A flying 13kg tyre carcass narrowly missed Daniel Ricciardo’s head during a chaotic first lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix won by Max Verstappen.
On a day which saw Mercedes tensions laid bare nearly as obviously as their abysmal lack of pace, the race was suspended following the collision that ended the participation of both Williams’ Alex Albon and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and on the 200-yard approach to the opening corner.
Albon, who started 13th, was nudged by the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg. Albon then tagged Magnussen.
The left-rear tyre of Abon’s blue-liveried car came detached and flew in the direction of Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri further back. It missed the Australian by a few inches and instead caught his rear wing.
Hulkenberg’s car was largely unharmed, though the tyre bounced worryingly close to the left of him before vaulting its way towards RIcciardo.
Ricciardo turned frantically left in reaction to the incoming stray rubber. ’I tried to miss it but the tyre was in the air and it clipped my rear wing,’ he said over the radio.
The red flag was waved and Ricciardo, his car repaired, was ready for the restart. Verstappen, from pole, was in clinical charge throughout with Lando Norris second and Fernando Alonso third.
But what a sorry mess for Mercedes – as bad a day as any in their two years of serial non-achievement.
At the end of Saturday’s sprint over just 24 laps, George Russell had been 26 seconds back and Lewis 35. This is light years in a sport of thousandths. And the real affair over 71 laps was even worse for being a longer-endured agony.
Hamilton finished eight, one minute and three seconds back. Russell retired with rising oil temperature while running 11th – engine failure, baldy speaking.
Even the Alpine of Pierre Gasly beat them. And Hamilton would likely have been a place further back if only Charles Leclerc had not slid off with suspected hydraulic failure on the formation lap (Ferrari are also a basket case).
But the Mercedes malaise is deep. This weekend’s setback comes after the much-vaunted new floor was introduced in Austin a fortnight ago. That carried Hamilton to a seemingly impressive close second place before the underneath of his machine was revealed to be illegal.
It has never worked so well since conforming to the rules.
The two Mercedes drivers were like rats in sacks as the race progressed. Russell felt he was being held up by Hamilton. ‘Are we working together or just doing our own race?’ he asked.
Then: ‘Do you want me to race or concede position?’
And after being passed by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, he added sarcastically: ‘I haven’t been on the radio because I thought it was quite obvious about the pace. Just sat there, behind the tyres.’
That was code for being trapped behind Hamilton, who was overtaken by Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and Gasly on an afternoon as embarrassing as anything in his long career.
The fact was that Russell did not have any huge pace advantage over Hamilton, proven by the fact he could not pass him with DRS in the mid-section of the race when they duelled. But he did have some small advantage.
Would Mercedes ever have asked Hamilton to let him pass? No chance. He is their No 1, and Russell is no doubt starting to realise this even if it hasn’t dawned on him as quickly as it might have done.
The sense of disarray was all around. ‘We should have gone to the hard tyres, man,’ complained Hamilton. And when tracking AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who was yet to stop again, he said: ‘I’m in his DRS and I’m still not catching him.’
This on a track where he was feted beforehand. The seven-time world champion is an honorary citizen of Brazil and waved the national flag while driven around the track in the pre-race rituals. He was cheered to the rafters every time his face appeared on the big screens.
But the mood at Mercedes is very different post-race. An inquest will follow. This was an awful day for them. The worst in the team’s history.