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Formula 1

Hamilton’s chance to overturn a deficit that should be bigger

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Formula 1 title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are acutely aware of the role luck can play in their title battle.

Verstappen holds a four-point lead heading into this weekend’s French Grand Prix. It could have been a 15-point lead. It could have been a 21-point deficit. But it’s four points – unchanged after Verstappen’s Azerbaijan GP tyre failure, and Hamilton’s crucial error at the restart that followed.

“You’re right, it can swing very quickly,” Verstappen said when asked by The Race about luck and the potential for the momentum in this battle to instantly shift to the other driver.

“And it’s still a super-long season. So many races to go. You just of course always want to try and have the best possible result, which I thought was going to get in Baku!

“But then again it shows you that things can change very quickly.”

“Fortunately, with two terrible races from us, we ended up being still very, very close in points” :: Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton, answering the same question as the two sat beside one another in the Thursday press conference, said: “I never really know what to think about luck.

“There’s people who sometimes say you make your own luck. There’s definitely moments where you can be unfortunate.

“There’s definitely some when you can be fortunate to capitalise on other people’s misfortune. But I don’t know if that’s being lucky as such.

“It does show you how quick it can swing and that’s why every point counts.

“Fortunately, with two terrible races from us, we ended up being still very, very close in points. So the race is still very much on.”

Hamilton’s right to acknowledge his own fortune in entering this weekend knowing he will take the lead of the championship if he wins the race.

While Verstappen can consider himself lucky to have discovered Hamilton shot down the escape road at Turn 1 in Baku instead of taking the lead and winning, he was desperately unlucky to be out of the race in the first place. Verstappen was blameless for his non-score, Hamilton wasn’t.

Lewis Hamilton locks up Baku F1 2021

Perhaps the accidental strike of the ‘brake magic’ button was Hamilton’s luck balancing out after he got away with his huge error at Imola. He’d have been a lap down and probably only finished seventh without the red flag that was vital to him undoing the damage of going off a damp track while chasing Verstappen on slicks. That said, it is also worth pointing out that luck played a big part in Verstappen’s win as he went unpunished for nearly spinning just before the restart…

Without his own reprieve though, Hamilton wouldn’t have been in a position a couple of races later to be celebrating his ‘best ever’ start to a season. Thanks to that second place at Imola, three wins and a fastest lap bonus, Hamilton had scored more points than ever after four grands prix.

At the time, we noted the curious, arbitrary cut-off of four races to define a ‘start’ to the season. After Baku, a second difficult weekend in a row for the world champion and his team, there’s another one. Six races in, this is now the worst start Hamilton and Mercedes have made to a hybrid-era championship. How quickly things can change…

Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen

Those kinds of statistics are, at best, only loose reference points so early in a season like this. There’s more substance to the Hamilton and Verstappen championship narrative than that. It’s so finely-poised that small variables will have a defining impact: whether that’s a track suiting one car more than the other, driver error, or simply luck.

Because of all those factors, Verstappen leads the championship. But he’s unfortunate not to have a larger points lead and Hamilton, as he admits, is fortunate to be so close.

Now Hamilton’s in a very good position to swing things back in his favour. Mercedes dominated the two French GPs held at Paul Ricard in 2018 and 2019. It’s a track that has suited this package in recent years and should eradicate the main limitation that hurt Hamilton in Monaco and Baku – tyre warm-up.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes French Grand Prix 2019 Paul Ricard

Despite Hamilton’s claim to the contrary, the evidence of the first four races was that Mercedes had developed a tiny edge, at least in race trim, on conventional tracks in normal conditions. That’s why Verstappen said after the Baku race that he was ruing the loss of a “comfortable win”, because “on the street circuits we seemed to have an advantage”.

“I wanted to outscore them because I knew when we go back to normal tracks, they are very strong,” he said.

Instead, it’s Hamilton’s turn to be favourite for victory. If he gets it, he’ll turn his deficit into a championship lead.

That’s just how easy it is for the balance of power to lurch from one side to the other this season.

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