Why is Lewis Hamilton struggling with his race starts?
Formula Spy's Thomas Maher analyses a feature of the first two races ahead of the Chinese Grand prix17:47 Thursday 14 April 2016, 17:47 14 Apr 2016
For the second time in two consecutive seasons, Lewis Hamilton's ability to get his car off the starting grid is causing him a headache.
Two pole positions in Australia and Bahrain have only resulted in races usually summed up as "damage control" (complete with a brave grimace), albeit with the bonus of a Sebastian Vettel retirement incredibly early in proceedings on Sunday at Sakhir.
The recent rule changes regarding the information given to a driver by his race engineer appear to have had some small effect on Hamilton so far in 2016, more so than his teammate Nico Rosberg. Information such as optimal revs, bite points, clutch settings etc. are now strictly verboten - the driver cannot be told anything along these lines once he's left the garage in his car. The clutch systems themselves have changed - gone are the dual paddle balancing acts that were fitted to the steering wheels last year. Now it's just a single clutch paddle, let out by the drivers at the critical moment. We've had two of those critical moments so far this year and on neither occasion has Hamilton sprinted off the line. Nico Rosberg has fared much better, cantering into an easy lead in Bahrain while, in Australia, he only managed to lose enough ground to Sebastian Vettel to be outbraked by him into the first corner. So, if it's not a Mercedes problem, is it Hamilton?
Last year, Rosberg managed to get in a strong mid-season with wins in Spain, Monaco and Austria. While Monaco was due to a strategic gaffe from Merc, Hamilton's poor starts in Spain and Austria made life quite easy for Rosberg. After the Bahrain race, Merc made technical changes to their clutch system - changes that Hamilton didn't appear to like. He changed back to an older clutch setup for the British GP and, while Williams stole a march at the start of that particular race, Hamilton's woes appeared cured for the rest of the season. These woes now appear to have returned and, with the new rules preventing a change back to what he has used previously, the onus is on him and Mercedes to fix the issue before Rosberg sails into the lead of another race.
Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg of Germany leads his teammate Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain after the start during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix, at the Formula One Bahrain International Circuit, in Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, April 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Mercedes say they believe the issue to be a mechanical one but may not be one that is fixed in the immediate short-term. Explaining that the team are working with Daimler to fix the problem for Hamilton, Wolff said after Bahrain: "We tend to believe it is more of a hardware issue than a control electronics problem. You can't solve that from one race to the other. When we will have results I am not sure yet." These comments would suggest that there is no need to calm Hamilton's nerves from a psychological point of view. The reigning Champion has been driving as well as he ever has over the two rounds so far; it's just those poor starts that end up putting him back in the pack where one can always fall victim to an overzealous attempt at an overtake. Hamilton's emotions are usually written all over his face and neither race so far appear to have gotten to him - starts have not traditionally been a weak point for him and there's no reason to think that's suddenly changed.
But a change that he does need to worry about is Nico Rosberg's form. The German's win in Bahrain was his fifth in a row (unfortunately for him, not in the same season), meaning he now equals the record of most consecutive wins without a world championship. Two controlling races in a row has set him up very nicely, with this season already taking on a similar dynamic to 2014 - Rosberg handed an early lead and Hamilton forced to play catch up. The next venue in China has been a strong one in the past for both men; Rosberg won his first Grand Prix here in 2012, but has yet to beat Hamilton as a team-mate in Shanghai. His 17 point lead means that he can come home P2 to Hamilton for the next two races, and still return to Europe leading the title chase.
Another man who has won with ease in Shanghai is Sebastian Vettel, who heads there having borne the disappointment of having his first ever DNS (Did Not Start) in Bahrain. A glum Vettel was forced to watch from the garage after an engine failure on the formation lap, and he dutifully cheered on Kimi Raikkonen as the Finn recovered from bogging down at the start of the race. With Raikkonen roughly able to match Rosberg's pace throughout, Vettel must have thought it was a possible win that got away, considering his usual pace advantage over the 2007 Champion. Had his Ferrari been in P2 at the end of Lap 1 instead of Williams' Felipe Massa, then the result could have been very different in Bahrain.
Reliability looks to be Ferrari's cross to bear this year. The team reportedly turned their engines up fully in Bahrain qualifying, the first time they have done so since testing. A software problem then resulted in the engine blowing up at low revs, although the team didn't go into detail about whether this was related to the stress caused. With no track running between Q3 and the race, Vettel's engine failed almost instantly after this little trial, suggesting Ferrari will have to continue to run their engines with some caution for a while yet. A performance issue affecting Ferrari appears to be that of being unable to utilise their deployed energy for the entirety of a straight - a similar issue to what crippled the McLaren-Hondas in 2015. The 1.2 kilometres back straight at Shanghai Circuit is the longest in Formula 1 - meaning that Ferrari may not be able to challenge Mercedes too hard this weekend. A clearer picture of whether the Prancing Horse can legitimately challenge the Silver Arrows on pace awaits.
Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.
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