STRAW: What would a 'short format' title add to Hamilton's legacy?

STRAW: What would a 'short format' title add to Hamilton's legacy?

Insights & Analysis

STRAW: What would a 'short format' title add to Hamilton's legacy?

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Let’s say the worst doesn’t happen, and the Formula 1 world championship can eventually get started this year and run to a truncated calendar. Currently, the first race that has yet to be cancelled is the Canadian Grand Prix on June 14, although realistically few expect that not to be postponed. Right now, nobody can be sure when the season will start, other than the fact it isn’t going to be for a good while yet.

Formula 1 has said it intends to reschedule as many races as possible, and it’s still possible that a good number of races can be forced into a condensed period. F1 is still aiming for 15-18 events. But for the minimum, F1’s sporting regulations demand at least eight races to constitute a championship season. This raises the possibility of a championship that runs to only just beyond one-third of its planned length. But how much would that devalue it?

There’s every chance that if a 2020 season does take place, Lewis Hamilton will equal Michael Schumacher’s record for seven world championships. Inevitably, if this is achieved over a campaign of just eight or 10 races, there will be those who question the legitimacy of the victory thanks to the limited nation of the season. But that would not be justified. Or, at least, it wouldn’t if we assume that if Hamilton does win, he does so in his usual style.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that eight races would not even make it the shortest world championship. The inaugural campaign in 1950 was held over just seven points-paying races, but in real terms it constituted only six events, given the anomalous inclusion of the Indianapolis 500.

This was put into the world championship to justify the name given the European calendar, even though the crossover between Indy car racing and F1 was non-existent. That’s not a question of the worthiness of the Indy 500, simply a question of compatibility. From 1950-1960, not a single driver who scored points at Indy did so in a regular grand prix, and the number who competed in both disciplines even occasionally was tiny. They were in no way part of the same world

The championship was similarly short in 1955, again interrupted by the anomalous Indy 500, and didn’t hit a double-digit number of races until 1958. Nobody would call into question Giuseppe Farina’s 1950 title – even if Fangio was the stronger performer – or the Argentinian’s five titles in this period on the basis of the brevity of the season.

It’s a very different time, you might counter, and you’d be right. The world championship has grown to become an all-encompassing competition rather than just covering the selected few ‘Grand Epreuves’, so the comparison isn’t entirely relevant.

Instead, we should be asking if a title won over just eight races would stand comparison with those either side that, assuming all goes as normal in 2021, would both have 20+ races. The answer to that is, probably, yes.

The 11-race 1958 F1 world championship was the first to be contested over more than 10 rounds. Image by LAT

Currently, the only form guide we have to go on is testing. That suggested that Mercedes, and therefore Hamilton, are clear world championship favorites. Based on the currently-available information, Hamilton should win the title – a stretch given that not a wheel has turned in anger, admittedly, but that’s as good as we’re going to get right now.

To that, we have to add many caveats. First, testing paints a muddy picture and things can change between that and the first race – doubly so when the gap between pre-season ending and the real battle starting is measured in a significant number of months. Second, we have no idea what the competitive order really is. But given the success of Mercedes over the previous six seasons, it’s hardly a stretch to make it favorite even if any of the drivers in the top three teams might have the means and opportunity – and certainly the motive – to win the title.

Therefore, were Hamilton to win the title over eight races, chances are he would also have won it over 22 races. Ergo, a worthy champion – even more so given we know how remarkable a driver he is, especially if his performances are similar to those of the past three seasons.

But you can even make a case that winning the title over a short run of races is more difficult than doing so over 22. Or, at least, the strongest competitor is more at the mercy of fate and misfortune.

In a 22-race season, one specific act of misfortune will cost you just 4.5% of your potential points. Say Hamilton suffered a catastrophic engine failure while leading, as he did in Malaysia 2016, that would hurt, but not disastrously so. Over just eight races, the same problem would wipe out 12.5% of the points potential. And with fewer races to make up for it, that would be a double blow.

Similarly, mistakes could be just as costly, which would make it more of a question of walking a tight-rope over the year because you know one slip could be the end. If you lose 25 points in one race, even three victories over your title rival complete with fastest lap would still leave you one point away from recovering the losses.

For that reason, you can therefore argue a longer championship is actually easier to win. Or rather, it’s more straightforward for the standout driver/car combination to prevail, because there are so many opportunities to press home that advantage.

Whether a driver is the worthy champion is not dependent on the number of races involved, but on the circumstances. While the old saying has it that the points table never lies, it can do just that. There have been plenty of times in a wide variety of categories that the standout driver has not won the title. If the best performer always won the championship, Michael Andretti would have more than one Champ Car title!

In 2016, Hamilton had plenty of opportunities to rebound from his engine problem in Malaysia. But such a setback would have different ramifications in an eight-round season. Image by Sutton Images

But Hamilton has become adept at playing the season in front of him. Every year, the challenge shifts a little, and he chips away to find the final few fractions of a percent in key areas. Last year, his focus was on overall race execution and understanding the ‘map’ of the race. While his radio messages sometimes suggested that had got away from him, he also delivered some superb, rounded race drives in difficult conditions.

Just as Adrian Newey has become adept over the years at spotting the key areas for finding performance allowed by the rules, so Hamilton adapts. While recent seasons have largely felt like a blur of silver as Hamilton dominated, each of his titles has been won in a subtly different way.

He also understands how to play the championship game. Last season, while attempting to take the lead from Charles Leclerc at Monza, he took to the runoff area after being squeezed by the Ferrari driver rather than have a collision. Why? Because he had the world championship in mind. A collision in that situation would have been a bigger negative than the potential gain of passing Leclerc, while a wipeout would have been a big setback.

But what a short championship would present Hamilton with is a different equation, one that would make it all the more important to get those judgment calls right. The 14-point swing against that losing the lead might result in has to be balanced against the risk of retiring. That would make things all the more intense and, in many ways, more difficult than usual.

That’s the thing about championship – the aim is simply to win them. The more races are held, the greater the chance of the ‘right’ champion but, as a result, the easier it is for the worthy winner to drive home their advantage.

An eight-race campaign would be unique in modern F1, and hopefully never to be repeated. For Hamilton’s legacy, it would actually reflect well on him if he did win it, especially considering the usual pattern is for him to start decently before hitting his stride. That said, despite teammate Valtteri Bottas’s fine start last year, Hamilton would still have won an eight-race championship that finished at Paul Ricard with a round to spare!

There is also the question of how a short championship might impact the balance of power of teams. For example, were the 2017 season to have stopped after eight races, Sebastian Vettel would have won the title thanks to Ferrari’s strong start. But in the final reckoning, the Italian team dropped off and Hamilton won the crown with ease.

That’s what is wonderfully engaging about a long championship: the opportunity for there to be ebbs and flows, punches and counter punches as both teams and drivers find their form and also have to battle adversity. That’s what a breathless eight-race championship, or even a 16-race calendar squeezed into double-header events – a possibility that can’t be ruled out if things don’t get going until late in the year – lacks.

That’s why the long championship of 16+ races is the ideal for F1. It allows the development of real storylines, tests the drivers over a sustained period of time. But that doesn’t mean the idea of a one-off, short, sharp championship doesn’t appeal.

And if Hamilton were to win it, and right now it’s impossible to say he would, surely the fact he conquered the ‘short form’ championship would only serve to add to his greatness as a driver?

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