Shanghai pit blunder my mistake, says Hamilton

He shook the hand of every McLaren-Mercedes team member in the garage, and then he left. When it came to exits, that one was more elegant than Lewis Hamilton's departure from the Chinese Grand Prix had been.

On the day when the 22-year-old rookie could have become the first man ever to win the Formula One crown at the first attempt, his first real mistake of the season – sliding wide into the gravel and coming to a stop as he turned into the pit lane – came in the full glare of publicity and threw the eventual race winner, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, and the runner-up, his McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso, the lifelines they had been seeking to prolong the battle. As a result, in two weeks' time the trio will become the first men since Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost in 1986 to fight for the title right down to the wire.

"It's my first mistake all year and to do it on the way into the pits is not something I usually do," Hamilton said, taking it on the chin. "You cannot go through life without making mistakes."

Later, in Hamilton's absence, McLaren's managing director, Martin Whitmarsh, explained the background to his driver's mistake, which occurred on badly worn tyres.

"We believed that it was a lower risk to leave Lewis on those [intermediate] tyres until we had more information on a new threat of rain. We didn't want to put him on to dry tyres too early and risk him going off if it rained again. The reality is that we made the decision a lap too late. Being Lewis I'm sure he will blame himself, but it was a mistake by the team. We said for him to stay out."

Had the marshals pushed the McLaren out of the gravel Hamilton could have continued with fresh tyres fitted, but that did not happen. Instead, on his return to the garage a rueful Hamilton did the rounds before departing, doubtless wondering if his title chance had just evaporated.

He has the make-up to bounce back stronger than ever after the mistake. All season he has shown not only the strength to challenge much more experienced rivals, but also the mental resilience to take setbacks in his stride.

"Every year as you step up there are certain ways you have to up your game and interact with the team," he has said. "There's a way of learning and you need to do that as fast as possible to get on the pace. Each year you analyse your last season: how did it go so well, how did you get to those stages? And then you try to improve that further.

"You can be kicked up the arse by someone else, or you can kick yourself. People ask me where does the main pressure come from? Is it McLaren? Sponsors? No, I put a lot of pressure on myself. The desire to win is so strong, it's incredible. So when you make a mistake, and you know you shouldn't have made a mistake or you know you can do better, it's a real pain. But you dance back a little bit, and turn all that negative energy into something positive. That's a powerful tool to have.

"I think the key is to be professional, and I do my talking on the track. It's important to control yourself and be professional about it and move on while taking everything you can from that race."

Hamilton inherited his self-control from his father, Anthony, and says: "I've been very fortunate having my father's support all the way. Mentally he is very strong. He's had a major influence on my mental preparation and the way I think. It's a difficult skill to put things behind you, but sometimes you see all these drivers looking so disappointed. And you think: 'Get a grip of yourself. You can bounce back'. If you let it kill you, you'll never improve."

Damon Hill, the last British world champion, who secured his title in the final race of the 1996 season, is confident that Hamilton will maintain his form in Brazil and win the title, despite this setback.

"My instant reaction to what happened was disbelief," said Hill, now president of the British Racing Drivers' Club, "but Lewis bounced back instantly by saying that he is still fighting, he's still leading the championship.

"His conduct as a sportsman is absolutely amazing. He's come in as a rookie and is out there beating the best drivers in the world."

Whitmarsh said: "Lewis is a very calm individual. Inevitably, he is massively disappointed with the outcome today. But he came back and spoke to just about everybody in the team. He came out to the pit wall, which shows his professionalism and his character. He will put this behind him very quickly"

Further support, perhaps unexpectedly, came from Hamilton's beleaguered team-mate, and rival, Alonso. A week ago the Spaniard had left a race with his head down after crashing out of the Japanese Grand Prix in Fuji, which Hamilton dominated. But, as the tables were turned yesterday, the current champion, who had spent much of his weekend continuing to bemoan the treatment he feels he has been getting at McLaren, refused to crow over his team-mate's misfortune.

"Lewis will be focused in Brazil and this setback will have no effect on his capacity to perform there," he said. "He will still have the advantage and Kimi and I will be the ones hoping for another unusual race."

In the drivers' championship, Hamilton now has 107 points to Alonso's 103 and Raikkonen's 100.

The day Mansell's hopes exploded

The last time three drivers fought for the formula one world championship right up until the final round was in 1986, when the Williams pilots Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were challenged by McLaren's Alain Prost at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide.

On that occasion it was Prost, the outsider, who came from behind as Mansell's chances exploded, along with a rear tyre, late in the race.

Mansell went into the race seven points clear of Piquet, 70 to 63, with Prost between them on 64. The Frenchman's McLaren-TAG was not as quick as the dominant Williams-Hondas but Prost, cleverly, had studiously garnered points all season as the two Williams drivers fought and took points from one another. There was no love lost between them.

In Adelaide, Mansell started from pole position, ahead of Piquet and Ayrton Senna's Lotus-Renault and with Prost fourth on the grid. The Briton led away but Senna soon forced his way into first place and Piquet and Keke Rosberg also overtook Mansell.

Driving the second McLaren, Rosberg built up a lead over Piquet until the Brazilian spun his car on the 23rd lap. Three laps later Prost suffered a puncture and dropped back to fourth.

Piquet recovered and re-passed Mansell for second place on lap 44, as Prost caught them both. When Rosberg retired with tyre failure on the 63rd lap their battle became for the lead.

Now Mansell was firmly on course for the title, until his left rear tyre exploded at 180mph on the main straight a lap later. The Briton was lucky to control his car as it slithered into the escape road, but his title aspirations had been dashed in the most dramatic fashion.

Now Piquet seemed set to win the race and the title, until Williams were forced to bring him in for a precautionary tyre change. Prost thus inherited the lead, and though Piquet closed in again, the Frenchman won the race and the world title at the 11th hour.

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