Lewis Hamilton reopened old wounds on Monday when the Mercedes driver accused title rival Sebastian Vettel of breaking the rules during Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Hamilton repeated his complaint made during Sunday’s race when he accused the German Ferrari driver of slowing and accelerating, almost stopping and then restarting, while they followed the safety car.
“The rules are that when the safety car goes, you’re not allowed to start and stop, start and stop,” he said. “You’re not allowed to gas and then brake. You’re not allowed to fake the guy behind.
“Because, naturally, if there was not that rule, that’s what you’d do – because, eventually, you’d catch them sleeping. You’re not allowed to do that.
“Every restart I’ve done . . . I’ve abided by tha . . . In Australia, Sebastian accelerated and then braked and I nearly went up the back end of him and here he did it like maybe four times.”
Hamilton’s unexpected victory, his first in seven outings and the 63rd of his career, lifted him to the top of the championship for the first time this season, but left him seeking clarification on the rules from official race director Charlie Whiting.
It also revived memories of the pair’s notorious clash last year when, in a fit of road rage after accusing Hamilton of “brake-testing” him behind a safety car, Vettel drove his Ferrari at Hamilton’s Mercedes, banging wheels deliberately.
Hamilton added that the stewards’ decision following Sunday’s race had set a precedent that permitted erratic driving behind the safety car in future.
Hamilton on Monday also admitted he had been lucky after taking the drivers’ championship lead with his opportunistic victory in Sunday’s chaotic crash-strewn Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
There were no whoops of delight and no celebrations following his first win in seven races dating back to last October, but a serious realisation that he and his Mercedes team have their work cut out to stay on top.
On a day of gusty wind, unlikely accidents, abandoned debris interventions and two safety cars, the defending four-time world champion had struggled for pace, but avoided serious trouble.
“I remember my dad always told me: ‘Never give up, always keep going, ‘” he said afterwards as others wept and argued. “I never expected it, but I had to take it.
“Valtteri deserved to win. That’s why I went to see him and console him straight after the race. He was so unfortunate.”
‘I was lucky’
It was Hamilton’s 63rd victory and curiously confirmed that he is not racing with the same raw elan as his youth, but with a more measured sense of craft and aplomb – a mixture that may be less spectacular, but could assist him more in gathering the points for a fifth title.
As the teams packed up to return to Europe and the Spanish Grand Prix on May 13, it was clear to Mercedes that they need to find an upgrade for their car that makes the tyres work faster.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, definitely,” said Hamilton.
“We are still behind. Today I was lucky. I struggled all weekend and I am struggling to find the car’s potential. Their pure pace is ahead of ours at the moment.
“There were a lot of faults in the race, which is rare for me. I struggled with the car, struggled with the tyres.
“I’ve definitely got to go away from here and work even harder to make sure that there’s not a repeat performance-wise of this weekend.”
“The biggest issue is the tyres,” he added. “I don’t believe their car is much better than ours, if at all, it’s just that they are using their tyres better.”