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Few accidents in F1 racing history have carried so little energy and yet so much significance. Even fewer have seemed so preventable. But as Lewis Hamilton slid into the gravel and out of the race in China, the penultimate round of what had been an eventful and historic rookie campaign, all McLaren could do was watch and reflect on what might have been.
This was not an accident born from frustration or desperation; in fact, McLaren and Hamilton had been in control.
For starters, the Briton had a comfortable lead in the championship, arriving in China 12 points ahead of team mate Fernando Alonso and 17 ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. With a maximum of 20 points still up for grabs, third place would all but guarantee him the title. He had secured pole, and while conditions were tricky in the race, with the track moving from wet to dry even as further rain threatened, Hamilton had mastered them to lead for much of the opening segment. The podium was in sight; everything was going to plan.
Or so it seemed.
The McLarens were slightly harsher than the Ferraris on their rubber anyway, but Hamilton had been pushing hard and by lap 26 was beginning to struggle on badly fading wet tyres. Raikkonen was closing in, while Alonso was waiting in the wings in fourth, behind the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa. Hamilton’s pace began to fall - on lap 28 he was suddenly four seconds slower, and on lap 29 he had surrendered a further five seconds and the lead.
Finally, after what seemed like an agonising delay, he was called in to pit at the end of lap 30.
“Prior to entering the pit lane for my last stop I was constantly talking to the team,” Hamilton commented afterwards. “Although my tyres were in poor condition we took a joint decision to get through the last rain shower before changing to dry tyres. I was trying to be very careful…”
Unbeknownst to Hamilton, the pit lane had not dried as quickly as the track. With no feel from tyres that had been worn down to the canvas in places, and a visor smeared by grime and grease thrown up by the conditions, he was unsighted. And as the pit lane curved left, he was caught out. His McLaren slid wide and into the gravel, a crescendo of revs defeated by physics as his tyres sunk into the stones and his momentum died. His car beached, his head in his hands, Hamilton was out.
While the Briton took responsibility publicly, plenty instead pointed the finger at McLaren. Some read their caution in stopping Hamilton as inexcusable dithering; others accused them of trying to race Raikkonen rather than simply target the podium that was all Hamilton effectively needed. Some even said Bridgestone had advised McLaren to make the stop, but had been ignored.
“It's too extreme to say anyone made a mistake in this,” was McLaren boss Ron Dennis’s response. "I don't think we did anything dramatically wrong and neither did Lewis. It’s easy to say we could have stopped earlier, but would it have made a difference? The circuit was considerably drier than the pit lane entrance. That's what made the difference."
Replays of Dennis squirming on the pit wall, living every moment of Hamilton’s anguish, spoke of just how keenly his driver's retirement was felt. But the damage was done, and Hamilton’s championship lead had been slashed. He, Alonso and Raikkonen would enter the Brazilian finale separated by just seven points.
"When I was out of the car I was just gutted because it was my first mistake all year and to do it on the way into the pits was not something I usually do,” was Hamilton’s take in the immediate aftermath. "You cannot go through life without making mistakes. But I am over it and we look forward to Brazil. We still have points in the bag."
It wouldn’t be enough. Raikkonen triumphed in Brazil to snatch the most unlikely of championship triumphs from under the noses of Hamilton and Alonso. Just one solitary point separated all three drivers - a devastating reminder of what might have been, but for the Shanghai gravel trap…