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Poor Starts, Not Engine Problems, Will Cost Lewis Hamilton the F1 Championship

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2016

Lewis Hamilton finished third in Japan, but yet another poor start might end up costing him the title.
Lewis Hamilton finished third in Japan, but yet another poor start might end up costing him the title.Clive Rose/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton's poor start—yes, another one—at Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix may end up being one too many for the defending champion to handle.

As the red lights blinked out, Hamilton, starting second, barely moved off the line and was immediately swarmed by the cars behind him. By the exit of Turn 1, he had fallen to eighth place, his championship hopes slipping away as his team-mate and rival, Nico Rosberg, disappeared down the road.

Shortly afterward, the television broadcast picked up his team radio. "Sorry, guys," Hamilton said, the disappointment evident in his voice.

For all the fuss made after the Malaysian Grand Prix about Hamilton's engine problems and the squawking from conspiracy theorists who believe Mercedes are sabotaging their own driver, if Hamilton loses the championship (and that seems certain), it will be because of his poor starts.

Car problems happen to everyone in Formula One. That is the nature of the sport, where machines built as light as possible are pushed to their limits for two hours at a time, often in extreme temperatures. Sure, sometimes one driver or another will have an extra failure or two, but everyone has to deal with them.

But while the drivers cannot control engine and gearbox failures, they can control their starts. And quite often this year, Hamilton has messed them up.

Formula 1 @F1

⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️ ⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️ LIGHTS OUT! HAM bogs down off the grid! ROS leads the #JapaneseGP, PER up to P3 #F1 https://t.co/reubHaSGbQ

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To be fair, Rosberg has had problems with his starts too—just not as frequently. And Mercedes admitted back in April they had problems with their clutch, per Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble. Still, if you were to pick one factor that has swung the championship from Hamilton to Rosberg, it would be Hamilton's poor starts.

"If you gauge my season, then the championship could be lost by starts," Hamilton said after the Italian Grand Prix in September, when he started on pole and was fifth after the first corner, per the BBC's Andrew Benson. "From a lot of pole positions, I've lost the race from the start."

Hamilton scored his 100th podium finish at Suzuka on Sunday, but it was bittersweet. In the post-race press conference, he repeatedly paid tribute to his team, who secured their third straight constructors' title with Rosberg's win and Hamilton's third-place finish.

When asked to explain his poor start, though, and whether dampness on his side of the grid played a part, he said: "I don't think the damp patch had really anything to do with it. I just...made a mistake, and then just working my way up from there was tricky, but y'know, I did the best I could."

Later in the press conference, Hamilton was asked if he explain in more detail what happened. "Not really," he said. "I just got wheelspin."

Formula 1 @F1

Nothing came easily for @LewisHamilton at today's #JapaneseGP 🇯🇵 Start = 😱 Second half of the race = 💪 https://t.co/ChxCTADjck

That inability to explain or find a solution to their starting problems has characterised Mercedes' season. In fact, the problems with race starts date back to 2015. Somehow, despite a massive budget and hundreds of employees, the team has yet to find an answer.

For Hamilton, the worst part about the Japanese Grand Prix result is that, for the first time, it takes his championship fate out of his own hands.

Arriving at Suzuka, Hamilton sat 23 points behind Rosberg but could at least take comfort in the knowledge that, if he won the remaining five races of the year, he would be champion no matter what Rosberg did.

Now, down 33 points with four races left, Hamilton could win out, and all Rosberg would have to do is follow him home in second at each race to claim his first title.

Nico Rosberg celebrates his victory in Japan.
Nico Rosberg celebrates his victory in Japan.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Although Rosberg said in the post-race press conference that "there’s no point in changing my approach now, so I’m sticking with what I’m doing because it’s working well," the knowledge that he doesn't need to win will certainly be in the back of his mind.

It means he can be slightly more conservative and that we should not see a reappearance of the uncontrolled aggression that nearly derailed him earlier in the season.

The Englishman, meanwhile, has gone five races without a victory. His last win came in the German Grand Prix at the end of July. Despite his dominant run of six wins in seven races between Monaco and Germany, you get the feeling this just might not be his year.

Hamilton may be a better driver than Rosberg, but in F1, the best driver doesn't always win—especially if he cannot get off the start line.

       

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: @MatthewWalthert

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