Formula 1

How post-title ‘hangovers’ hit F1 champions

by Matt Beer
9 min read

Last weekend at Algarve, Joan Mir’s first grand prix as MotoGP world champion featured a season-worst 20th on the grid and two collisions that ended up breaking his Suzuki’s electronics and dislocating rival Francesco Bagnaia’s shoulder.

It was about as blunt a demonstration of the possibility of a post-title performance hangover – a newly-crowned champion going off the boil once the intensity of that championship chase is over – as you could get.

“I think it’s clear that something happens once you’ve won the championship. I partied a lot, with my family, and celebrated” :: Lewis Hamilton in 2017

Lewis Hamilton’s 2020 Formula 1 title is the fifth of his seven world championship that he’s clinched before the end of that season. And his form in the races after his crown has been secured has varied from superb to shaky.

Looking at recent history of how F1 champions handle the races where the title is already in the bag, there are three clear trends of what might happen next.

1. THE CHAMPION GETS A BIT SHAKY

Brazilian Grand Prix 2015

It’s often said that Nico Rosberg won the 2016 F1 title in the final races of 2015, when Hamilton took his foot off the gas too much and allowed his Mercedes team-mate and arch-rival to get a crucial mental boost and get more of the team set-up working to his liking.

Once Hamilton had put the championship to bed at Austin with three rounds to spare, Rosberg beat him to pole and race victory in each of the remaining races.

And Rosberg then made it a seven-race winning streak by winning 2016’s first four too, giving him a championship margin that Hamilton never quite managed to close.

There’s no doubt Hamilton was less focused than Rosberg in that 2015 run-in. He admitted that a minor car crash in Monaco had its roots in ‘partying’ that had left him exhausted, and he was unsettled and not in his best shape in those final races.

Rosberg’s 2016 title win had more to do with Hamilton’s reliability problems, his poor starts early that year and Rosberg finding his peak form than Hamilton chilling out at the end of 2015, but there was no doubt he left an opportunity for his team-mate to exploit.

Hamilton vowed he wouldn’t make that mistake again… but then had to admit in 2017 that his form had declined a touch post-title as he again failed to win after sealing the championship, with that slump including an uncharacteristic qualifying crash in Brazil.

“I think it’s clear that something happens once you’ve won the championship,” said Hamilton at the time.

Lewis Hamilton qualifying crash Brazilian Grand Prix 2017

“All I can say is the week after I won the championship I partied a lot, with my family, and celebrated, and that’s what you do.

“Before all the other races, that was not the case.

“So sleep, energy has definitely been different on these last couple of races. But nonetheless, I still tried to approach them the same.”

Hamilton still kept his focus better than Michael Schumacher had done when he clinched some of his most dominant crowns.

Schumacher had a habit of suddenly becoming much more beatable once the title was settled, before putting his all into things again for Suzuka and habitually winning the Japanese Grand Prix. He didn’t often let Spa slip away either. But his approach to many other post-title races was a touch more relaxed.

The best example was 2004. Schumacher’s 13 wins that season remains a record equalled only by Sebastian Vettel’s 2013 tally.

Michael Schumacher Ferrari Christian Klien Jaguar Chinese Grand Prix 2004 Shanghai

But after sealing the title with second behind Kimi Raikkonen at Spa, the rest of Schumacher’s season included a spectacularly messy Shanghai weekend featuring a qualifying spin, an early-race spin, a collision with Christian Klien and a puncture, and a big qualifying crash at Interlagos. He had a spin on lap one at a damp Monza too after a brush with Jenson Button, though he recovered to second there.

He, obviously, won Suzuka in the middle of all that.

2. THE CHAMPION GETS GENEROUS

Japanese Grand Prix Suzuka (jpn) 18 20 10 1991

When Nigel Mansell’s Williams slewed off the road at the start of lap 10 of the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna’s third world title was sealed – and in rather calmer fashion than his previous two.

So he famously decided he didn’t need to win the Suzuka race after all, slowing dramatically on the final lap so McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger could wipe out his 7s deficit and breeze past to take his first win for the team after two years of trying.

A kind gesture on paper, but what was such a win really worth? While Senna and Berger may have had a great relationship as team-mates, the clear implication that Berger – whose career momentum ultimately wasn’t helped by his three years as Senna’s sidekick after he’d impressed so much in his own right at Benetton and Ferrari – needed help to win.

There was a similar feeling to Nigel Mansell’s acts of kindness towards Williams team-mate Riccardo Patrese once the 1992 title had been wrapped up in Hungary that August.

Mansell let Patrese past at both Monza and Suzuka, although mechanical problems in Italy meant only the Japanese gesture resulted in a win.

Riccardo Patrese Nigel Mansell Williams Japanese Grand Prix 1992 Suzuka

That victory ultimately ensured Patrese won his battle with Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna for second in the drivers’ championship – ‘helping my team-mate get second’ having been another common trope for generous championship favourites.

