Hamilton on high in Alps as British icons left with mountain to climb
Spielberg (Austria), June 28 (AFP) Championship leader Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team will be hoping for more of the same at this weekend's Austrian Grand Prix.
After dominating last Sunday's French Grand Prix to claim his 65th career victory, the four-time champion arrives in the Styrian Alps with a 14-point lead in this year's title chase and a sense of reinvigoration thanks to his updated engine.
On another picturesque circuit with traffic access problems this weekend, where power will again be a major factor, Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas will start as favourites for Sunday's race, albeit reluctantly.
After a disappointing performance on one of Hamilton's favourite circuits, at Montreal in Canada, their French triumph came on a day when chief rival and fellow-four-time champion Sebastian Vettel experienced another of his periodic days to forget.
His opening lap collision with Bottas ruined both of their races and ensured Hamilton had a straightforward afternoon as he regained championship lead. He will do all he can to avoid a repeat.
Both Hamilton and Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff stressed after last Sunday's win that they can take nothing for granted in this yo-yo season, the Englishman saying he intended to stay grounded and to approach each race the same.
Wolff strove to play down any newly-perceived advantage in speed, thanks to the upgraded Mercedes engine.
"Do we have the best engine now?" he said. "Very difficult to say because when you look at the data, the quickest car on the straight was Kimi (Raikkonen of Ferrari), but we believe he was maybe running a different aero configuration.
He added that both Hamilton and Vettel have enjoyed 17 points leads already this season and forecast that their fortunes would continue to swing on a race by race basis.
"I think what you saw in Montreal in comparison to Le Castellet is that marginal gains matter," he added.
- Alonso frustrated -
"We fell back in Montreal because we couldn't bring the new power unit and we were racing power unit number one for the seventh consecutive race. The others introduced their upgrades... That certainly didn't help." While Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull ponder their prospects of big points hauls in Austria, it is a very different story for one-time great teams McLaren and Williams.
The two British outfits, once rivals for the championships in the heyday of such stars as Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, are now besieged by crisis stories.
Last weekend, just a week after his triumph for Toyota at the Le Mans 24-Hours race, two-time champion Fernando Alonso endured his worst outing with McLaren and gave vent to his feelings on team radio.
Already fighting a rear-guard PR campaign following talk of staff unrest, McLaren are in desperate need of an Alonso revival.
"This was by far the worst performance of the year so I really hope that this is a one-off," he said. "I hope that this is not normality.
"Out of qualifying in Q1 with both cars and then both out of the points in the race. We need to raise our level for Austria and for Silverstone. We need to find solutions."
"Ideally, we would like a little time now to study the data and the produce new parts for the car, but there is no time for that so we have to try to do our best. I trust the team. I know there are some good things on the way for the next races, but now we are in the middle of a triple-header and we have five races in six weeks."
He played down talk of a team crisis and said he retained his motivation because he felt very privileged to be one of 20 drivers in the world "doing this job".
"The question is how I manage to be positive, how I manage to smile, how I manage to breathe, to eat, to sleep... I manage very well. I feel very privileged