McLaren-Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh has described the penalty applied to Lewis Hamilton for overtaking the safety car during Sunday's European Grand Prix in Valencia as 'pretty marginal' – and a punishment, he contends, that destroyed what could well have been 'a fair old crack' at a third victory in swift succession.
Hamilton was meted out a drive-through for having passed the safety car on his way back to the pit-lane in the immediate aftermath of Mark Webber's terrifying mid-air pirouette on lap nine around the Spanish city's harbourside streets.
Whilst that arguably halted a challenge on race-long leader Sebastian Vettel for the top step of the podium, the British star was able to rejoin from his unscheduled extra pit visit still in second position, much to the anger of former team-mate and Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso [see separate story – click here
]. Frustrating, albeit damage limitation, Whitmarsh concedes.
“We've accepted Lewis' penalty, but in truth we reckon it was a pretty marginal call,” the Englishman stated. “Okay, it didn't deprive him of his second place on-the-road, but it did prevent him from being able to take the race to Seb, which had been our intention.
“I think Lewis' strong pace in the last few laps showed that, having saved his fuel and tyres early on in preparation for mounting an attack on Seb, he would probably have been in a position to have a fair old crack at it had he not been given a drive-through.
“His penalty was frustrating for Lewis, frustrating for us, and ultimately I suppose you'd have to say it was frustrating for the spectators, at the track and in front of their TV screens, too – but, as I say, you have to accept these things and move on.”
Hamilton was followed home in third spot by team-mate, compatriot and title-winning successor Jenson Button, who spent the vast majority of the grand prix tucked up behind the out-of-position Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi, who waited until the very final laps before making his sole pit-stop.
Fastest lap for the defending F1 World Champion – almost four tenths of a second quicker than Hamilton's best effort, and notably straight after he had been released – went to demonstrate what might have been, but the duo will still arrive on home turf at Silverstone for next weekend's British Grand Prix sitting pretty atop the title standings.
“Jenson drove a very solid race, although it was of course irritating for him to be stuck behind Kamui for so long,” Whitmarsh acknowledged. “Having said that, in the chaos that always ensues with an early safety car, our engineers called the situation really well, with the result that we were able to change the nosebox on Lewis' car (following contact with Vettel's Red Bull Racing on the opening lap) and send our cars back out in second and fourth.