London - 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
"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 fairytale 20th birthday weekend in
Malaysia with his second Formula One victory, as Australian teammate 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
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
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.