After seeing his title chances fail yesterday, Lewis Hamilton had a clear view about the role unreliability played in his championship defeat.
“Obviously we had a lot of problems this year,” he said, “and that’s inevitably why I’m in this position.”
Technical problems are an inevitability in motor racing. And if car failures can be said to have cost Hamilton a championship this year that was certainly also true of other drivers before him – particularly those who lost titles to their team mates.
But has the role Hamilton’s unreliability played in Nico Rosberg’s world championship victory been exaggerated?
Looking at the big picture, on the face of it Hamilton should be pleased with the reliability he’s had. Only three drivers on the grid who entered every race had fewer race-ending technical problems than he did during 2016.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, one of those three was his team mate. The Mercedes W07 has been very reliable, as has the the Mercedes PU106C power unit which is also in the back of six other cars.
There is a paradox at work here: The more reliable a teams’ car is, the more damaging a breakdown is for a driver.
For example, compare the situation to two years ago. In 2014* Mercedes had five failures which led to non-classifications. Of those Hamilton had two and Rosberg three. With 25 points available for a win, 40% of the potential lost points occurred on Hamilton’s side of the garage. This year Hamilton had the team’s single failure and therefore took a full 100% of the team’s points lost due to breakdowns.
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In this respect Hamilton was clearly hard done by. Simple championship arithmetic rams this point home: his Malaysia engine failure resulted in a 28-point swing against him and his only lost the title by five.
However he and Rosberg also suffered non-race-ending technical problems during the season. These have to be included in any analysis as well, but calculating how many points these cost the drivers is more difficult.
Here’s an overview of the significant technical problems each driver experienced during 2016:
|Race||Rosberg notes||Hamilton notes|
|China||Power unit problem in qualifying left him last on the grid. Also had a five-place gearbox change penalty.|
|Russia||Power unit problem in qualifying left him tenth on the grid|
|Monaco||Power unit problem in qualifying limited his runs in Q3.|
|Europe||Loss of power in second practice limited his running. Had same engine mode problem as Hamilton but it occured shortly after a settings change which he was able to reverse.||Spent part of race in wrong engine mode as team were not allowed to tell him how to change it.|
|Austria||Suspension problem in practice caused crash which resulted in five-place penalty for gearbox change. Brake-by-wire fault on last lap allowed Hamilton to attack.|
|Great Britain||Gearbox problem led to Mercedes giving him outside assistance which resulted in a penalty.|
|Belgium||Started last after taking a grid penalty for power unit component changes|
|Singapore||Hydraulic problem in second practice limited his running|
|Malaysia||Engine failed while leading.|
Trying to determine which driver has lost more points due to reliability invites a high degree of interpretation.
Rosberg may well have had his pole positions and subsequent victories in China and Russia even if Hamilton’s qualifying sessions had been trouble-free. Trying to unpick what influence Rosberg’s suspension failure in Austria had on his final finishing position is a Butterfly effect question.
And then there’s a question of which technical failures were truly outside the driver’s control. Rosberg’s mystery problem in Monaco? Hamilton’s glazed brake in Mexico? These could be considered to have been influenced by driving style.
Clearly it isn’t the case that Hamilton was the only Mercedes driver to experience technical problems in 2016. Sometimes these problems were similar to setbacks Rosberg experienced yet for Hamilton they had a greater impact. For example, Hamilton lost running in second practice in Singapore and Rosberg did in Baku, yet Rosberg won both races.
But even putting the most positive spin on these outcomes for Rosberg it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Hamilton’s potential points haul was greatly diminished by the problems he experienced.
The retirement in Malaysia, the back-of-the-grid starts in China and Belgium and the tenth-place start in Russia all badly limited Hamilton’s ability to beat his team mate. Rosberg did not have a single reliability-related setback which was as damaging as any of these four were for Hamilton.
This is not to say unreliability made it impossible for Hamilton to win the championship this year. But in the final reckoning he only needed a little less bad luck to hold onto his crown.
2016 F1 season
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- F1’s TV audience decline stopped in 2016
- Brawn among key F1 hires announced by Liberty
- Has F1 hit ‘peak penalties’? Fewer sanctions in 2016