Lewis Hamilton retaining Formula 1 title now would be 'greatest achievement'
It is beginning to feel as if this is just not going to be Lewis Hamilton's year.
Drama seems to follow the Mercedes driver around and always has done. But even in a career full of ups and downs, what happened to Hamilton in the Malaysian Grand Prix takes some beating.
Eight points down on team-mate Nico Rosberg following the German's impressive win in the previous race in Singapore, Hamilton drove a perfect weekend, with scintillating pace in qualifying followed by a dominant performance in the race.
With Rosberg on course for fourth place after a strong drive from the back of the field after being turned around by Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari at the first corner, it looked as if that deficit was going to be wiped out in one go, and Hamilton would be back at the head of the championship.
But then a trail of smoke appeared from the back of Hamilton's car as he headed down the pit straight with 17 laps to go.
"Oh no, no," Hamilton said over the radio. He climbed out with flames licking from the exhaust and crouched down with his head in his hands, and it was clear what he was thinking: Why me? Why now? I just can't believe it.
Clearly distraught, he said in broadcast interviews straight afterwards that he wanted to know why of all the eight drivers using Mercedes engines only he was suffering these problems.
"Someone has to give me some answers because it's just not acceptable," he said. "It just doesn't sit right with me."
Some interpreted that as Hamilton implying he felt there was some kind of conspiracy at Mercedes to stop him winning this year - as many of his fans on social media have been claiming all season. Never mind that it would not make sense, that there is no logical reason for it, and that it would be next to impossible to orchestrate in this way.
In any case, asked to explain later on, Hamilton instead pointed to his strong religious beliefs.
"A higher power," he said. "It feels right now as if the man above or a higher power is intervening a little bit. But I feel I have been blessed with so many opportunities. So I have to be grateful for those. While this does not feel great, I have to remain grateful."
Why does Hamilton feel persecuted?
All year, since the consecutive engine failures in qualifying at the Chinese and Russian Grands Prix, Hamilton has felt as if the odds were being stacked against him this year.
Those failures were largely - although not entirely - to blame for his emerging from the first four races staring down a 43-point deficit to Rosberg. Bad starts in Australia and Bahrain also played their part.
When the two Mercedes drivers crashed out together on the first lap of the next race in Spain, and Mercedes F1 non-executive chairman Niki Lauda came right out and said on live TV that he felt Hamilton had been to blame - not a unanimous view, it has to be said - Hamilton was at a very low ebb, he has admitted.
But he bounced back, won six of the next seven races, and took a 19-point lead into the summer break.
Then it went wrong again. The engine failures were always going to mean a back-of-the-grid start somewhere for using too many engines - and that came in Belgium at the end of August as Mercedes stockpiled enough power units to get him to the end of the year.
He fought back superbly to finish third there, but then a bad start from pole squandered a potential win in Italy, and Rosberg won in Singapore, where Hamilton struggled all weekend.
Suddenly, Rosberg had won three races in a row and for Hamilton a 19-point lead had become an eight-point deficit, and he had all that work to do again. And now this.
What do the team say?
If Mercedes were upset with Hamilton for his initial remarks, they did a very good job of hiding it.
Straight after the race, boss Toto Wolff said: "I have no words. I am so gutted for Lewis. He was in control of that race. Not good. It's clear he is super-frustrated."
After a team meeting to discuss the situation, Wolff was equally understanding.
"Every remark, every answer is allowed after such a frustrating moment," he said. "If you are in the lead and just about to get back into the lead of the championship and the engine blows up, he is allowed to say whatever he wants. It is emotional and completely understandable."
As to why it was happening, Wolff said: "We sat down and said how is this possible? It is a fresh situation that has no rational explanation and I think after recovering a bit he just sees that. In the heat of the moment, no problem."
Did Hamilton calm down later?
A couple of hours after the race, Hamilton faced the written media in his usual news conference, which was initially cancelled - "a mutual decision," Mercedes said - and then reinstated because "following discussion with Lewis, he wishes to complete his press call".
Was Hamilton suspicious, he was asked, that there might be some kind of sabotage?
"You have to understand from my point," Hamilton said. "On one side we have had the most incredible success these last two years, for which I am incredibly grateful. These guys work so hard and we are all feeling the pain right now.
"When you get out of the car, the feeling you have after leading and the car fails, it is pretty hard to say positive things.
"But Mercedes have built 43 engines or whatever it is and I have happened to have most of if not all the failures. That is definitely a tough thing. But I have 100% confidence and faith in these guys. I love it here. Without them I would not have won these extra two championships.
"While the struggle is real right now and has been this year, I honestly feel it is constantly a test of will, of my spirit and who I am as a person to get back in and keep fighting it head on. It's not how you fall, it's how you get back up.
"That doesn't just apply to me. I saw tears in the eyes of my mechanics, so I know we all feel the pain.
"We have to bear in mind what we have already built. And while this does not look good, there are still five races to go, I don't know if my two engines will make it, but I can only hope. And if I perform as I have this weekend then everything is all to play for."
But he added that he would still be looking for an explanation as to what was going on.
"I need to understand why these keep happening on us," he said.
"Forty-three engines. There are eight cars out there powered by the same engine as mine and mine happens to fail and for Mercedes I am the number one driver. So for sure when these things happen I want to understand what that is and how they are going to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Can Hamilton still win the title?
Twenty three points sound - and are - a lot. It is two points shy of a clear win, and there are only five races remaining with a maximum of 125 points still available.
The size of the task is clear when you think that if Hamilton wins every race from now on with Rosberg second, it will take four races before the Englishman is back in the lead.
The thing is, though, Hamilton is more than capable of doing that if he consistently performs at his best.
He won six races out of seven from May to July this year. Ten of the first 16 in 2015. And in 2014 four of the first five, and then five in a row after falling 29 points behind Rosberg following their controversial collision at the Belgian Grand Prix that year.
Wolff said: "The championship is not over. Lewis had a massive blow; that's clear. But let them battle it out hopefully without any reliability woes and see how it plays out."
Hamilton said: "I will continue to fight but if at the end of the year the higher power does not want me to be champion with everything I have given towards it, I have to accept that.
"But as long as I end my year knowing I have given it everything and done everything I possibly could and we have, that is all you can ask for."
If he pulls it off, it would almost certainly be his greatest achievement. That, in itself, is a reason to keep going.
Not that he will need one. The sense of injustice he feels is too big.