Can McLaren's troubled situation be rescued in time for Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to stay in the world championship title fight?
That was the million-dollar question people were asking after the Japanese Grand Prix yesterday, with the McLaren pair now trailing Mark Webber (220), Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel (206 each) with 192 and 189 points respectively.
"I have no idea," Hamilton admitted candidly after yet more gearbox troubles had restricted him to a fifth-place finish behind Button, as the Red Bulls comfortably dominated the race ahead of Alonso's Ferrari. "Your guess is as good as mine. But if it's statistically possible, then I guess it's realistically possible."
Hamilton is a fighter who always talks a good game even in adversity, and adversity didn't come much greater than in Suzuka this weekend. But he paused a moment as reality sank in, and did the mental arithmetic. "I'm now 28 points behind," he said. "It's a tough one. And it's not looking great. But it's still possible, I can still can do it with 75 points available. But if they finish all the races as they have like this, then it's a walkover."
Alonso had said that he could win the title merely by finishing on the podium in the remaining three races. Hamilton smiled at that one. "Wins will get it for us," he replied quickly, as if going for podiums was anathema to him. "If the others have problems..."
Suzuka was a weekend from hell for him that began with the shunt on his second flying lap in Friday's first practice sessions and continued with the rain that delayed qualifying until Sunday morning, then a gearbox problem that resulted in the need for a new unit and cost him third place on the grid. And as if that wasn't enough, his replacement gearbox lost third gear around lap 38.
"If we hadn't had to change the gearbox, I think we would have been in the top three for sure, if not challenging for the win with the pace we seemed to have," he suggested. "And if we hadn't had a gearbox problem in the race I reckon I would have been competing with Webber.
"Actually, I didn't think I was going to finish, with the problem. Just before Jenson's pit stop I lost third gear. I changed up from second in the hairpin and it just churned. I thought the whole box had gone but I got fourth gear, and for rest of race I could use only fourth to seventh. But my mood? I'm just happy to get through the race. I needed to finish a race, after three non-finishes in the last four. I was lucky it's a high-speed circuit, so I didn't need the low gears."
Compounding Hamilton's problem, he was suffering an ear infection throughout the meeting. "I've had bad weekends," he conceded, "but nothing overall as bad. This is the worst of all of them. The infection affected my balance a bit, left me deaf in the left ear so I couldn't use the ear plug and had to use a cotton wool bud instead. It was bruised and I couldn't hear a thing. Then both ears blocked in the race.
"I don't know what I have been kicked around by, but I have definitely had a tough one. Unbelievable, just unbelievable. It's been one of those character-building times that people talk about, whatever that means!"
Button once again questioned his team's tyre strategy after qualifying on the harder Bridgestone compound. "I thought the others would struggle on the options at the start of the race, but they didn't," he said. "I wasn't really able to push Fernando, and I had Lewis right behind me.
"We need to look at the data but to stay out when everyone else pitted was probably the wrong thing. Maybe you should cover the people that you are racing and we didn't do that. At the end of the race when we did put the option on, it was great. The car had a lot of grip and I was very fast. But we weren't quick enough to beat the Red Bulls."