At half distance in the 63-lap Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton was trailing in ninth, one lap down on leader Max Verstappen and trundling through pit lane to replace a broken nosecone.
The Briton had made a vanishingly rare error in attempting to convert his 99th pole position into a second victory of the season. He’d been too ambitious trying to pass lapped traffic to catch leader Verstappen when he dipped his wheels onto some damp asphalt and slithered into the gravel.
His painfully slow reversal out of the stones, having smacked his front wing against the barriers in a failed attempt to spin his way out of trouble, cost him more precious before he could limp back to his garage for repairs.
The Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix was that kind of race. The famous Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is a classic old-school circuit - its fast, flowing and narrow ribbon of asphalt challenges the drivers and its ubiquitous gravel and ever-close barriers are ready to punish those who stray beyond the white lines.
But the difficulty was accelerated by a pre-race downpour, turning the high-speed bends treacherous. Considering Formula 1 returned to the circuit only last year in the stable climes of autumn, the race was a step into the unknown.
It proved a challenge even for wet-weather specialist Hamilton.
The race had already begun poorly. The Briton, starting from pole, was dragged to the first braking zone by Max Verstappen. The Dutchman still felt the sting of defeat to Hamilton at the previous round of Bahrain and was determined to avenge the loss, and as he placed his car perfectly on the apex of Tamburello to claim the racing line he muscled the Mercedes wide and over the kerbs.
The gap between them accordioned in the opening stint, but the more worn the tyres became the harder Hamilton found he could push. Verstappen was called in pre-emptively for new rubber, but when Hamilton stopped a lap later, within range of jumping the leader through the pits, he suffered a slow tyre change.
It was then, hustling to make up for lost time on new, cold tyres on a still damp track, that he made what seemed sure to be a race-ending mistake.
A slice of luck came Hamilton’s way just as he entered pit lane for repairs, ironically from teammate Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes junior George Russell. The pair crashed into each other at 330 kilometres per hour, writing off their cars. Both drivers emerged unhurt, but the race was suspended to clear the debris.
At the resumption lapped cars were able to resume the lead lap - a small satisfaction for Hamilton, but still leaving him ninth on the road.
But it was in the final 30-lap dash that the seven-time champion unleashed himself on the field.
One by one he picked his way through the midfield, duelling and besting Daniel Ricciardo, Ferrari teammates Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc and finally Lando Norris with three laps to spare to recover to second place.
And after his mad dash, despite having taken the best out of his tyres, he blitzed the fastest lap of the race, stealing himself a bonus point to keep himself ahead in the championship standings.
The statement was clear. Hamilton would not be beaten so easily.
Max Verstappen’s serene drive to a 22-second lead was hard earnt and well deserved, but Hamilton’s sensational recovery was a reminder of the challenge the Dutchman faces in trying to take his crown.
Even on his bad afternoons Hamilton isn’t so easily beaten, and when the points are tallied in December it’ll be these days that make the difference.