Michael Schumacher also switched into chivalrous mode at times once he’d settled his titles early. With 2002’s crown sealed in France as early as July, he had six ‘dead rubber’ races to play with.

There was a suspicion he could’ve pushed a touch harder around the Hungarian GP pitstops if he’d really wanted to deny team-mate Rubens Barrichello a victory there, and that this might’ve been payback for the hugely contentious win Barrichello was ordered to hand Schumacher in Austria that year.

Sep 03 : S2 E4: Ferrari's Austria 2002 team orders controversy

It also helped Barrichello close right in on Williams pair Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, who somehow led him in the points at that point despite Ferrari’s superiority that season.

Schumacher didn’t give winner Barrichello too many headaches in Ferrari’s Monza 1-2 either. But Indianapolis was the real gift.

“The team didn’t want it. But I feel it’s nice what happened. I think Rubens deserves it” :: Michael Schumacher, Indianapolis 2002

There was little to choose between Schumacher and Barrichello all race, but Schumacher went into the final lap leading by 3.8s.

Then he slowed and the two crossed the line side by side, with Barrichello inching ahead to win by 0.011s in officially F1’s closest finish of all time.

Rubens Barrichello Michael Schumacher Ferrari Indianapolis 2002

Schumacher made no secret of having wanted to gift Barrichello the win, but with team orders banned post-Austria he insisted it hadn’t been that simple.

“I did ask before whether I could let him by and [Ferrari] said no,” said Schumacher. “There was no plan. The team didn’t want it. But I feel it’s nice what happened. I think Rubens deserves it.”

Schumacher’s official explanation was that he’d been attempting to orchestrate a dead heat.

Rubens Barrichello Michael Schumacher Ferrari Indianapolis 2002

“I thought it was a good opportunity to go equal over the line,” he said. “We tried and we failed a little bit.”

It added to an uncomfortable sense that the Ferrari/Schumacher combination was simply playing with F1 and their rivals at the time.

3. THE CHAMPION CRUSHES EVERYONE FOR FUN

Sebastian Vettel wins Korean Grand Prix 2011

This is actually a rare one, and it’s only really been pulled off by Vettel.

Of his four titles, 2011 and ’13 were secured in advance. There were four races to go in 2011 after he settled the championship in Japan, and he took pole for three and won two.

A first-lap puncture in Abu Dhabi and a gearbox problem in Brazil (which some sceptics would argue gives Vettel an entry in the ‘generous champion’ category as it let Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber take a morale-boosting win) were all that stood between Vettel and a clean sweep of his post-title races.

Sebastian Vettel Red Bull US Grand Prix 2013

What he did two years later was astonishing.

Vettel headed into the summer break with a handy 38-point championship lead, but in a year where Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes had all won races, there were eight rounds left and Hamilton in particular was gaining momentum at his new team, it didn’t seem a foregone conclusion.

Sebastian Vettel wins 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix

But Vettel simply won every single race after the summer break, pulling off a largely dominant eight-win sweep that didn’t relent in the slightest in the three races that followed his Indian GP title-clincher.

The scale of his superiority was such that it seems all the more unbelievable now that his career lost such momentum afterwards.

So what should we expect from Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton wins 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

After his 2015 and ’17 slumps, Hamilton was certainly more focused in the 2018 and ’19 post-title races. Still on average a touch easier to beat (two of Valtteri Bottas’s four 2019 wins came when Hamilton was on the cusp of the title), but still victorious in 2018’s last two races and last year’s finale.

He doesn’t really need to assist Bottas with securing second in the drivers’ standings as his team-mate is 27 points clear of Max Verstappen anyway, plus Hamilton ought to know that gift wins aren’t going to do Bottas any good mentally this year.

Hamilton can also pull off some more records if he wins the last three races, as that would bring him equal with Schumacher and Vettel on 13 wins in a year.

Given this year’s shorter calendar, that would be a record level of domination – wins from 76.5% of the season’s races compared to Schumacher’s 72.2% in the 18-race 2004 season and Vettel’s 68.4% from the 19 rounds in 2013.

Only Alberto Ascari comes close – he won 75% of 1952’s eight events. But if we’re measuring it on grands prix actually contested, Ascari jumps to 85% there as he didn’t race in that year’s Swiss GP.

Those aren’t stats that Hamilton’s likely to chase or cherish as much as his win and championship tallies so we doubt that milestone will be on his mind.

The main reason why Hamilton is better placed to keep winning post-title in 2020 is because this year more than ever, he’s been racing himself. It’s been less about beating the opposition, and more about self-improvement, dealing with each race and its challenges better than the Hamilton of years past would’ve done.

He’s done so with great intensity, so it may be that he does still need to back off the focus levels a touch now he and Mercedes are clear champions, giving the likes of Bottas and Verstappen chance for some late-season boosts.

But all the signs of the year so far are that Hamilton won’t be getting any easier to beat over the next three weekends.

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