracy theorists to crawl out of the woodwork.

Following the three-time world champion's poor getaways from pole position in Australia and Bahrain, and his two identical MGU-H failures in as many qualifying sessions in China and Russia, those stuck in cyberspace quickly became convinced Mercedes were deliberately plotting against their star driver.

After almost two years of Hamilton dominance, they said, the team had clearly decided this was the turn of Nico Rosberg—who had quickly established a 43-point lead with victories in the opening four races—to share some of the Silver Arrows' success.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP looks at his team-mate Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP as he celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Why else would they decide to swap the mechanics of each driver ahead of the new season, upsetting the balance of the team and suddenly turning some of Hamilton's most trusted colleagues into enemies within?

Those cries of sabotage, of course, were soon denied by Hamilton and Mercedes—who even issued an open letter to reassure their supporters—and quickly faded away when the No. 44 car returned to winning ways in May's Monaco Grand Prix, sparking a run of six wins in seven races.

But during that very volatile period, perhaps the only thing the lunatics—as team boss Toto Wolff politely referred to them, per Sky Sportsdidn't complain about to @MercedesAMGF1 was among the most glaring, strangest errors made by F1's most meticulous team since they became the sport's dominance force in 2014.

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When Hamilton suffered the first of those MGU-H issues on Saturday afternoon in China, where he failed to set a lap time in qualifying and was condemned to last place, Mercedes had the option to take their world champion out of the line of fire.

With the Chinese GP usually featuring one of the more hazardous first laps—mostly due to the long, closing-radius, multi-apex Turn 1 that almost folds back on itself before the track falls away into Turn 3—they should have forced Hamilton to start from the pit lane and wait for the inevitable first-corner storm to pass.

Yet rather than taking the initiative, the team—undoubtedly determined to get to the bottom of the No. 44 car's lacklustre launches and maybe under pressure from Hamilton to begin the race as normal—were uncharacteristically weak and allowed him to take a traditional start.

And what happened?

Following his wheelspin worries at Melbourne, Australia, and Sakhir, Bahrain, Hamilton enjoyed his best start of 2016 to date and promptly—predictably—sped straight into someone else's accident, losing his front wing when Felipe Nasr suddenly swerved to avoid Kimi Raikkonen's limping Ferrari.

An early safety car period minimised the pain of that collision, and Hamilton ultimately recovered to seventh position.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes damages his front wing during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2016 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Peter J Fox/Getty Images)
Peter J Fox/Getty Images

But as he suffered damage to "some aero parts" and the suspension to the point where his W07 handled "like a four-poster bed," as he told Sky Sports' Matthew Morlidge, it was worth wondering just how much higher Hamilton would have finished had he had a fully functioning car at his disposal.

It is precisely those thoughts he, now nursing a 19-point lead over Rosberg in the drivers' standings, must avoid at the end of Sunday's Belgian GP.

As reported by Sky Sports' Pete Gill, the reliability gremlins that followed Hamilton in the early weeks of the campaign have come back to haunt him at Spa-Francorchamps, where he will start at the very rear of the field for exceeding the engine component-usage regulations.

Mercedes-AMG F1 @MercedesAMGF1

"A straightforward day for me but a tough one for the guys in the garage with the engine change" @LewisHamilton #F1 https://t.co/FUb3KJcCJt

A number of engine changes over the course of the weekend could see the three-time world champion drop as many as 75 places on the 22-car grid, with the sheer number of positions lost aimed at preventing him running the risk of more grid penalties in the final three months of 2016.

With Marcus Ericsson (10 places) and Fernando Alonso (35 places) taking similar punishments, Hamilton will be in good company at the back of the grid.

But instead of taking his place alongside the Sauber and McLaren-Honda drivers on Sunday afternoon, he should opt for a far more comfortable seat at the end of the pit lane, which would not only allow Mercedes to prime his car for overtaking, but protect Hamilton from being dragged into another Shanghai-style incident.

The starts at Spa, after all, have long been regarded as the most chaotic moments of a given season, with the multi-car pileup in 1998 and Romain Grosjean's airborne crash in 2012 evidence of just what can go wrong when a front wheel or three is put out of joint in the Ardennes forest.

In his nine previous seasons in F1, Hamilton has been involved in several collisions in the early stages at Spa, having been shoved wide by Alonso at La Source in 2007, taken out by Grosjean in '09 and '12 and, of course, hit by Rosberg on the second lap of the 2014 race.

Starting from the pit lane would allow Hamilton to miss any tangles at La Source, tip-toe past any incidents later on the opening lap and soon catch the back of the pack when the breathlessness of the latest Spa start has faded and the backmarkers will be composed enough to spot a charging Mercedes in their mirrors.

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Aug
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

When asked what would be a realistic finishing position for him from the back of the grid, Hamilton told Thursday's official FIA press conference he has "no idea" just "how far [he] can get up," admitting he would be satisfied just to "get into the points."

But—to paraphrase a commonly used motor-racing mantra—to finish in the points, first he will have to finish.

Avoiding the usual start-line silliness will be key to his progress at Spa.


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