Games of chance - does lady luck play a role?

I’d imagine that, even if you are not one who cares a great deal about football, you will still have noticed the World Cup that’s been going on just lately. You could hardly not.

A World Cup as you’re probably also aware is attributed with considerable importance. It has the status of football’s ultimate prize, and also in many quarters its ultimate indicator of quality. Its winner almost always is considered worthy; often as the best side in the world. Sometimes even the victorious country is thought to offer a model more generally for others to imitate.

Given these assumptions I therefore was intrigued to read an article by football writer Jonathan Wilson, which – citing the unlikely source of British ‘long ball’ merchant Charles Reep – outlined that the World Cup’s barometer status is a little absurd, or at least is not necessarily reliable. This is because it reckons without a crucial part of what decides who comes out on top – that intangible yet ubiquitous matter of random chance. 

The concentrated World Cup tournament containing no more the seven games –and as England found out perhaps as few as two before you’re mathematically goners – simply isn't long enough for the distribution of that mysterious thing called luck to work itself out; to fall equitably. ‘The rub of the green’ therefore plays a major role in who triumphs.

Furthermore, while one alternative assumption in football is that instead performance over a whole season is a robust indicator of quality even there is not enough time, or even nearly enough, to claim this. Wilson noted further that James Walmsley, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, hypothesises that a football season would have to be seven years long before the luck on offer has had an opportunity to level itself.

And to bring this all to F1 (which is why we’re here presumably), perhaps in this game things are even more vulnerable to fortune, even more volatile, than is the case in football. Random chance has even more of a say in who gets the big prizes.

Just like a football season we often view whoever tops the points pile at the end of an F1 season as irrefutable. ‘You can’t luck into championships’ we are often heard to say. Those who miss out, even if it is narrowly, often get scrutinised as to what ‘went wrong’, sometimes unsympathetically. 

And of course often it is the case that the champion is indeed worthy – certainly looking back through history there are very few Formula One World Champions that can be considered undeserving. So we should be wary of stretching this thread of thinking too far. But even so, it doesn’t preclude that a mere card or two falling the other way has the potential to tilt a title into someone else’s hands.

Moreover while a football season has between 30 and 40 games – or ‘events’ – in which the luck can shake out the F1 calendar even in its bloated state has but about half, with 19. And as any scientist would tell you the lower the base size is the greater the potential is for volatile, unusual, perhaps inequitable, outcomes.  

Further an F1 weekend likely has much more scope for volatile outcomes than does a football game. Even if something goes against you in a football game you’ll only lose a single goal at most (or perhaps more traumatically have a player sent off) and still have the rest of the game in which you can make up for it. In F1 a single instance of ill-fortune or error can ruin your entire weekend at that very moment. Not necessarily even in the race either; how often have we heard an F1 driver talk of the importance of a ‘clean weekend’? How often has unreliability or a mistake in qualifying and even in free practice never fully been recovered from by the time that the chequered flag drops?

And thoughts on these sorts of matters maybe were nagging at Lewis Hamilton in the weeks prior to the British Grand Prix. In this 2014 campaign it is hard to cite too many occasions on which he has not been the raw pace-setter, on which his stable mate Nico Rosberg has had the legs of him all else being equal. But somehow – and again thanks in large part to that entity called random chance – before the British round things then all totalled up to a 29 point advantage for Nico in the drivers' table.

A major part is that at that point Lewis had two mechanical retirements on his record to Nico’s zero. And the modern points system is one that really punishes a DNF (that’s a matter that could fill an article on its own). To illustrate, assuming the Mercs will lead the way everywhere this year and both finish it takes an uninterrupted run of four victories to make up for just one instance of nil points.

