Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says it is now “against the odds” that his star driver will deliver a record-breaking eighth world championship.
Hamilton’s rival Max Verstappen dominated Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix to claim his third win in as many weeks and extend his title lead from 18 to 32 points.
Hamilton should have finished runner-up at Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring, but took the chequered flag in fourth.
He sustained damage to the rear of his Mercedes after running wide on the exit of Turn 10 shortly before he stopped for tyres on lap 32 of 71.
Mercedes attempted to offer a wounded Hamilton a buffer in the form of team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
But with the brilliant Lando Norris breathing down Bottas’ neck, Hamilton was told to trade positions with his team-mate on lap 52. Norris then swept by two laps later on the young Briton’s finest afternoon of his three-season Formula One career. Norris finished third.
Hamilton’s costly mistake means he has failed to finish on the podium in three of the last five races. He has not won since the Spanish Grand Prix on May 9.
And the errors are adding up. Hamilton fell off the road at a rain-hit Imola in April and threw away an unlikely win at last month’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix when he fluffed his lines at the restart.
Team principal Wolff defended his £40million-a-year man, insisting the damage sustained was not Hamilton’s fault, but conceded the Briton faces a tall order to usurp Red Bull’s flying Dutchman.
“Of course, losing every point is a blow,” said Wolff. “Lewis lost six points compared to finishing second and adding that all up is making the momentum go in the wrong direction.
“Losing 14 points (to Verstappen) is not great and it is against the odds for us now.
“But this is far from over. He is 32 points behind Max, which is a DNF away, and then he is in the hunt again. We need to up our game, make less mistakes and continue to understand the car better.”
Hamilton will head to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time desperate to reverse the fortunes in his stuttering title defence. Mercedes cancelled the seven-time world champion’s scheduled print media commitment on Sunday evening .
Speaking to Sky Sports moments after stepping out of his cockpit, Hamilton said: “I wasn’t going over the kerbs more than anybody else so I have no idea where the damage happened.
“I would have finished an easy second and all of a sudden it broke. It is a lot of points lost today.
“We are miles away from them (Red Bull) so we have a lot of work to do. We need all hands on deck. We have got to bring some upgrades and find some performance otherwise this will most often be the result.”
On social media, Hamilton posted: “It is times like these that we must stay vigilant, focused and determined. Giving up is never an option. We fight until the end.
“These past five races have been hard but I stay positive with the belief I have in my team that we will fight back.”
Wolff was trying his best to provide optimism for his all-conquering team, but these are alarming times at Mercedes. Verstappen’s triumph was his fourth in five races and Red Bull’s fifth on the spin.
Verstappen crossed the line 18 seconds clear of Bottas – despite stopping one more time than the Mercedes man – on a faultless weekend for a driver at ease with the championship battle.
Verstappen started on pole, led every mile, and set the fastest lap in a crushing display.
The Red Bull Ring, 600 miles outside of Amsterdam, is effectively a home race for Verstappen and his so-called Orange Army celebrated the Dutchman’s win in style.
“Championes, Championes, Ole, Ole, Ole,” they sang as orange flares polluted the Austrian air.
“When you go into the weekend as favourite it is never easy to deliver as we did today,” said Verstappen, 23, who now has five wins to Hamilton’s three this season.
“It was insane to see all the fans. There is orange everywhere which is incredible and they create motivation for me, too.”
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez finished fifth ahead of Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo.
But Perez, hit with two five-second penalties for forcing Charles Leclerc off the track twice, was demoted to sixth, promoting Sainz one place.
George Russell missed out on his first top-10 Williams finish after Fernando Alonso passed him with three laps remaining.