F1’s comeback kings

Vettel and Hamilton 2018 Singapore GP

History is on Hamilton’s side in the battle for title number five

Vettel and Hamilton 2018 Singapore GP

Sebastian Vettel has a mountain to climb if he’s to beat Lewis Hamilton to a fifth world title.

History indeed suggests strongly that it’s beyond his reach already.

His personal experiences, however, are proof of the benefit of never giving up.

Sixteen of the world championships since 1950 have been won by a late run on the rails.

Nelson Piquet has done it twice (1981 and 1983).

And only Vettel can match that.

The German lay fifth in the standings after approximately 70% of the 2010 season – the spread for the purposes of this article ranges from 68.8% (1976, 1982, 1984 and 1986) to 75% (1956 and 1961) – had been completed.

He’d have to score 160 in the remaining rounds of 2018…

Vettel’s gap to points leader and Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber was 24 with five rounds remaining.

Two years later he lay third – 29 behind Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – with six remaining.

As percentages of the points still available to Vettel – 125 in 2010 and 150 in 2012 – those gaps equated to 19.2 and 19.3% respectively.

His current gap to Hamilton – 40 with 150 up for grabs – equates to 26.7%.

Larger such deficits have been overcome: Ferrari’s John Surtees, for example, bridged a 13-point gap in 1964 when just 27 were available to him.

  Year Driver Points: Gap/Available (Gross)
1 1964 John Surtees 48.10%
2 1983 Nelson Piquet 38.90%
3 1982 Keke Rosberg 35.60%
4 2007 Kimi Räikkönen 32%
5 1976 James Hunt 24.40%
=5 1986 Alain Prost  
6 1961 Phil Hill 22.20%
7 1997 Jacques Villeneuve 22%
8 1974 Emerson Fittipaldi 19.40%
9 2012 Sebastian Vettel 19.30%
10 2010 Sebastian Vettel 19.20%
11 1981 Nelson Piquet 16.70%
12 1984 Niki Lauda 10%
13 1956 Juan Fangio 5.60%
14 1999 Mika Häkkinen 4%
14 2000 Michael Schumacher  

There are extenuating circumstances in the above table – not least the injuries sustained and absences incurred by erstwhile points leaders Didier Pironi (1982) and Niki Lauda (1976) plus the calamitous fatal accident suffered by Wolfgang von Trips (1961).

Then there’s the ticklish problem of dropped scores – a factor in F1’s drivers’ championships until 1990.

For example, just 14 points of a theoretical maximum of 18 were available to Juan Fangio in 1956 – when only a driver’s five best scores counted.

This could affect the quarry as well as the hunter. Fangio’s Ferrari team-mate Peter Collins, one point ahead after six rounds, had 15 available to him.

A further complication that season was the awarding of the final point to the setter of the fastest lap rather than a Grand Prix’s sixth-placed finisher.

More: 2018 Singapore Grand Prix report

Another twist was that drivers could swap cars during a GP and share the points earned by their best placing, which is precisely what Fangio and Collins had done in Monaco and would do so again in the finale at Monza.

The latter practice would go unrewarded as from 1958 and fastest laps after 1960 would earn only bragging rights.

Back to Vettel.

His comebacks of 2010 and 2012 were notably efficient.

On the former occasion he grabbed 93 points of the maximum 125 available to him (74.4%).

The latter was even better: 116 of 150 (77.3%).

In contrast Piquet required just 30.5% of his potential maximum to pip a fatalistic Carlos Reutemann to the 1981 title.

  Year Driver Points: Earned/Available (Net)
1 2000 Schumacher 92%
2 1961 Hill 90%*
3 2007 Raïkkönen 84%
4 1964 Surtees 77.7%
5 2012 Vettel 77.3%
6 1986 Prost 76.9%*
7 2010 Vettel 74.4%
8 1984 Lauda 73.3%
9 1976 Hunt 68.9%
10 1956 Fangio 64.3%*
11 1983 Piquet 61.1%
12 1997 Villeneuve 52%
=12 1974 Fittipaldi 50%
13 1982 Rosberg 46.7%
14 1999 Häkkinen 44%
15 1981 Piquet 30.6%

* Dropped scores a factor

Despite the spread within the above table, all bar two – 1961 and 2000 – of these title battles went down to the wire.

And as relentless as their chases were both Surtees and Prost also benefited from the errors/help of others.

Had not Graham Hill’s BRM broken a driveshaft at the start at Monza in 1964 or had not its exhausts been crumpled by Surtees’ Ferrari team-mate Lorenzo Bandini at Mexico City…

And had not Nigel Mansell’s Williams broken a driveshaft when running second at Österreichring in 1986 or had not its driver neglected to select first gear on the grid at Mexico City…

(I’m ignoring that Adelaide blowout in the interest of stylistic symmetry.)

Both of Vettel’s charges required the assistance of the modern snafus of a more reliable age – a strategic hiccough (in Abu Dhabi in 2010) and a tyre sliced open by an endplate (at the first corner at Suzuka in 2012) – to twice hunt down Alonso.

It would be an even more remarkable achievement should he catch Hamilton.

For Vettel’s 2010 and 2012 suggest that every point in deficit at this stage of a season requires four to overcome it.

That means he’d have to score 160 in the remaining rounds of 2018.

Given that only 150 are left begging he’s likely to fall short even if he strings together the greatest outro of F1 history.

Given that his rival has never seemed more assured and that his Mercedes has failed to finish just once in 2018…

And given that Vettel’s Ferrari team-mate Räikkönen – a man who knows what it’s like to chase down Hamilton for a world title – is very likely to be racing for himself having been dropped for 2019…

Yep, it’s a done deal: five for Hamilton.

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