Can Hamilton steal victory from the jaws of defeat?Laurence Edmondson September 25, 2012
Lewis Hamilton put on a brave face after the Singapore Grand Prix. As fireworks illuminated the sky over the Marina Bay paddock in celebration of Sebastian Vettel's victory, he faced 11 separate TV crews for a lengthily bout of questioning. This wasn't in the script.
The full media session, kindly supplied by McLaren, took just over ten minutes and in that time he was asked how he felt about the gearbox problem no fewer than nine times. Follow up questions about the implications for the championship were asked seven times, while he was questioned on the reason for the failure six times. It would have been enough to drive most drivers to the brink of madness, but on each and every occasion he gave full and thoughtful answers, many of which sounded more upbeat than his post-race press conference at Monza. His most repeated phrase was "I'll never give up", and remarkably it sounded utterly sincere on each occasion. His decorum, given the circumstances, was quite exceptional.
On one occasion a reporter outlined the extent of the gap to Fernando Alonso (52 points), to which Hamilton replied: "Holy crap!" He then gave it a couple of moments thought and reiterated: "I won't give up. That means I need to finish the next six races and finish ten points ahead of him - that's 60 points." But is that really possible?
Such has been the nature of this season that no driver has managed to string together back-to-back victories, let alone six Hamilton has now set his sights on. Even consecutive podiums have been hard to come by, with the record (held by Hamilton, Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen) standing at three in a row. Even if Alonso fails to finish at the next two races and Hamilton wins, he'll still be two points shy of the Ferrari driver and that's before you factor Sebastian Vettel in to the equation.
The Singapore Grand Prix winner is 23 points ahead of Hamilton and going into the next two races he should have a car capable of giving Hamilton a hard time. Whether it was the switch back to the softer end of the Pirelli compound range in Singapore or the RB8's latest updates (or most likely a combination of both), Vettel was back on form. The soft compound tyres will feature at all of the next three races (paired with the hards in Japan and India and the super-softs in Korea), meaning Red Bull should avoid a repeat of its qualifying woes on the mediums at Spa and Monza. Put simply, the gap to Alonso is not the only moving target, and we haven't even mentioned Kimi Raikkonen in third.
But that's looking at the glass half empty, now let's look at the glass half full. Had Hamilton made the finish in Singapore he would have won, and that would have given him three wins out of the last four races. Look at it a different way and he would have scored 75% of the maximum points on offer over the last four races, which, given that they were run over four very different circuits, provides a pretty good performance index. Extend that theory a little further, and had Hamilton finished first in Singapore, Alonso would have been demoted to fourth, giving him 37% of the 100 points on offer over the four races. Vettel would have finished second, giving him 48% of the points on offer, but in the interests of fairness we'll give Vettel the eight points he missed out at Monza when he had a reliability issue of his own, bringing him up to 56%.
Now, if each of the three drivers scores the same percentage of points from the remaining 150 on offer over the final six races, then Hamilton comes out on top with 254.5 points, Alonso is second on 249.5 and Vettel is third on 249. Of course, it's all based on ifs, buts and maybes, but it's an interesting analysis nonetheless and shows just how close the championship could still be.
It also puts an emphasis on just how pivotal car developments and DNFs will be. If all three teams continue to develop in line with their current performance then Hamilton and McLaren stand a chance. But it's so tight at the top that just a single major upgrade could make the difference and it's not unknown for any of the technical directors at the top three teams to come up with a game changer.
For example, Red Bull, which during the season has had development paths such as its engine map and novel brake ducts closed off by regulation clarifications, is confident its development curve will continue on an upward trend.
"We've got some good stuff in the pipeline and we've been very competitive all weekend here [in Singapore]," said Christian Horner. "Every session bar one we've been quickest, but it was the crucial one in that final qualifying. We've got some tracks coming up that will play to the characteristics of our car."
But it can work both ways. Ferrari's latest specification rear wing was left off the car in Singapore with technical director Pat Fry saying: "Of all the updates we brought here, the only one we did not use was the rear wing, which still needs more development: that means we must improve still further the quality of our work if we want to meet our targets." Time lost chasing concepts that don't work can prove disastrous because it is well known that standing still in F1 amounts to going backwards.
Put simply, the championship is still wide open. Alonso and Vettel are now the favourites, but if Hamilton stays in a positive frame of mind, McLaren remains a step ahead of the competition and Jenson Button takes points off his team-mate's rivals, then 52 points is not such a big gap after all. It all depends on how you look at it and Hamilton, so far, is staying positive.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor on ESPNF1