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Learning Lessons & Lady Luck… Lewis Hamilton’s DNFs

October 1, 2010

Lewis Hamilton seems to be copping a fair amount of criticism of late. Back-to-back DNFs for the former World Champion at the business end of the season could yet prove decisive in the race to the 2010 Drivers’ title… and quite a few pundits have been willing to direct a few digs in the McLaren driver’s direction. However, it is the manner in which these two eerily-similar non-finishes have transpired, predominantly in the context of individual driver involvement, which I wish to look at closely here.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamilton’s opening-lap incident at Monza, consistently accomplished F1 commentator Martin Brundle stated: ‘he should have got out of that much earlier.’ It was true. A quick peek at any TV replays or photographs of the Hamilton-Massa contact reveal that the McLaren driver had very little right to attempt to claim the inside line, with his right-front wheel parallel to (at best, marginally in front of) Massa’s left-rear. It appeared a foolish move, but one characteristic of a will-to-win that has led him to fourteen victories in his fledgling career, and – as boss Martin Whitmarsh pointed out – one which makes him the driver he is.

Felipe Massa, seemingly out of this year’s title fight and striving to impress his Ferrari bosses, was hardly likely to be generous or accommodating towards Hamilton’s presence at that chicane. Duly, Massa barely deviated from the racing line; door closed. Tough from Massa, brave or naïve from Hamilton, and in a blink of an eye, Lewis’s race was done.

The week that followed saw a curiously large amount of focus on Hamilton’s error. Supporters praised his natural bravado and unquenchable thirst for success; detractors cited the impetuosity of youth, a sizeable misjudgement, and the simple fact that he should have realised there was little chance of him getting through there and conceded the turn. To finish first, first you must finish. Mainstream media towed the line with those urging Lewis to learn from such lessons. The question was, would he?

By curious twist of fate, the following race weekend in Singapore would see Hamilton involved in an almost identical incident with Red Bull’s Mark Webber, except with Hamilton holding the outside line this time, and still coming off second best. So, how did Webber’s conduct compare with Hamilton’s at Monza? More importantly, did Hamilton’s Singapore actions show signs that he might have learnt from the similar situation with Massa at Monza?

A quick glance of the Singapore incident footage shows that on entry to the corner, Webber’s right-front wheel was parallel with Hamilton’s side-pod – Webber essentially had more of a right to the inside line than Hamilton had against Massa at Monza. Webber, it seems, also attempted to ‘get out’ of the move, albeit at quite a late stage, judging by the fact he was half way over the inside kerbing and that at the point of contact, his right-front had dropped back from being parallel to Hamilton’s side-pod to his left-rear.

One could quite easily make a case praising Webber’s judgement and race-craft in comparison to Hamilton’s in Italy, but it would be short-sided to ignore Lady Luck… for in most instances of a front-wheel versus a rear-wheel, it is nearly always the rear that wins. With regards to attacking the inside line from an inferior position, Webber was wiser than Hamilton, and fortune duly favoured him.

At roughly half a car length ahead, my personal view is that the corner was probably marginally Hamilton’s. But only just, though. Webber certainly still had every right to challenge. As such, Hamilton should have gauged the potential for Webber to be poking his nose up the inside. In actuality, with the challenging car half-way alongside him, Lewis had less ‘right’ to the corner than Massa did at Monza, and from the on-board footage we can see that he evidently gave Webber less room than Massa had afforded him; a critical misjudgement.

Hamilton tellingly asserted that he was ‘on the racing line,’ further highlighting how little room he was willing to give Webber. This proved to be a significant misjudgement on his behalf, and one which would indicate he had not learnt from his own errors in the previous round at Monza. At a very minimum, the Monza incident should have at least made Hamilton aware of the potential for contact between drivers racing in close proximity to each other on the track, regardless of who has the proverbial racing line, the ‘right’ to the corner, or indeed who simply is on the inside or the outside of the corner. The lesson was there to be learnt for Hamilton; but for that class, he might as well have played truant.

On the outside line, Hamilton at Singapore was more aggressive and less generous than Massa (who comparatively gave slightly more room) was at Monza, and Hamilton came off second best. Attacking the inside line, an audacious Hamilton at Monza was more aggressive than the slightly more circumspect Webber was at Singapore, and again Hamilton lost out. In a nutshell, the more aggressive and carefree driver lost out both times to the more respectful and generous one… albeit with a helping hand from Lady Luck.

Hamilton has every right to feel aggrieved that both wheel-to-wheel clashes went against him, in particular the Webber clash where his stronger left-rear surprisingly gave way to the Aussie’s front-right. As the 2008 champion himself stated, luck has been anywhere but on his side lately: ‘It’s very frustrating that in Italy I tapped the car in front and it broke my front suspension, and in Singapore, the car behind tapped me and punctured my tyre. I’ve been unlucky both times.’

How different things would be had Massa’s left-rear buckled in the Monza incident and Webber’s right-front conceded defeat (as one would normally expect) in the contact at Singapore. Hamilton would most probably have claimed two third places, be thirty points better off, sitting on 212 for the season, with Fernando Alonso his nearest rival on 191. The McLaren driver would have been lauded for his aggressive brilliance in some quarters; critiqued for a Schumacher-esque win-at-all-costs recklessness in others.

That, however, is all conjecture. It did not come to pass. Instead, Mark Webber, so often regarded as the unlucky man of F1, benefitted from a slightly more cautious approach to the inside line, and saw fate pour favour upon his vehicle, with his front-right somehow surviving contact with Hamilton’s left-rear. The affable Aussie is now eleven points clear of his nearest rival, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, and twenty ahead of Hamilton. Luck won’t win you the Championship, but it can go a long way to helping.

Hamilton can bemoan his bad luck all he wants, and I would agree that once contact occurred in Singapore he was indeed unlucky, however had he learnt the lessons on offer at Monza, luck would not have come into it as he would have avoided the collision in the first place.

In such a tight title battle, with one race win covering the top five drivers and DNFs now crippling with regards to title aspirations, calculated and wise driving, coupled with Lady Luck could well prove key.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. bloomsm permalink
    October 15, 2010 6:59 pm

    Don’t you think one of the characteristics of Lewis as a driver is his tendency to make errors when he feels under pressure? Crashed in first practice at Japan. He also failed to clinch the title in China in 2008 after a spin. Crashed in Belgium and Italy in 2009 and found himself out of the hunt. Talented, to be sure. Worth the hype? Win another title and let’s see.

  2. October 19, 2010 11:35 am

    It would certainly seem that Lewis has developed (or is developing) a penchant for collapsing under pressure – you mention some great examples. Perhaps the most glaring (and surprisingly unnoticed) one was in the ’07 title decider at Interlagos when he dropped the car into neutral (dropping back down the field) following an early skirmish with rival Fernando Alonso and subsequent minor off-track excursion. He panicked, and consequently made an ultimately key mistake.

    By comparison, last year’s champion, Jenson Button, barely made a race-day mistake all season, frequently recovering poor qualifying performanes in the actual race to score valuable points. Being quick, or indeed the quickest, doesn’t always win you the title; you need race craft and consistency as well. Alonso and title-leader Mark Webber appear to be achieving these aims this season, whilst title-pretenders Hamilton (albeit in an inferior vehicle) and Sebastian Vettel are not.

    So, yeah, win another title and we shall see indeed. Until then, Lewis, we wait…

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