"So, how does it feel to have the Crash Kid in your team?"
It was, the German interrogator later admitted, the question he had to ask McLaren chief Martin Whitmarsh after Lewis Hamilton crashed out of Sunday's Italian Grand Prix, since in the heat of the post-race moment two weeks earlier in Belgium, Whitmarsh had called hot-headed Sebastian Vettel just that after the young German had taken Jenson Button out of the race.
Whitmarsh did not rise to the bait, and instead made it clear that he does not believe that Hamilton should curb his aggressive style despite the high cost of it on Sunday afternoon. Last year the 2008 world champion crashed at Monza while trying to challenge Jenson Button's Brawn for second place rather than settling for third.
This time he was pushing Felipe Massa for third on the opening lap when he put himself into a vulnerable position at the second chicane, and had his right front wheel clipped by the Ferrari's left rear. The resultant suspension and steering damage put him in the gravel and out of the race at the next corner.
As Mark Webber regained his world championship points lead, Hamilton found himself five adrift. Worse still, rivals Fernando Alonso, Button and Vettel, who finished first, second and fourth respectively, are all now back in the title hunt just when it seemed that Hamilton and Webber were beginning to open up a margin.
When he crashed while leading at Monaco in 1988, Ayrton Senna famously went straight back to his flat, where a team member came upon him still weeping. After his gaffe on Sunday Hamilton locked himself away in his private room in the McLaren Brand Centre in the paddock. Whitmarsh went to find him there when the race was over, to deliver a timely pep talk to his crestfallen star.
"I knew Lewis was in his room and had been there for some time," Whitmarsh said. "I went in to talk to him. He had time to reflect on it, we discussed what happened and we will learn from it. The important thing is that Lewis jumps out of bed in the morning, gets in to training, focuses on Singapore and wants to do the job there. And he will."
Even a fourth place would have given Hamilton 12 points which would not only have increased his points lead but would have reduced Vettel's and Webber's scores in a race in which their Red Bulls, unusually, lacked pace. But Whitmarsh insists there is no pressure upon Hamilton to rein in a flamboyant style that is increasingly reminiscent of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve.
"That is Lewis Hamilton," he said. "He is an aggressive racing driver who, when viewing the slow-motion replay from the comfort of an armchair, probably wishes he had not done it.
"And so do we. But that is being a racing driver. You have to go for it. That is Lewis Hamilton. And I don't want to change Lewis Hamilton. I think he is a great product, a great human being and a great racing driver. He's hard on himself. He is striving to be perfect, striving to be the best racing driver in the world, and when you do something like he did, you regret it. But it is millimetres and centimetres of track position at high speed and high adrenaline that are the difference between hero and zero.
"He and we wish he had done something different in that corner but we will just now focus on Singapore, getting the car quicker and focusing on beating other people."
The contenders – and what they must do to win the title
No 1: Mark Webber, Red Bull, 187 points
Webber is the only four-time winner this season, so he needs to keep plugging away, scoring points whenever he can't add to those victories. But he also needs to get to the bottom of why his Red Bull has bogged down so badly getting off the line at the start of the last two races.
No 2: Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, 182
Hamilton needs to keep his nerve and confidence and keep pulling off the stunning performances which saw him victorious in Turkey, Canada and Belgium, and to avoid those odd lapses of judgement such as he showed in Canada in 2008 or on the opening lap at Monza last Sunday.
No 3: Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, 166
Alonso must keep pushing Ferrari to get the maximum from their car after spells of inconsistency this season have seen its performance fluctuate dramatically, and to build on Monza's success. And he needs to steer clear of the driving errors that cost him so dear in Monaco and Belgium.
No 4: Jenson Button, McLaren, 165
Button is the only one of the major championship protagonists who has not made an embarrassing driving error this season, and his calmness under pressure certainly impressed Alonso at Monza. But he is the first to admit that he really needs to work on his qualifying performances.
No 5: Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, 163
Vettel has been showing the classic signs of stress recently, as by his own admission he fell asleep while following the safety car in Hungary and then showed his streak of impetuosity when he crashed into Button in Belgium. Like Hamilton, he needs to relax and just let it flow.Reuse content