Lewis Hamilton: The Moral Champion?

Before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last weekend, which represented the final chapter of the 2016 title battle between the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, both title protagonists attended a special press conference where only the two of them were present.

When quizzed about his prospects of overturning a 12-point deficit to Rosberg, the Briton responded that regardless of the outcome of the title race, he felt that he, and not the German, was the “moral champion” of 2016. While this comment flew under the radar somewhat given the focus on the pair’s on-track duel, it is a claim worth discussing.

Why did Hamilton call himself the moral champion?

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Hamilton’s claim that he was the deserving winner of the 2016 title stems largely from frustrations caused by a variety of outside misfortunes that have blighted his campaign. The Briton suffered a myriad of reliability problems, especially in the first half of the season, while a late-season engine failure while leading the Malaysian Grand Prix proved especially detrimental to his title hopes. The three-time world champion has made no secret of the fact that he considers himself to be an inherently quicker driver than Rosberg, the implication being that he would have won the 2016 title if he had not suffered due to external circumstances.

Was Hamilton correct to call himself the moral champion?

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg

There is certainly a component of truth in Hamilton’s claim that he deserved to win this year’s world championship. Some of his performances, such as the wet races in Monaco, Great Britain and Brazil, were absolutely top-tier, and his late-season charge, which saw him win the last four races of the season, was majestic. It is true that Hamilton, at times, made unnecessary mistakes that made his task all the harder.

The European Grand Prix in Baku springs to mind, which saw the Briton slide the rear of his Mercedes into the wall during qualifying. On the whole, however, his lap-by-lap performances over the course of 2016 were up to the standard that can be expected from one of the sport’s top drivers. In addition, throughout the year, Rosberg was never able to successfully overtake Hamilton out on circuit, except during the initial sprint down towards the first corner at the start of the race. In light of all of this, the outgoing world champion certainly has some justification for feeling that he did everything in his power to secure the title and as such, deserved to win.

On the other hand, Hamilton’s opinion that he is the true winner of the 2016 championship is just that: an opinion. A similar argument can be made for several different drivers when it comes to discussing candidates for the title of “moral champion of 2016”.

For example, Daniel Ricciardo has consistently delivered over the course of the season and should have, some argue, been the race winner in both Spain and Monaco. He dealt excellently with the much-heralded arrival of Max Verstappen to the Red Bull senior team, and while he has not dominated the youngster, he has certainly held his own. Verstappen himself has done a sterling job of adapting to his new spot at the sharp end of proceedings, earning a race win and a string of podium finishes and proving time and time again that he will have a big role to play in the future of Formula 1.

Further down the grid, Fernando Alonso did as a well as could reasonably have been expected of him in an uncompetitive McLaren-Honda package. It could equally well be argued that all three of these drivers (as well as several others) would have been deserving world champions if they had only had the required machinery at their disposal. After all, just like Hamilton, these drivers were hampered by circumstances beyond their control. For the Briton, these circumstances came in the form of reliability concerns. For the above-mentioned drivers, their respective teams’ inability to produce a title-winning package, at least for 2016, played a significant part in their lack of a genuine title bid, despite their own performances. After all, there is not a direct link between their efforts and the quality of their machinery.

The above argument is not isolated purely to the 2016 season. The history of the sport is filled with seasons where a given driver may have won the title if one or two things had gone their way at crucial moments. Several of these seasons have occurred within the last decade. For instance, there are those who believe that Felipe Massa is (to use Hamilton’s expression) the moral champion of the 2008 season, when it looked like he had done enough to claim the crown, only for Hamilton to deny him at the last moment. Similarly, it can be argued that Alonso is the moral champion of both 2010 and 2012, given that he managed to keep his title bid alive until the final round of those respective seasons, despite competing against Sebastian Vettel’s superior Red Bull challengers.

In short, while Lewis Hamilton is free to argue that he is the true champion of the 2016 season, and may have some good reasons to put forth in defence of this opinion, he does not hold the exclusive right to award the title of “moral champion”.

In the end, every member of the F1 community, be they driver, team member or fan, will have their own subjective opinion of who was the most deserving driver in a given season. Hamilton’s suggestion that he, rather than Rosberg, is most deserving of the title of 2016 Formula 1 World Champion does a disservice to the German’s efforts over the course of the season. Few would challenge the Briton’s opinion that he is generally the more skilled driver of the Mercedes pair. After all, his results over the course of his Formula 1 career and head-to-head against Rosberg give weight to that viewpoint.

However, few would also challenge the opinion that 2016 has been the finest year of Rosberg’s career in the sport. While still not as blessed as Hamilton in the area of raw talent, the German has shown a consistency, focus and resilience to pressure this year that he has not always had in the past. He is a deserving and legitimate winner of the crown, even if Hamilton remains (and is always likely to be) the superior driver overall.

In the end, Hamilton is free to award himself the title of “moral champion” for 2016 if he so chooses. However, not everybody has to agree with him, because the “moral champion” isn’t awarded a trophy. The only driver who receives a trophy is the one that scores the most points over the course of the season. And while that driver has been Hamilton on no fewer than three occasions in the past, and may well be him again in the future, he is not that driver for 2016.

Adriaan Slabbert

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