Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team have apologised to their star driver, who claimed he was robbed of an “easy” victory in Singapore following a strategy blunder.
The world champion finished only fourth on Sunday as Sebastian Vettel saw off Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc at the Marina Bay Street Circuit to claim a much-needed win. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen completed the podium.
Hamilton had been running in second place, but was left in no-man’s land when Mercedes elected against reacting to an early pit stop by Vettel – one which enabled the German to get the jump on his Ferrari team-mate Leclerc and ultimately bring to an end his torrid 13-month losing streak.
The Briton plodded around the 23-corner course on ageing rubber for seven laps longer than Vettel and six more than Leclerc. By the time Mercedes did pull Hamilton in, it left him in a net fourth, and his hopes of victory up in smoke.
It would have been worse had Valtteri Bottas not followed a Mercedes order to slow down and ensure Hamilton did not become vulnerable to attack from Red Bull’s Alex Albon.
Mercedes’ chief strategist, James Vowles, moved to acknowledge that it was his faux pas which cost Hamilton the shot at a hat-trick of Singapore wins.
“Today there wasn’t a driver mistake, but a mistake in the strategy, and James, with his wide shoulders, said, ‘I have f***** it up’,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said.
“We had a package capable of pole, an opportunity to win, and we made too many mistakes this weekend, with too many opportunities lost. The mood in the team is one of annoyance.”
Hamilton said he had urged his team to risk the undercut (stopping before your rival to take advantage of fresh tyres) in Sunday’s pre-race meeting, but that his request fell on deaf ears.
“It’s painful for us because we could have easily won today,” Hamilton said.
“I was asking them to do the undercut, to take the risk, and go for it, but they didn’t. Two other teams got it right today and leapfrogged us.”
Like, Hamilton, pole-sitter Leclerc also fell foul to strategy. The young Monegasque appeared set to become the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to win three races in a row, only to leave the pits with Vettel ahead of him.
Leclerc was furious on the radio. “To be completely honest with you, I don’t understand the undercut,” he said, believing he should have been given priority over Vettel, who was third before the only change for tyres. “We will discuss after the race.”
Later, he added: “I won’t do anything stupid, but I just think it is unfair.”
Despite Leclerc’s frustration, it became apparent that Ferrari were not favouring Vettel, rather responding to Verstappen pitting – the pair stopped on the same lap for fresh rubber.
“I am disappointed on my side as anyone would be, but it is like this sometimes, and I will come back stronger,” a more sanguine Leclerc said after the race.
Vettel, who arrived in Singapore following his Monza horror show, held his nerve following three safety car periods to take the chequered flag – a resurgent Ferrari winning for a third time in as many races since the summer break.
Hamilton may have been denied a ninth victory of the year, but he was still able to extend his championship lead to 65 points over Bottas, who finished fifth.
Leclerc, third in the standings, is 96 points adrift of Hamilton with just six rounds remaining and 156 points available.