TOKYO, Japan- Lewis Hamilton is looking to hit back from his defeat in Malaysia at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, scene of a bizarre ‘Snapchat’ row that overshadowed last year’s race.
Britain’s triple world champion was forced to play second fiddle to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in Sepang on Sunday after securing his ninth pole of the season and 70th of his career.
Despite stretching his Formula One world championship lead over Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to 34 points with five races left, Hamilton took a swipe at his Mercedes team.
“There are some real big problems that I can’t really explain to you,” he said. “There is stuff that has been happening through the weekend that is not acceptable for this great team.”
Hamilton came into last year’s Suzuka race in a foul mood and seeking solace after raising the possibility of a Mercedes conspiracy against him following an engine fire in Malaysia.
But the Briton triggered further controversy when he was criticised for posting photos on social media during a press conference.
Furious with tabloids for labelling him “snap prat” and the “berc in the Merc”, Hamilton sulkily refused to answer questions after qualifying in Suzuka as the row rumbled on.
Hamilton, a three-time winner in Japan, will be hoping for a better performance from his car this week than in Malaysia.
“Every point counts,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.
“We got lucky again in Malaysia and we expect a very close fight between ourselves, Ferrari and Red Bull at Suzuka.”
Hamilton, who has 281 points to Vettel’s 247, had warned Ferrari would push Mercedes hard in Malaysia.
But they dodged a bullet as Vettel finished fourth after starting from the back of the grid, while Kimi Raikkonen suffered a calamitous engine failure that knocked him out of the race.
Hamilton snatched the title lead from Vettel at Monza last month but Mercedes, who have dominated the sport in recent years, face a growing threat from Ferrari and Red Bull.
Verstappen capped a fairy-tale 20th birthday weekend in Malaysia with his second Formula One victory, as Australian team-mate Daniel Ricciardo took third.
But with Valtteri Bottas finishing fifth, Mercedes will need to find some extra speed at Suzuka, where Nico Rosberg’s 2016 victory completed a hat-trick of wins for the Silver Arrows in Japan.
Verstappen’s sizzling performance in Malaysia suggests he may have turned the corner after retiring from seven of the first 15 races this season.
More alarmingly perhaps for Hamilton will be the pace shown by Vettel, who set the fastest lap and a new lap record as he dashingly carved through the field.
However, Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne has ordered the team to fix the reliability problems that sabotaged their race in Malaysia.
“It’s really ugly when you’re in second place on the grid and you can’t start the race,” he said of Raikkonen’s cruel blow.
“This kind of problem makes us angry.”
Vettel, a four-time world champion with Red Bull, needs a reversal of fortune after squandering a golden opportunity to reclaim the championship lead after crashing from pole in Singapore three weeks ago.
There could be a further twist for Ferrari at the high-speed Japanese circuit as the German faces a possible five-place grid penalty if he needs a new gearbox after a collision with Lance Stroll’s Williams following Sunday’s race.
Meanwhile, Honda officials will be bracing themselves for more potential road rage from McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, whose previous blue-tinged radio outbursts at Suzuka have left the engine suppliers squirming at their home race.