Is It Just Bad Luck Costing Hamilton?

By Stephen Williams

Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.

Hamilton's race goes up in smoke

Lewis Hamilton was on course to win the Malaysian Grand Prix for the second time and take a five point lead in the Driver's World Championship until his engine blew on lap forty one.  The failure allowed Daniel Ricciardo to win for the first time this season from teammate Max Verstappen following a great on track battle.  But, suffering yet more reliability woes means Lewis now trails Nico Rosberg by twenty three points. 

In Lewis' post race interviews he implied that "something doesn't feel right" and that "Someone doesn't want me to win".  If true, it would have enormous implications for Mercedes and Formula One.  If Hamilton's championship charge is being sabotaged - something which has been picked up heavily by social media in recent weeks - and Rosberg was to win his first title, how much value would the title have for Rosberg?  Sky Sports F1 commentator, David Croft, suggested that there would be a number of "what ifs" if Rosberg was to win this year's title.

However, it can be argued that Hamilton has experienced his fair share of good luck in a championship fight. In 2008 he benefited from Felipe Massa's failures three laps from the end while leading the Hungarian Grand Prix, then there was 'Crashgate' in Singapore, and finally Hamilton's last lap overtake on Timo Glock to win the championship could indeed be seen as lucky, or fantastic judgement from McLaren to pit for the right tyres at the right time.  During the 2008 season, Hamilton had also received bad luck, like the penalty in Belgium, but in the end, it resulted in Hamilton winning the title.

Who has suffered more?

If you look at the 2016 season, in terms of reliability issues that Mercedes drivers have experienced, they have undoubtedly favoured Nico Rosberg. Hamilton suffered ERS faults in qualifying in both China and Russia, and there was an engine mode issue in the race in Azerbaijan.  In addition to this, Hamilton was unable to find a suitable set up for the Singapore Grand Prix due to a hydraulic issue which compromised track time in practice.  The issues earlier in the season forced Hamilton to start the Belgium Grand Prix from last due to using more engine components than permitted by the rules.  He used a loop hole in the regulations which enabled him to stock up on engines for the remainder of the season.  One of which went bang in Malaysia. 

By contrast Rosberg has only suffered a gearbox issue during the British Grand Prix which lead to him receiving a penalty for a team instruction, at Rosberg's home race during qualifying there was an issue that only allowed him to finish one lap in Q3 with extra fuel than necessary, but he still took pole position. 

There is no doubt Hamilton has suffered the brunt of Mercedes' reliability issues as shown above.  

Cornerstone Shaving

Conspiracy?

It is impossible to prove from the outside that there is or isn't or a deliberate attempt to make Rosberg the 2016 world champion, although it is understandable that some are questioning why all the issues seem to fall on Lewis' car. In Mercedes' defence, Rosberg has suffered some reliability issues.  In Malaysia the team had the chance to win the constructor's title for a third consecutive year.   It would have meant a great deal to the team to win the title in Malaysia, as it is the home Grand Prix for their main sponsors, Petronas.  Sabotaging Lewis' car clearly would not have helped them achieve a good result, and it appears the backlash from the failure has had a negative impact on Mercedes.

Despite being the most dominant team performance wise in Formula One, there have always been indicators that Mercedes run their cars right on the limit in order to achieve this performance.  When cars are run on the limit, the chance of failures are higher. Nothing in Formula One is ever going to be 100% reliable, although this is what teams strive for.  To say Hamilton has been unlucky would be true, the chances of all these reliability issues happening just to Hamilton's car are very slim, but entirely possible.  Individual car set up, driving style and factors in races can lead to different failures.  Despite this, there have been occasions when both drivers have had similar issues. In qualifying for Monaco, both Mercedes suffered the same issue, which limited their time on track to take pole. In Baku, both Mercedes had engine setting issues, but it hurt Lewis more by not being able to change it as easily as Nico.  Finally in Singapore, Mercedes struggled for brake management during the race, again, the problem was slightly more costly for Hamilton because he was running in traffic where brake management is more difficult than in clear air. 

Both drivers have experienced poor starts this year and it has cost both drivers the win. This stat appears to have evened itself out through the year.

Not so unlucky Lewis

Hamilton may have suffered bad luck through poor reliability this season, but if you define luck, he has experienced some good fortune too. Luck is "success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions."

Firstly Hamilton's early season woes could be seen as good luck too. The reliability issues he suffered were in qualifying and he was still able to go on to score points when it counted, in the race. Hamilton's third place in Bahrain could have easily been a DNF when he collided with Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap. Had Bottas not bumped Hamilton twice Hamilton, he would have been facing backwards as the rest of the field piled through. It could have ended in more damage or even retirement, so he was fortunate to be able to fight back through for third. Similarly in China, the opening lap collision may have left him with more damage but he was able to continue and rescue some points with a compromised car.

In Monaco, Hamilton won for a number of reasons, he had great pace, a great strategy by staying out on wet tyres on the drying track to make up a pit stop in time, and because Daniel Ricciardo had an untimely slow pit stop. On the last lap of the race Rosberg was mugged on the line by Nico Hulkenberg which cost him points.  Then at the following race in Canada, a late spin cost Rosberg points again when fighting with Verstappen. In the same race Hamilton benefited by Ferrari's strategy failure which leapfrogged him ahead of Sebastian Vettel to win, although Hamilton almost certainly had the pace to win in a straight fight. 

Rosberg's race craft has resulted in a number of penalties for the German which may have been harsh in some cases, but they have been self inflicted. In terms of luck it is something that has benefited Hamilton because without his influence those incidents have enabled Lewis to extend the points difference over Rosberg.

Looking at Malaysia, Rosberg's spin following the collision with Vettel looked to be giving Hamilton the advantage in the championship, but when his engine blew, the championship momentum swung back in Rosberg's favour.

Where does this leave the championship?

There are now five races left. In a straight fight, without any reliability issues, it is too close to call who will win the championship.  The most worrying element for Hamilton now is that he does not trust that the car is going to make it to the finish, which could have a huge impact on Hamilton's own performance if that is at the back of his mind.  It has been a year of great driving from Hamilton, close to his best, there have been individual errors, but more often than not, there have been moments of supreme driving, like his dominant performance in Malaysia. Rosberg has show too that he is a driver capable of stunning drives, the pole and win in Singapore was seen by Mercedes as one his best. Nico has found himself in the best position he has ever been in the championship fight so close to its climax.  In races where Hamilton has run into problems, Rosberg has always been on hand to pick up the pieces where possible.     

The championship is still in both drivers hands.  Lewis needs to win all the remaining races if Rosberg finishes second.  For Rosberg, he needs to win one Grand Prix and can then finish second in four of the remaining five races.  If Lewis wins the next four, a cracking season finale could be in store in Abu Dhabi.