Lewis Hamilton cut a desolate figure after Mercedes’ terrible strategic error robbed him of victory in Monaco and handed it gift-wrapped to team-mate and rival Nico Rosberg.
For so long it looked like this would be the perfect end to a memorable week for the reigning Formula 1 world champion.
Fresh from signing a lucrative three-year deal with Mercedes, Hamilton impressed in Thursday’s practice and had a Saturday to remember as he took pole in Monte Carlo for the first time.
Yesterday continued in the same vein until the bemusing call to pit after the safety car was brought out, first virtually and then a real car, following Max Verstappen’s late crash.
It cost Hamilton a lights-to-flag victory as he re-emerged behind Rosberg and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel – a gap he was unable to claw back in the narrow streets of the principality.
“I can’t really express the way I feel at the moment so I won’t even attempt to,” Hamilton said in the post-race press conference.
“You rely on the team. I saw a screen, it looked like the team was out and I thought that Nico had pitted.
“Obviously I couldn’t see the guys behind so I thought the guys behind were pitting.
“The team said to stay out, I said ‘these tyres are going to drop in temperature’ and what I was assuming was that these guys would be on options and I was on the harder tyre, so they said to pit. Without thinking I came in with full confidence that the others had done the same.”
Hamilton was visibly downbeat after seeing victory elude him but, like on the podium, kept his counsel and showed impressive maturity given the circumstances.
In the podium interview he said he intended to “come back to win the next one” in Monaco, although the 30-year-old’s main concern now will be the fact his lead has been cut to ten points.
“This is a race that has been very special, close to my heart for many years and so it was very important, it was a great feeling leading the race,” Hamilton said after insisting he remains 100 per cent confident in the team’s strategy decisions.
“I had so much pace as I have for many, many years, including last year. I could have easily had that gap last year as well.
“Today, I didn’t really have to push too much, I could have doubled the lead if I needed it, so on the one hand it’s a good thing that I had that pace and I’m grateful for that. You live to fight another day.”
Mercedes’ head of motorsport Toto Wolff has apologised to Hamilton for their costly miscalculation and said it was “all good” between them following a brief post-race exchange.
Wolff denied suggestions that the decision could have been made to please the German team’s hierarchy, while Rosberg knows he was lucky to win in Monte Carlo for a third straight year.
“I am just very, very happy to have won the race,” he said after becoming the fourth man to achieve the feat. “On the other side, though, of course, Lewis was stronger this weekend.
“He deserved it for sure and I got lucky in the end there. I don’t even know what happened. But, yeah, ecstatic about that anyway.”
Vettel also capitalised on Hamilton’s mishap to finish second – his fifth podium of the season – and Hamilton was followed home by Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo, who clocked the fastest lap of the day.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was sixth ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, while McLaren were at last able to celebrate their first points of the season.
The Woking-based team have endured their worst start to a Formula 1 season, but Jenson Button’s eighth-place finish, ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and Carlos Sainz Jr of Toro Rosso, ended that barren run.
“It was a positive day,” the 2009 world champion said. “We won’t be patting ourselves on the back too much, it’s only four points but it’s nice to finally get into the points and I think it’s great for McLaren and Honda.”
Button’s McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso was one of the three retirements yesterday, along with Lotus’ Pastor Maldonado and Verstappen of Toro Rosso.
India’s Nico Hulkenberg responded well to a first-lap collision by finishing 11th ahead of Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson of Sauber. The Williams duo of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa followed, with Manor’s Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens bottom of the pack.