After a month off to relax and re-charge his batteries, championship leader Lewis Hamilton heads back to work with Mercedes at the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend knowing he faces the prospect of grid penalties in the next few weeks as he bids to land a fourth drivers world championship.
Following the F1® circus’s four-week break for the European summer holidays, the defending three-time champion seeks his fifth consecutive victory and third at the majestic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the hope of increasing his 19-points lead with nine races to go.
But Hamilton knows that he is virtually certain to take penalties in the upcoming races for using more than the permitted number of power unit components after a string of mechanical failures in the opening months of the season when he fell behind in the title race.
The 31-year-old Briton reached his permitted maximum of five turbochargers and MGU-Hs at the Austrian Grand Prix, resulting in him having to nurse his engines, when possible, through recent races as he raced with one eye on the championship run-in.
The regulations allow drivers five penalty-free changes of six different components before grid penalties, of up to 15 places, are handed out – a situation that could mean Hamilton starts from the back of the grid in pursuit of his Mercedes team-mate and title rival German Nico Rosberg and the rest.
“The first half of the season was a bit of a rollercoaster for me and there will be more ups and downs to come,” said Hamilton, ahead of this weekend’s race at a track where he and Rosberg have ‘history’ having collided acrimoniously on the second lap of the race in 2014.
“But the last few weeks have been so good for British sport -- with the Olympics and then Cal Crutchlow becoming the first British MotoGP winner in more than 30 years -- that I will do my best to keep the flag flying.”
“I've had ups and downs before, but I think this has definitely been harder because it hasn't felt so much like fault from me not being focused, or me not training, or taking the time.
“It's more other things, outside things, but it's been a really good experience -- and I honestly feel stronger now and able to handle whatever it is that is going to be thrown at me.”
Hamilton was 43 points behind leader Rosberg after five races, but reversed that situation with six wins out of seven while the German struggled to regain his consistency and momentum.
He and his Mercedes team face a decision on their strategy, for Hamilton, ahead of his weekend’s showdown in the forests of the Ardennes.
They may seek victory in Belgium and then take his new power-unit components -- and the penalties -- in Italy, a week later where his outright pace makes it likely that he can rescue a result from the back of the grid.
Or, as many paddock insiders believe, he may take all the new parts in Belgium where the length of the lap and the circuit characteristics would reduce the impact of a bad grid spot and help him recover points.
Whatever the decision, Rosberg will see Hamilton’s misfortunes as his chance to regain the initiative and reduce his team-mate’s lead in the title race while both Ferrari and Red Bull will aim to mount a fight-back against Mercedes dominance at one of the most spectacular venues of the season.
Rosberg departed his home German Grand Prix at the end of July in downcast mood after being soundly beaten by Hamilton and he needs a confidence-boosting display to keep his title challenge alive.
On Friday, he will become the latest driver to test the cockpit-protection ‘Halo’ in opening free practice for Sunday’s race, which is expected to attract a big crowd to the Ardennes’ circuit where Aussie Daniel Ricciardo will bid to steer his Red Bull to a podium finish, at least.
The Perth racer, back from his holidays with a group of friends in California, said he relishes racing at the historic Spa track where he claimed a victory two years ago.
“Yes, Spa is cool,” said Ricciardo. “And the track is amazing. It’s very historic, fast and flowing, and I had a win there two years ago so it has always been good for me.
“It’s funny, too, how long and spread out it is because on one side you can have sunshine while it is raining on the other! And you always get real regular F1 fans there – plus, food-wide, it is fries and waffles which seem to be the main local cuisine… Not really my race diet, but it tastes good.”
Ricciardo added that he is ready for a tough final run-in with the nine remaining races, knowing that Red Bull team-mate Dutch teenager Max Verstappen will have the backing of thousands of fans at the longest track on the calendar.
“I enjoyed my time with my family and I am ready now,” he said. “I did a track walk of Spa last year – and it felt really long, so this year I will probably use a bicycle this time.”