By Michael Cords
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
When Lewis Hamilton’s engine let go on lap 41 of the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix, the disappointment in the Mercedes garage was plainly on display. As he climbed from the car even Lewis’ body language telegraphed his feelings. It was hard not to feel for the driver who had dominated the weekend and was on course to win the race, and with it, the championship lead. But there was one man who probably didn’t share those feelings. Daniel Ricciardo could be forgiven for thinking that the smoking Mercedes engine was just payback for his own misfortune earlier this year.
Much as Lewis had done this weekend, Daniel had done in May at Monaco. An impressive pole position was converted to a commanding race lead. Pitting for slick tyres on lap 32, the team were not prepared with the proper set and the resulting delay meant Ricciardo returned to the track behind none other than Lewis Hamilton. Afterward, the likable Australian was without his trademark smile. The lost win had clearly bothered him to an extent not yet observed in his time at Red Bull. He was at a low point saying, “I actually hate being like this. I hate being miserable. I should be extremely happy, grateful and thankful. …but again no win so I’m a little bit sick of being fast and not getting any real rewards.”
Daniel’s smile was back at the next race, but he had not forgotten Monaco. Whenever mentioned, it was clear that the race had delivered a real blow. He had deserved to win, he had done everything right, and the loss was due to something entirely out of his control. There is luck involved in any sporting endeavor but in motorsport it is amplified. The myriad of moving parts, both mechanical and human, make for limitless potential of error. A driver can hit every apex, time every braking point to perfection, but a 50p component can destroy it all. Is it any wonder that drivers get superstitious? Or that they comfort their sorrow with the belief that one day their bad luck will be repaid with equal good luck?
I write this from Las Vegas, a city built on the false belief that every misfortune will be repaid with an equal dose of good fortune. Most gamblers believe this, but the megalith casinos are paid for with cold, hard, mathematical statistics… not luck. Truth is, there is no force in the universe that dishes out equal parts good and bad, or rights every wrong. If there was, both Senna’s and Schumacher’s championship record book would be a little lighter. Better yet, Jim Clark would have watched today’s race from the comfort of his Scottish farm. No, a driver can’t rely on luck to swing in his favor. He must focus on those things that are in his control and not dwell too long on poor luck.
I wrote about this after Monza. My point centering on Hamilton’s string of poor starts. Some were mechanical issues and some were driver error, but I wrote that Hamilton should only focus on what he could control. Nothing says that teammate Nico Rosberg will get the same dose of mechanical gremlins. This is not Lewis’ first rodeo, so to speak, and he came into this weekend mentally strong. He arrived in Malaysia a full week early to get his body acquainted with the sweltering heat and humidity. He also enjoyed himself with rock climbing and water sports. His confidence sky high, Hamilton breezed through all three qualifying sessions at the top of the leaderboard. Once the red lights went out his clutch operated without fault, and more importantly, so did he. Leading into turn one, Lewis avoided the melee behind. Ricciardo gave chase for the opening stint, but once into the second stint the Briton moved out of reach.
Ricciardo was no longer racing Hamilton, he was now more concerned with his own teammate, Max Verstappen. The 19-year old was on a different strategy than the two leaders, having made an extra stop early in the race. With both Red Bulls now on the hard tyres they circulated in close quarters for a few laps before Verstappen made his move. Christian Horner later said, “The only instruction from the team was to keep it clean.” This they did, though going though turns 5 and 6 side by side must have given the team principal some worry. As it was, Ricciardo held off the charge which turned out to be the decisive move of the race. For it was the Australian who inherited the lead when Hamilton pulled his stricken car off the track. It was a lead he wouldn’t lose as he held off Verstappen for an emotional win.
It was Hamilton’s race, but one couldn’t help feel joy for Ricciardo. The wide grin signaling that perhaps the ghost of Monaco has been vanquished. “I want to thank the team for making this all possible and I’m very grateful for today. After Monaco I had a lot of mixed emotions and it was a hard one to take but I felt as a team we came through that stronger and better.” Stronger indeed. Malaysia now marks the 8th race in a row that he has finished in the top five. He is now firmly in third place in the championship ahead of the Ferrari drivers. Nico Rosberg leaves Malaysia still in the championship lead having finished a fine third, benefitting greatly from Hamilton’s retirement.
As we head to Suzuka next weekend, what will luck bring this time? For Hamilton, he did everything right in Malaysia. There’s not much time to dwell on the lost opportunity before cars take to the Japanese track. Daniel Ricciardo emerged from his lost race “stronger and better” and found the victory he deserved. Hamilton can do the same. …if he’s lucky.