The wait has been arduous since the Supercars championship last turned a wheel in anger at the Townsville SuperSprint in July, with the COVID-19 pandemic having halted the series due to states and territories locking down in response to outbreaks.
For the first time in the hybrid era, Mercedes has ceded three consecutive races, and Lewis Hamilton’s dry spell now stands at six, though it’d be folly to describe the situation as a crisis.
Mercedes could have claimed victory at each of the opening three events with a little fortune, while the notion that Hamilton is at his most dangerous with his back against the wall is almost an oxymoron.
The Brackley outfit had no answer to Ferrari’s turn of pace in qualifying at China, which marked the first time the German manufacturer has surrendered pole position at consecutive races since 2013, yet Valtteri Bottas appeared destined for victory on Sunday until the safety car intervened.
An inspired decision to call the Finn in prior to Sebastian Vettel propelled the 28-year-old into the lead, though as in Australia with Hamilton under the virtual safety car, its competitors – Ferrari on that occasion, and this time, Red Bull, exploited the appearance of the AMG GT R to cruel its charge.
The irony isn’t lost that Vettel, having profited in the former, criticised the safety car’s physical presence at Shanghai, the German claiming that it “was bad for Valtteri and myself, because we had no chance to react.”
“The safety car was caught almost straight away, so basically we were taken out of the race there”, the 30-year-old affirming “in my point of view it’s not right to send it when you actively change the race.”
It can be argued that Vettel’s subsequent collision with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was a direct consequence, though it was the sister Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo – the Australian on soft shod rubber, having stopped as the safety car was deployed, which denied a helpless Bottas, the Finn a sitting duck on an older set of mediums.
He was roundly, and fairly criticised for his timidness at Bahrain, an inexplicable unwillingness to execute an overtaking attempt when Vettel’s tyres were on their canvass in the dying laps.
It evoked a lack of desperation which wouldn’t be displayed by Ricciardo, who stated as much “at the first opportunity you have to take it… I wouldn’t be content, if it’s for a win, you just can’t”, but China was his and Mercedes’ to lose, alas, for a second time this season, fate prevailed.
As for Hamilton, the Briton endured another of his now synonymous ‘listless’ weekends where the four-time champion’s attention appears to lie elsewhere, and departing the weekend with fourth – a net eight-point gain on Vettel, must be treated as a victory of sorts.
Since likely triumph from another pole at Albert Park was snatched from his grasp, the 33-year-old has cut a sullen figure, and despite fighting from ninth following a grid penalty to third at Sakhir, hasn’t held a candle to the vigour of his successful campaigns in recent seasons.
Which is why, just as sceptics prepare to draw a line through Hamilton’s prospects, he’s every chance of blowing his competition away in a fortnight at Azerbaijan, serving reminder to all that he remains a lethal, unstoppable force when he’s in the optimal mindset.
Another anonymous weekend at Baku will invite legitimate questions regarding his title defence, but don’t count on it, and the return to Europe from next month will provide more definitive answers.
Let’s not forget that a subdued Hamilton lies just nine points adrift of Vettel, while Mercedes indeed leads the constructors’ standings, albeit by a single point from Ferrari. Both team and driver are in unfamiliar territory, though it’s premature to be deemed a crisis and they’re owed a right of reply.