Mercedes snatch victory away from Lewis Hamilton with pit stop error

Hamilton led Rosberg by 25.7 seconds with just 14 laps to go

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The Independent Online

For somebody who had just had one of the biggest prizes in motor racing snatched away at the 11th hour, through no fault of his own, Lewis Hamilton took defeat at team-mate Nico Rosberg’s hands with commendable dignity here at the Monaco Grand Prix.

With 14 laps remaining he led Rosberg and his race-long shadow Sebastian Vettel by 25.7s after a brilliant performance that demonstrated who was the king of Prince Albert II’s playground. But a catastrophic error by Mercedes, calling him in for a redundant late pit stop, handed victory to the man he had roundly thrashed.

The seeds of the spectacular disappointment were sown by the other stand-out star, 17-year-old rookie Max Verstappen, who pulled off a couple of breath-taking overtaking moves and fought back from a pit stop delay before misjudging his attack on Romain Grosjean’s Lotus and crashing heavily at the first corner on the 64th lap.

At first the virtual safety car was deployed. This is something new that relies on drivers adhering to a predetermined speed without closing up the hard-won gaps between them. Then the real safety car came out, and suddenly Mercedes called Hamilton into the pits.

It was an extraordinary thing to do, given that neither Rosberg nor Vettel were going to do the same. And it appeared that Hamilton’s victory was sacrificed on an altar of incompetence. He rejoined the race in third place and as every schoolboy knows, even drivers of his calibre can no longer overtake in Monte Carlo.

As Rosberg smirked happily, a winner here for the third time, Hamilton’s struggle for self-control was all too evident. But he summoned the courage to shake hands with his team-mate, moments after runner-up Vettel had shaken his with the mien of a warrior who knows only too well how such unfair defeat hurts, and a slowing down lap that saw Hamilton temporarily stop, perhaps to compose himself, perhaps to reflect on what could have been.

“I can’t really express the way I’m feeling at the moment so I won’t attempt to,” Hamilton said.

“To be honest it happened so fast I don’t remember. You rely on your team. That wasn’t the easiest of races but the team have been amazing all year long and we win and we lose together, so congratulations to Nico and to Seb.”

He said that he had pitted believing that both Rosberg and Vettel must already have done so, and that the team were covering him against the threat of them being able to attack on fresher tyres over the final laps.

“I saw a screen and it looked like the team was out in the pits,” he said. “I thought the guys behind were pitting, so when the team said stay out, I said the tyres were dropping temperature, and I was assuming that these guys would be on options [the softer tyres] and I would be on the harder tyre, so they said to pit. I did that and came in thinking with full confidence the others had done the same.”

Hamilton has been beaten by Rosberg here for the last two years. But this time he annihilated him in qualifying and right through to that fateful 64th lap. Losing because your team got it wrong is the worst kind of hurt, especially when the man you had covered is the lucky recipient. Yes, Hamilton had said earlier in the week that losing here wouldn’t be the end of life, that his real focus is a third title, but he could never have envisaged fate’s twist being this cruel.

“I’m very aware that I was lucky today, as lucky as I’ll ever be in my career,” Rosberg said. “But I’ll take it. Lewis drove brilliantly and also deserved to win, for sure. And I have a lot of capacity for empathy for him, because that’s a horrible situation. But that’s the way it is in racing. I’m extremely happy, and I’m going to make the most of it.”

“This race has been close to my heart for many years,” admitted Hamilton, who last won here in 2008. “It was a great feeling in the race, I had so much pace. I didn’t have to push too much. I could have doubled the lead if I needed. I’ll come back to fight another day - at the moment I can’t think of anything else. All I can do is come back and win the next one.”

Meanwhile, team boss Toto Wolff apologised publicly.

“It was all our mistake today, Lewis, a split-second decision and the timing didn’t work. We take this one on our shoulders. There is nothing else to do than apologise, it was a misjudgement in the heat of the moment.”

There was one happy Englishman, as Jenson Button scored the first points for the new McLaren-Honda alliance.

“It’s been a positive day for us,” he said. “I certainly didn’t expect to finish eighth. I’m really happy for the team, they deserve this. This is a hugely positive step for us.”