After finishing fourth in Sunday's Turkish Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton opined that his first lap mistake had cost him an opportunity of battling for second place in the race. In fact, a close examination of the data suggests that the McLaren didn't have sufficient race pace to even challenge the Ferrari of Alonso for third. Lewis's mistake was costly at the time, but in retrospect he would probably have been confined to fourth place anyway.
But let's go back to the beginning of the race. Mark Webber got away to a poor start, immediately relinquishing second place to Rosberg, and allowing Hamilton to get alongside into turn 1. Lewis thought better at that point, but tried the outside again into turn 3. This was a somewhat optimistic move, and Lewis overcommitted, running wide, letting Alonso past into turn 4, and Button into turn 5. Jenson and Lewis duly completed the first lap in fifth and sixth positions.
Thus, Lewis had it all to do, and with the adrenalin clearly flowing, he tried the inside of Button into turn 8 on lap 2. The successful execution of such a move would have required a degree of charity from Jenson, normally only associated with Catholic missionaries, and Button duly shut the door.
After 5 laps, Button and Hamilton were running a couple of seconds behind Alonso in fourth, with Lewis still looking for a way past his team-mate. At the end of lap 6, Lewis used his DRS to out-brake Jenson into turn 12, but then missed the apex of turn 13, had a bobble at turn 14, and Jenson immediately re-took the place on traction. Crossing the start-finish line, Hamilton snuck back into his team-mate's slipstream, and then sent one up the inside again into turn 1.
Hamilton commented after the race that he was suffering from oversteer during the opening stints, with detrimental consequences to his tyre wear. Substantiating this, Lewis seemed to lose grip almost the moment he'd got past Jenson, and Button re-took fifth place into turn 1 on lap 8. On lap 9, Massa used his DRS to take Hamilton down the back straight, at which point Felipe and Lewis both made their first stops.
The gap to Alonso had grown to over 5 seconds by the time Hamilton pitted. Webber, Alonso and Rosberg made their first stops just one lap later, but Hamilton found himself behind the Mercedes when it emerged from the pits, and by lap 11 the deficit to Alonso was 7 seconds.
On lap 14, Hamilton used his DRS to overtake Rosberg down the back straight, the McLaren raising the dust on the inside of the circuit as he did so. At this juncture, the gap to the lead Ferrari was still just 7 seconds, and Hamilton now had a clear track to Alonso.
However, far from closing on the Ferrari, the gap now began to inch upwards. After 17 laps, the interval was 9.5 seconds, and thereafter Lewis began to lose huge chunks of time: after 18 laps, it was 10.5 seconds; after 19 laps it was 12 seconds; and when Lewis made his second pit-stop at the end of lap 20, the gap had grown to 14 seconds.
Alonso's second stop didn't come until lap 23, so Lewis could have been expected to make hay with the advantage of a three-lap undercut here. On the contrary, on lap 24 the gap between the Ferrari and McLaren was just over 14 seconds, exactly as before. The interval then extended to 19 seconds by lap 32. A couple of laps later, Hamilton made his third pit-stop, losing a lot of time when the right-front wheel refused to tighten properly. But by this stage, the damage had been done.
Just 7 seconds behind Alonso after 14 laps, Lewis was 19 seconds behind when he pitted twenty laps later. Hamilton finished fourth, and the superior tyre wear of the third-placed Ferrari was such that Lewis would have finished fourth even without the pit-stop problem, or his first-lap mistake.
McLaren's failure to bring any significant upgrades to the Turkish Grand Prix, combined with the minor upgrades introduced by Mercedes and Ferrari, have brought all three teams onto a similar performance level. McLaren's inability to preserve a fresh set of tyres in qualifying, and Lewis's need to go racing after his first-lap mistake, then exacerbated the tyre wear situation, presenting Ferrari with a comfortable podium position.
McLaren lost out in the latter stages of the 2010 development race, and there is already a faint echo of that in only the fourth round of the 2011 championship.