What's more, while some may state at this point that part of what was going on was Nico being metronomic and avoiding error – attributes sometimes held in contrast to Lewis who of course twice goofed up in Austrian qualifying – in the Monaco-Canada-Austria trio of rounds wherein there was a 32 point swing to Nico if anything the German erred the more frequently. If you don’t believe me think of his disappearing down an escape road in Monaco quali, missing the final chicane in the Montreal race, and running off the road at turn one on Austria's race day also. Yet thanks in large part to chance (and generous tarmac run-off areas) in none of those cases has Nico had a glove landed on him as a result. Indeed in the first of the three it proved to be to his benefit…

Plenty hammered Lewis for ceding the ground in the table to his team-mate, but the role in it all of dumb luck wasn’t given as much of an airing.

It was fairly common too to hear comments to the effect that such matters – whether it be in car breakdowns or in driving errors being punished – had to level itself out and thus work back in Lewis’s favour over the remainder of the season. When a broken gearbox took Nico out of the recent Silverstone race no doubt those espousing the view will have felt vindicated to a large extent.  

But while such levelling out can (and to an extent, did) happen, there is no reason that it has to. Unrelated events cannot be related. Assuming that they can is a fallacy.

And Lewis it appeared knew as much, judging by his words on this very matter upon being asked before Silverstone whether his team-mate was ‘due’ a retirement or two: ‘I’m not convinced that’s the case’ he said. ‘I cannot rely on that. I just have to focus on doing better than him.’

Lewis’s experiences of this year, up until the British round at the very least, put me a little in mind of those of his compatriot Nigel Mansell 27 years earlier, in the 1987 campaign. ‘Our Nige’ a lot like Lewis was well known for his speed and bravery. Like Lewis he often wore his heart on his sleeve. Like Lewis he that campaign was the quickest pretty much everywhere. Like Lewis he had markedly the best car, and his main title opposition came from across the garage (in his case, from Nelson Piquet). Like Lewis he always had a strange and seemingly perpetual capacity to attract drama, but unfortunately for him that drama on occasion manifested itself in the form of extreme foul luck.

And so it was for Mansell in that season that the foul luck arrived early and then never fully lifted.  Round one in Brazil he punctured meaning he finished only sixth; round two at Imola he won; round three at Spa he retired after tangling with Senna, trying the wrest the lead from him on lap one (rarely a good idea); round four in Monaco he led by a mile only for his exhaust to fail; round five in Detroit he disappeared into the distance again only for a dud pit stop, fading brakes and cramp in his leg to conspire to sink him to fifth by the end. It all meant that he was but in fifth place in the table at this point, with only half the total of the leader.

After that fifth round Mansell, perhaps displaying some fallacious thinking of the sort outlined above, commented: ‘I’m confident I’ve had my problems for the year.’ And indeed it looked that way as he followed it up immediately with two fine wins. But then fate cruelly struck again. In Germany in an occurrence almost unheard of at the time his Honda engine failed; in Hungary, somehow, a wheel nut fell off in the closing laps after he again had the place to himself; in Portugal his car failed again and then, as if his ill luck was building up to a grand, show-stopping, crescendo, he missed the final two rounds of the campaign injured after a smash in Suzuka practice. 

And while all this was going on Piquet although almost never on Mansell’s pace was finishing pretty much everywhere, with no mechanical retirements since round three and he wrapped up the title at the point that Mansell hurt his back in Japan. And almost underlining that the fates were possessed with a wicked sense of irony there then was a final strike as Piquet finally experienced two mechanical retirements in those two season-ending races that Mansell sat out while convalescing.

One hopes for Lewis’s sake that the parallels with Mansell’s 1987 year are not absolute. But whatever is the case it should all act as a general reminder that we should not necessarily scathe those that are behind, or even necessarily laud those at the top as having got the job done. Random chance is a big player, and we shouldn’t forget as much.

Perhaps it’s understandable that we develop a certain blindness to the influence of random chance in this game, given F1 defines itself frequently as the most precise of sports, one wherein everything imaginable and some things unimaginable are sought to be controlled and accounted for. In this spirit too any audible laments of bad luck often are given short shrift. But even within F1 there is still plenty of space for some things simply just to happen. And it often does. And no it's not always fair either. It’s just luck.