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Page last updated at 22:20 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 23:20 UK

Hamilton treads a fine line

By Andrew Benson
BBC Sport at Monza

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton holds a slender one-point lead in the drivers' championship
Lewis Hamilton was asked after the Italian Grand Prix whether he felt this year's world championship was his to lose.

"I'm leading, so maybe," the McLaren driver said. "But I don't look at it that way. Kimi (Raikkonen) is world champion, so it's his title to lose rather than mine."

The best and the worst of Hamilton were on show at Monza, where only a superb performance in the tricky conditions in which he excels saved him from himself - and the loss of his world championship lead.

His supreme wet-weather skills, allied to the struggles faced by the Ferrari drivers, enabled him to limit the damage to his title hopes that might have been caused by a mystifying decision during qualifying.

The 23-year-old Briton started the race from 15th place - from which it would have been next to impossible to recover had the race been dry - following a terrible call by himself and his race engineer to fit intermediate tyres at the start of second qualifying.

It led to Hamilton missing the cut for the top-10 shoot-out and was so transparently wrong that a lot of people at Monza expressed their incredulity at how Hamilton and McLaren could have made it.

The track had been drying towards the end of the first session and was on the cusp of being ready for intermediates rather than the full wet tyres everyone had been using.

But then it had been raining for six minutes before the second session eventually started.


It was hardly the time for heroics. Nothing rests on that part of qualifying other than getting into the next one - which was not going to be a problem for F1's latest rain master if he had fitted the same wet-weather tyres as everyone else.

McLaren has a bit of a reputation for making odd strategy calls - to the point that some journalists have taken to singing the Laurel and Hardy theme tune whenever one happens - but Hamilton held his hand up for this one.

And many wondered whether the decision stemmed fundamentally from the same sublime talent that got Hamilton out of jail in the race, which he could have won had the weather gone his way.

Hamilton is not short of self-belief. Some call it confidence. Others - including former Grand Prix drivers of some repute as well as a few current ones - see it as arrogance.

Read this selection of Hamilton quotes following the race:

"There wasn't that much grip out there but I always managed to find it."

"I wouldn't have had a problem." (When asked if the track was driveable on intermediate tyres when he made his first pit stop)

"I'm not surprised (I'm still ahead in the championship) because I drove my arse off and you know what I can do in the wet. I had no doubts in my mind - I knew I could do a good job."

Hearing those comments, it is perhaps not a surprise that some observers at Monza were beginning to wonder whether Hamilton had become so impressed by his own abilities in the wet that they had persuaded him he could walk on water.

His performance in the first half of the race, when he elevated himself from 15th to second with some quite brilliant driving, suggested he is not far wrong - and a smattering of arrogance is a virtual necessity for the very best racing drivers.

But as one former F1 driver said on Sunday: "There are 10 million people out there in the UK wanting to call Hamilton a genius. He doesn't have to do it himself."

The mistake Hamilton made in qualifying at Monza was the latest in a series of major errors this year.

Hamilton is unlikely to be able to afford any more mistakes if he is not to let a Ferrari driver sneak in again and win a title

BBC Sport's Andrew Benson

The first was in Bahrain, when he forgot to arm the start software properly and slipped back to midfield where he proceeded to drive into the back of Fernando Alonso's Renault.

The second was crashing into the back of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in the pit lane in Canada.

The third was jumping the chicane and getting a penalty in France.

And the fourth was doing the same in Belgium, a week before Monza.

When Michael Schumacher won his first Grand Prix in 1993, four-time champion Alain Prost had a cautionary message for the brilliant rising star.

"Michael has made three or four big mistakes this year," the great Frenchman said. "You can't get away with that many if you want to win the world championship. One maybe, but any more than that and it's probably over."

Traditionally that has been true, so it is amazing that Hamilton still has a one-point lead over Ferrari's Felipe Massa going into the last four races of the season.

The fact that he has reflects poorly on the standard of his two main championship rivals - neither of whom have had exactly blemish-free seasons.

Massa, just a point behind Hamilton after Monza, is not out of the very top drawer and has made major mistakes of his own.

As for the Brazilian's team-mate Raikkonen, he has, for most of this season, looked a pale imitation of the man hailed until recently as the out-and-out fastest man in F1.

Given the opposition, there would be no more worthy world champion than Hamilton this season - even if there is an argument that Robert Kubica, whose BMW Sauber car has not allowed him a consistent challenge, is the driver of the year.

But the same was said of the Brit during his brilliant debut season last year, when he lost the championship largely because he slid off the track on his way into the pits in the penultimate race in China when the title was in his hands.

That mistake, like the one in Monza on Saturday, came because he and McLaren were unnecessarily chancing their arm trying to achieve something they did not need to.

This is only Hamilton's second full season in F1, just as it was Schumacher's in 1993, so to some extent this number of errors is to be expected.

But Hamilton surely cannot afford any more if he is to avoid letting a Ferrari driver sneak in again and win a title that should be his.

see also
Vettel claims historic Monza win
14 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Berger tips Vettel for F1 glory
14 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton rues Monza tyre choice
14 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Italian Grand Prix as it happened
14 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Italian Grand Prix photos
14 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Vettel on pole at rain-hit Monza
13 Sep 08 |  Formula One
'Vindicated' Mosley returns to F1
13 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Ferrari keep Raikkonen until 2010
12 Sep 08 |  Formula One
McLaren discover date for appeal
12 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton finds little support
11 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton passed too soon - Massa
09 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton stripped of Belgian win
07 Sep 08 |  Formula One

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