Rosberg leads criticism of Hamilton – but is it justified?


Ex-F1 drivers – with Nico Rosberg and Ralf Schumacher amongst the vociferous – have criticised Hamilton's 2022 campaign, but does the evidence back up the opinions?

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 08: 2016 F1 World Drivers Champion Nico Rosberg talks with Martin Brundle and Simon Lazenby on Sky Sports F1 TV before the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 8, 2017 in Suzuka. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Nico Rosberg led the criticism of Hamilton – but was it backed up by strong evidence?

Lars Baron/Getty Images

It’s great that we have such an array of ex-Formula 1 drivers around the offer their insight into the current scene. Their views as pundits have weight and have been earned. But there is a hazard which they can very easily fall into – and that’s the instant judgement.

There’s a distinction here between those whose role is to analyse in depth and those who are simply providing snappy summaries of a controversy or a trend. But the temptation to not look beyond the headline in giving a view can lead to them voicing conclusions that a bit of deeper analysis would see them backing away from.

The current pile-in seems to be the form of Lewis Hamilton. Because George Russell is well ahead on points and finished fourth at Imola to Hamilton’s 13th, the rush to judge from many ex-driver pundits was very evident.

Nico Rosberg was the most high-profile of them, as an ex-team mate at Mercedes. Discussing how uncompetitive the Mercedes W13 currently is, he made the following distinction: “Hang on.. let’s remember that Russell is in P4 with that same car. So Lewis definitely had a big role to play in that poor result this weekend.”

George Russell Mercedes FOrmula 1 2022 Imola

Russell has got the better of Hamilton overall in ’22 so far – but does that tell the whole story?

Grand Prix Photo

In the sense that their respective tyre warm-up laps in Q2 ended up being their qualifying laps because of a red flag and that Russell’s was a few tenths quicker than Hamilton’s, then yes. Because that was the only reason they both failed to graduate into Q3 and why they qualified 11th and 13th respectively. Their lowly positions in the Sprint (11th and 14th) as they were each caught in DRS trains then defined their grid positions for the grand prix. The left-hand-side of the grid was on the racing line and much more of the previous rainfall had been cleared by the preceding F2 race than the right-hand side. Teams were analysing afterwards that difference was worth two-and-a-half car lengths in acceleration in the first 100 metres. So Russell was straight up to seventh (soon to be sixth as Valtteri Bottas hit the spinning Daniel Ricciardo) while Hamilton was only 12th. That was their races defined. For the whole race Hamilton was never behind a car which wasn’t being towed by the car in front around a track which remained damp off line in the braking areas. Russell managed to tow past Kevin Magnussen’s defenceless Haas (which did not have the benefit of a tow). That’s all that happened – a cascading difference between them all going back to their respective Q2 laps which were not even supposed to be their actual qualifying laps.

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Sometimes racing is just like that. There will be a particular set of circumstances which skew things – and it will have absolutely nothing to do with merit. That’s no criticism of Russell, who absolutely nailed the opportunities presented to him. But that’s not the same as castigating the guy who didn’t, just by random chance, get the same opportunities.

The impression given by some pundits is that their respective races at Imola were representative of their seasons to date. “He has to ask himself why George Russell is so much faster than him,” said Ralf Schumacher. “A 13th place is of course not Hamilton’s ambition. He has to admit to himself that Russell is the better driver right now. If this continues in the next few weeks, it will be exciting in the team. There could be changes in the ranking.”

What? Why Russell is so much faster than him? Prior to the peculiar red flag-randomised circumstances of Imola qualifying, Hamilton was 2-1 up in qualifying, 0.204s faster in Bahrain, 0.108s ahead in Melbourne. Hamilton was on the podium in Bahrain, a place ahead. Hamilton – and not Russell – would have been on the podium in Australia were it not for the safety car coming just after Hamilton had pitted but before Russell had, thereby giving George a 10s advantage for free. Only in Jeddah was Hamilton genuinely behind his team mate, after going for an experimental set up in qualifying which just didn’t work. There is absolutely no evidence that Hamilton is lacking his team mate’s speed. Just a random set of circumstances in a tiny sample of four races.

Lewis Hamilton Imola GP 2022

Hamilton’s performances have been more positive than the numbers initially suggest

Grand Prix Photo

Jacques Villeneuve can usually be relied upon to give a feisty controversial opinion. But at Imola he was actually the voice of reason. “He won’t keep having such terrible weekends and he will beat Russell. But it won’t be easy being the head of the Mercedes team right now… A big star like this is great if you win, it gets you a lot of exposure. But if he doesn’t win, the backlash is so much bigger. A champion doesn’t have the right to not be competitive.”

Let’s wait for a more statistically representative set of data points before we rush to judge.