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Will Poor Starts Cost Lewis Hamilton the Formula 1 Drivers' Championship?

Lewis Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix.Charles Coates/Getty Images
Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2016

By now it has become an all-to-familiar refrain to the 2016 Formula One season. Again, at Sunday's Italian Grand PrixLewis Hamilton made a poor start from pole position that cost him a chance at victory.

Hamilton has qualified first at seven of the 14 grands prix so far this year, but he has won just three of those races. His record from pole is not quite as bad as that of his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, two years ago, but like Rosberg, his inability to turn Saturday speed into Sunday wins could end up costing him the drivers' championship.

Back in 2014, Rosberg converted just three of his 11 poles into race wins, a historically awful mark. In fact, of the 12 drivers to score at least 10 poles in a single season, Rosberg's 27 per cent win-conversion rate is the worst (tied with Mika Hakkinen's 1999 season).

Hamilton is on pace for 10 or 11 poles this year, and his 43 percent conversion rate would also rank near the bottom of that list.

Earlier this year, I questioned whether Mercedes' poor starts might cost them the constructors' championship, but their cars are so much faster than everyone else's that they can usually make up any places they lose on the first lap. The one person the Merc drivers have trouble passing if they fall behind is their team-mate.

Instead, the question should be: Will Lewis Hamilton's poor starts cost him a third straight drivers' championship?

When the lights went out at Monza, Hamilton seemed to be moving in slow motion as Rosberg and four other cars streamed past him before the first corner. When he finally reemerged in second place, Hamilton was nearly 15 seconds adrift of Rosberg—a gap that proved impossible to make up.

Rosberg's victory means Hamilton's lead in the drivers' championship is down to just two points, but it could be so much larger. In just the four races he has lost from pole, poor starts have potentially cost him 49 points.

Lewis Hamilton's 2016 Results from Pole Position
RaceStartedFinishedPotential Points Lost
Australia1st2nd7
Bahrain1st3rd10
Spain1stDNF25
Canada1st1st
Austria1st1st
Great Britain1st1st
Italy1st2nd7
Total49
Formula1.com

Of course, he may not have won all of those races even with quick starts, but he has definitely left some points on the table.

Mercedes' start problems, which have also affected Rosberg (though not to the same extent), have been ongoing since last year and were exacerbated by new race-start regulations that put more control in the drivers' hands.

Hamilton actually predicted as much when the new rules were announced, telling the official F1 website: "There is such a differential between the first [formation lap] and the real start, there will be a lot of people getting bad starts."

Back in April, executive director Toto Wolff said the team was working to improve their clutches, per Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble.

Obviously, a solution has not yet been found. In the post-race press conference in Italy, Hamilton said: "We have a relatively inconsistent clutch and it's hard to...In the past we were able to be told our clutch temperature, and it was easier to hit our target as well, but now it's a lot less easy to know what your clutch is going to be delivering and what it's not."

Ironically, Hamilton and Mercedes' struggles have been good for F1 fans. With Mercedes' dominance over the last three years, there have been many, many complaints that the sport is too predictable and not competitive enough.

Sure, the Silver Arrows have still won 13 of 14 races this year, but at least you can't count on them to make a perfect start and ride off into the sunset. At Monza, it took Hamilton a whole 16 laps to fight his way back to second place and set up a one-two formation finish with Rosberg.

OK, it's not a Gilles Villeneuve-Rene Arnoux duel to the finish, but it's something!

Hamilton's fourth world championship is there for the taking. He is driving the best car, leading the title chase with just seven grands prix remaining and his 55-place penalty at the Belgian Grand Prix ensures he will have enough engine parts for the rest of the year.

Lewis Hamilton during free practice for the Italian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton during free practice for the Italian Grand Prix.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

However, this year's championship battle also looks like it will be the closest of Hamilton's three head-to-head contests with Rosberg. With seven races remaining in 2014, there was a 29-point gap between the Mercedes team-mates (although Rosberg was leading), and in 2015, it was 53.

Only two drivers in F1 history—Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna—have more pole positions than Hamilton's 56. Three months from now, though, if he does not start converting more of them into victories, we may find ourselves pointing to that failure as one of the key factors in Rosberg's first drivers' championship.

          

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:

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