by Tim Collings
MONACO, Principality of Monaco (AFP) 5/26/2016 -Lewis Hamilton heads into this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix knowing he has to perform a perfect balancing act and avoid, at all costs, another spectacular crash with his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
While many in the paddock and a new generation of fans will focus on Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, Formula One’s youngest winner, as he starts his second race for Red Bull, the key contests will all centre around the three-time world champion as he bids to keep alive his title defence.
Hamilton lies third, 43 points behind championship leading German Rosberg and Finn Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari and knows he cannot allow that margin to grow if he is to retain any hope of mounting a sustained challenge for a fourth crown this year.
“Barcelona was the worst feeling, but, as I always say, the true test is how you get back up when you’ve been knocked down,” he said.
“It was a tough moment for all of us after the race, but it’s now chapter closed and looking ahead to Monaco…”
Hamilton is viewed by many as the most naturally gifted of the current drivers and has expressed often his special pleasure in racing – and winning – on the unforgiving barrier-lined streets of the Mediterranean principality.
Yet, after being deprived of a dominant victory last year by a tactical blunder by his team, he still has only one win – in 2008 – and is desperate to add another. If he does, it will be his first victory since clinching his third drivers’ title in Texas last October.
But he has to balance that ambition, and his urge to push to the limits, against the risks exposed by his collision with Rosberg at the Spanish Grand Prix where he threw away a chance to claim his first win of the year.
That first lap crash handed victory to the 18-year-old Verstappen and Red Bull and dented Mercedes’ supremacy ahead of the classic Monaco event where a repeat defeat, in front of key partners and sponsors, could have more serious consequences.
“Clearly, Barcelona was tough to take,” said team chief Toto Wolff. “We came away upset at an opportunity missed, but this is racing. The drivers know how we operate.
“The team is responsible for giving them the best possible cars and they are responsible for getting the best out of them – and for bringing them home.
“When we let them down, we apologise and the same goes the other way. It’s a pretty normal culture. We deal with setbacks together and we move on.
“Now, we go to Monaco to face a very different challenge…
“We have seen our competitors make steps forward, which have given us an even bigger battle on our hands.
“Red Bull came out on top in Barcelona after a fight with Ferrari so it’s clear now that we are under attack from more than one angle. We cannot afford to drop the ball.
“We must remain united, remain strong and hit back hard this weekend.”
‘I was gutted’
Wolff’s stern reaction was backed by both drivers with Rosberg adding: “I was gutted after what happened in Spain – for myself, but mostly for the team. We’re in this together and I know how hard everybody works to make these amazing cars.
“So for us to leave them both in the gravel is the worst possible scenario, but we’ve talked it through and now it’s time to leave it in the past.”
Red Bull are likely to have an improved power-unit available this weekend to boost their competitiveness while Ferrari are confident, too, of being a threat to Mercedes.
German two-time champion Sebastian Vettel said: “I think it should be a strong track for us. We were very competitive last year and I think we improved in those areas that you need for Monaco.
“The car is better in terms of ride, in terms of kerbing and in general… So it should help for Monaco.”
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