Issue 35: What did the Japanese and Russian Grands Prix tell us about the World Drivers’ Championship battle?

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28 October 2014

Race Summaries: Lewis Hamilton added two further victories in Suzuka and Sochi ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg. Sebastian Vettel made it two podiums in a row by finishing third in Suzuka while Valtteri Bottas drove to an excellent third place in Sochi. Ferrari endured two miserable races with Fernando Alonso’s sixth place finish in Sochi their best result.

I did not have time to review the Japanese and Russian Grands Prix independently. Therefore, I intend to highlight what I think were some of the key takeaways from both races for the drivers’ world championship.

A word on F1 and safety following Jules Bianchi’s tragic crash is a must too.

It’s Hammertime!

On the face of it, the Japanese and Russian Grands Prix turned on two incidents. The first was Lewis Hamilton’s scintillating pass on Nico Rosberg on the outside of Turn 1 at Suzuka on Lap 29. It was Dan Dare stuff by the Briton – carrying more speed into the corner, braking a fraction later and trusting that the car would stick – ultimately emerging ahead of chief title rival Rosberg. The second was Nico Rosberg’s dramatic lock-up at Turn 3 in Sochi on Lap 1 of the inaugural Russian Grand Prix. The German went careering straight on to the run-off area and although he rejoined ahead of Hamilton, the flatspots on his tyres meant an early pitstop and his challenge for victory was over.

It would be unwise to extrapolate too much from the Japanese and Russian Grands Prix as neither were ‘normal’ races as such. Japan delivered a monsoon-like race and F1 had not experienced a wet-weather Grand Prix since 2012 while Sochi was a step into the unknown for all concerned. That said, the results of both races and the way each played out did fit with patterns seen throughout the 2014 season. Refreshingly, for all the talk of unreliability deciding race victories, the fight for victory at both Suzuka and Sochi took place out on-track without the intervention of the gremlins experienced by Mercedes earlier in the season. This was the case at Monza too. The headline statistic is of course that Hamilton has won nine races to Rosberg’s four. Other 2014 season statistics often bandied around include Hamilton’s three race retirements to Rosberg’s two and Rosberg’s eight pole positions to Hamilton’s seven.

However, my view is that other numbers, such as 5-0, 6-2, 3-0, matter as much if not more than the total number of wins or pole positions that each driver has scored because they offer a better guide to what might happen in future battles between Hamilton and Rosberg.

5-0

For example, in on-track combat (and I include getting ahead on pitstop strategy here), Hamilton has beaten Rosberg 5-0 this season, counting only races they both finished. He passed the German on track in Italy (albeit an easy one) and Japan and on strategy in Bahrain, Canada (immediately before retiring) and Hungary. Rosberg has yet to pass Hamilton either on track or on strategy this season. This will count in the psychological war between them: Hamilton knows he can overtake Rosberg if he needs to. Rosberg does not have that luxury. More importantly, this has counted for championship points: 24 to Hamilton to be exact.

6-2

Other numbers confirm Hamilton’s edge. 6-2, for example, is the number of pole positions converted by both drivers. It’s all very well starting on pole, but not to convert that into win is to miss an opportunity. Sometimes reliability takes away a win, but there is no getting away from the fact that Rosberg has failed to convert six of his pole positions into wins. His rival has failed to convert pole only once in 2014. Rosberg’s is not the record of a world champion.

I have said several times in 2014 that the qualifying battle will be a key indicator of which Mercedes driver is most likely to be world champion. However, that has only proved to be partially accurate as the numbers above illustrate. Based on past performance, when Hamilton qualifies on pole, it is almost certain that he’ll convert that into a win, but when Rosberg starts from pole, it has been far less likely that this will translate into a win for the German.

3-0

It sounds like a football score, but actually it is the number of times that Rosberg has made errors while in the lead or challenging for the lead, which may have cost him wins. To be fair, Hamilton has also made errors, not least in qualifying in mid-season, e.g. Austria or Britain, and in races, think Japan. But Hamilton’s errors have tended not to come at decisive moments unlike Rosberg’s. In Belgium, Rosberg made an error by crashing into Hamilton but gained from it when Hamilton retired and the German finished second, collecting 18 points. However, I look at that race and see a victory gone begging for Rosberg, not a second place saved. Immediately after Belgium came Italy and two lock-ups for Rosberg, the second of which let the Briton through. Then came Russia and another lock-up that cost him a slender lead.

These numbers show that so far this season, Hamilton has simply won more of the decisive moments than Rosberg. Yet, in spite of Hamilton’s statistical advantage, past performance is no guarantee of future success; it is a guide at best. In the final three races, the momentum may shift, mistakes may be made by driver or team and of course, dreaded unreliability may intervene. While none of the numbers above are in Rosberg’s favour, he may yet still win out on reliability…

Warning – Motorsport is Dangerous

The above warning is printed on the back of every F1 spectator’s ticket. It really does mean something because the sport we enjoy is inherently dangerous. Statistically, F1 is less dangerous now than 40 years ago or even 20 years ago, but the risks of serious injury and even death persist. In the 1960s, there was on average 0.11 fatalities per race. In the 1990s, that had fallen to 0.01 fatalities per race. From 2000 onwards, the rate was 0.00 fatalities per race. However, the absence of death is not evidence that the risk of death has been extinguished altogether. In fact, serious and life threatening accidents like Jules Bianchi’s in Japan carry a stronger shock factor because safety improvements in F1 have thankfully made these big accidents such rare events. Would Mark Webber still be with us following his incredible airborne crash at Valencia in 2010? What about Robert Kubica following his monumental accident in Montreal in 2007? That these drivers raced again soon after experiencing these high energy events are a great testament to the work done to strengthen monocoque chassis and deploy more sophisticated barriers that absorb and diffuse energy from big accidents more effectively. It is hard to measure exactly how many lives have been saved and serious injuries prevented following safety changes simply because these deaths and injuries did not occur. F1 is undeniably safer now. That said, Bianchi’s accident is a timely reminder that F1 cars and drivers are not invincible. The risks are still there even if they’re not obvious.

It is never nice to see an F1 driver crash heavily and not walk away. Sadly, that is what happened to Jules Bianchi in Japan.I hope he makes a full recovery.

@TheWheelspinner

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