Lewis Hamilton can still beat Nico Rosberg to the title because he “needs the enemy” to win, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has insisted, despite the world champion’s erratic performance in Japan.
The championship battle is now out of Hamilton’s hands after he finished third in Suzuka on Sunday, while a dominant Rosberg charged to his ninth victory of the campaign.
With only 100 points available from the final four races, Hamilton faces a seemingly improbable task of clawing back the 33-point deficit to Rosberg.
Indeed Mercedes’ non-executive chairman Niki Lauda believes the Briton will now have to rely on Rosberg hitting trouble to prevent him from winning the title.
But Wolff, who was joined by Hamilton on Lauda’s private jet from Japan on Sunday night, feels the 31-year-old world champion could yet complete a miraculous turnaround.
“Thirty-three points is a lot, but you can see how quickly it goes,” Wolff said. “This is still a mechanical sport.
“The way Nico tackles each weekend as a singular event has proved to be the right strategy for him, and equally Lewis functions at his best when he is under pressure and has a target.
“It is not over. There are four weekends to go, and Lewis will regroup. He is very strong and he needs the enemy – sometimes more than one – and that is how he functions. I think it will go down to the end.”
Hamilton, who is due to appear alongside Rosberg at Mercedes’ headquarters in Brackley to toast their third consecutive constructors’ championship on Tuesday, appeared in a curious mood in Japan. He walked out of his press conference with the written media on Saturday evening in response to what he deemed to be disrespectful coverage of his bizarre antics on Snapchat earlier in the week.
Hamilton then botched his start on Sunday – falling six places to eighth – before calling on Mercedes to withdraw their post-race protest against Max Verstappen, which could have promoted him to second, while at 40,000 feet.
Hamilton’s demeanour, which came the week after he hinted at a conspiracy theory following his engine failure in Malaysia, led some to believe he was wilting under the intensity of the title battle. One senior Mercedes figure described his walkout from Saturday’s press conference as a “meltdown”.
In contrast, Rosberg topped every practice session before beating Hamilton to pole, and winning for a third time in four races.
“First of all, I don’t know any of these things,” Rosberg said when quizzed on Hamilton’s attitude in Japan. “I can tell you that behind the scenes he has been as focused as ever.”