How Lucky is Lewis Hamilton?
Or should that be unlucky?
A lucky break involving a fortunately timed red flag at Imola led to many claims on social media that Lewis Hamilton is the luckiest driver ever to have raced.
So, how lucky is he exactly? Let's investigate.
The Briton has certainly caught a lucky break from time to time.
Imola has been especially kind to him over the last 12 months. In addition to the red flag which rescued him this year, he received a helping hand at the 2020 race from a well-timed Virtual Safety Car. Hamilton was able to pit during the VSC period, allowing him to gain a net 10 seconds and steal the lead from team-mate Valtteri Bottas. A similar situation benefitted him at Silverstone and Sochi in 2019, both races ending with that familiar combination of the British and German national anthems.
Earlier that year, the controversial decision to penalise Sebastian Vettel at the Canadian Grand Prix propelled Hamilton to the top step of the podium, even if he wasn't parked next to the number 1 board... And more problems for the Scuderia - this time a mechanical failure for Charles Leclerc - helped him clinch what had appeared an unlikely victory in Bahrain.
A day that many Ferrari fans refuse to acknowledge the existence of. (Photo: f1fanatic.co.uk.)
Whilst we’re talking of Ferrari calamities, Hamilton also obviously reaped the rewards from the disastrous run to the first corner at Singapore in 2017 and Vettel’s costly error in Germany a year later – both massive moments that swung the title battle in his favour. But whether mistakes by one party can be considered luck for their opponent is up for debate.
Obviously, over the years, there are many other times when retirements to others have seen him claim victory. Bottas was unlucky at the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, suffering a tyre blow-out with just three laps remaining. Mechanical failures put an end to battles between Hamilton and arch rival Nico Rosberg in Russia in 2015 and Britain in 2014.
The relentless consistency of the Hamilton-Mercedes partnership means that he is often there to capitalise when others falter, for whatever reason.
Earlier in his career, Hamilton was not the polished article we see scooping up championship after championship today. He had a reputation for doing things the hard way, either from self-inflicted obstacles or external factors conspiring against him. Even in 2014, Bleacher Report described him as “a three- or four-time world champion trapped in the career of a one-title wonder, with luck – more often than not – at the root of his failure to scoop more accolades.”
Hamilton back in 2014. (Photo: Getty Images.)
And whilst that was the year that he finally scooped that elusive second title, Lady Luck still made him work for it. The number 44 Mercedes retired with an engine problem just two laps into the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, leaving him with a 25-point deficit to team-mate Rosberg. He won the next four races to claw back the gap and take the lead, only to lose it again in Monaco where, if we are to believe the German, it was purely bad luck to blame for his infamous trip down the escape road…
Further mechanical failures in Canada, Germany, and Hungary – along with a race-ending puncture courtesy of Rosberg in Belgium – ultimately weren’t enough to deny him the championship, but they certainly didn’t make it easy.
And, if his second title was dramatic, it was nothing on his first. Of course, he infamously passed Timo Glock at the very final corner to regain that crucial fifth place, but a sudden deluge with five laps remaining when Hamilton had been in a comfortable position for the title certainly couldn’t be described as lucky.
After three seasons without a championship – and a particularly trying campaign in 2011 – Hamilton vowed to return stronger than ever in 2012. He followed through on that promise – seven pole positions over the course of the year demonstrated the speed that was clearly there – but forces beyond his control would once again derail his title bid, in the most spectacular fashion to date.
Nico Hülkenberg denied Hamilton a farewell win in his final race for McLaren. (Photo: www.formula1.com.)
There were mechanical failures from the lead in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, and further issues in China, Germany, Japan, and Korea. McLaren suffered a series of catastrophic pit stops, which ruined Hamilton’s races in Bahrain, Monaco, and Valencia. Nico Hülkenberg took him out of the race whilst battling for the lead in Brazil. Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado caused two further retirements. And a fuel irregularity saw him demoted from pole to the back of the grid in Spain – but did give us a shock victory for a certain Venezuelan.
Hamilton has experienced two especially damaging pieces of misfortune that are the difference between him being a seven-time and nine-time world champion.
First, in his rookie season, fate conspired to see him lose a 17-point advantage in the space of two races. The incident that saw him stuck in a Chinese gravel trap boils down to an error; arguably more so at the hands of the team, who left him driving on tyres that were worn down to the canvas, but an error nonetheless. He was blameless, though, as his title aspirations crumbled in Brazil.
Despite that mishap in China, a young Hamilton still held an advantage of four points to his team-mate – Fernando Alonso – and seven points to Kimi Räikkönen. On lap 8, he suffered a gearbox problem and watched most of the field overtake him as he crawled up towards Ferradura. After about 30 seconds, he managed to reset his car’s computer and get going again but had fallen to 18th. His recovery to an eventual seventh was not enough and he had somehow lost what would have been the first ever drivers’ championship won by a rookie.
Kimi Räikkönen completes the unlikeliest of comebacks to take the 2007 title. (Photo: www.latercera.com.)
Nine years later, he was to be cruelly denied again.
The 2016 season was a tale of incredible consistency by Rosberg and horrendous reliability for Hamilton. Early in the season, two engine failures during qualifying – and being taken out at the first corner by future team-mate Bottas – left Hamilton with a deficit to claw back, but by the summer break he had done just that.
However, those failed engines meant he had to start from the back of the grid at the next race in Belgium. After that, and a hydraulics fault in Singapore, he had lost the lead once again, but was looking good for a win in Malaysia when we heard that notorious radio call of “Oh no, no” and Hamilton’s hopes went up in flames. From there, Rosberg didn’t put a foot wrong and did all that was required of him to cling on to the title by five points, despite Hamilton’s best efforts to make life as hard as possible for him at the finale.
A distraught Hamilton at the side of the track after his blow-up in Malaysia. (Photo: Sky Sports.)
SO, HOW LUCKY IS HE?
There is, of course, the old adage that you make your own luck. Many times in recent years we have seen Hamilton avoiding unnecessary risk and taking as little out of the car as possible, clearly more interested in the long game and focused on the championship. That perspective has come with experience – the younger Hamilton fought tooth and nail for every position and it often got him into trouble.
Hamilton can appear especially lucky because he is in the spotlight and, thus, every break that goes his way is highlighted. Many fans are desperate for any result other than a Hamilton win after such a period of dominance, so when he lucks into a win or escapes a bad result, it can seem as though it’s just another tale of ‘lucky old Lewis’. But then occasions like Monza in 2020 – where Hamilton was unlucky with the timing of a safety car and being erroneously called into the pits lost him a certain win – are somewhat forgotten because Pierre Gasly’s fairy tale win is the main focus.
Ironically, it was Hamilton’s year of appalling luck in 2012 that led him to take the leap to Mercedes. So, considering the unparalleled success he has achieved as a result of that move, could it be argued that the bad luck was, in fact, good luck? Fortune is a fickle mistress and one that is very hard to define.