Given the pre-race expectation that Red Bull had the fastest car, Lewis Hamilton’s 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix victory stands as a relative underdog performance.
He certainly felt it was a race where he had “to pull out extra in order to make the difference”, and that there had been “been many in the past” as well to go with races where he’s had a clear car advantage.
So where does Bahrain 2021 rank among Hamilton’s unlikely, unexpected or underdog wins? Here’s our ranking of them:
10. MONACO 2019
There’s a debate over whether this one was a miracle win or a case of Hamilton’s amount of radio angst being disproportionate to the situation he found himself in. There was certainly an emotional load on the Mercedes team that week following the death of Niki Lauda, which perhaps played into the tension.
The facts are that Hamilton’s strategy forced him to go to medium tyres from lap 14 of the 78-lap Monaco Grand Prix. The compound really wasn’t supposed to last that long, with the very fast Red Bull of Max Verstappen on his tail and on the preferable hards (but with a five-second penalty for an unsafe pit release to factor in too).
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 27, 2019
Hamilton certainly didn’t expect his tyres to make it, and was convinced there would be a late pitcall or a dramatic blowout.
There wasn’t, but he also had to rebuff a Verstappen passing bid that included contact between them late on
Certainly a very hard-earned victory at a very tough time for Mercedes. Perhaps, on reflection, not as miraculous as the initial portrayal suggested.
9. SPAIN 2017
This was in the thick of Mercedes’ ‘diva car’ months, when Ferrari had a more driver-friendly and raceable machine and Sebastian Vettel was starting to look like a title favourite.
So when Vettel jumped poleman Hamilton off the line at Barcelona and started to edge away early on, things looked like they were slipping away from Mercedes again.
But through Mercedes keeping Valtteri Bottas out long to provide an obstacle for Vettel after the Ferrari’s first stop and creating a tyre offset by putting Hamilton on mediums rather than softs when he pitted, a VSC falling at an ideal time for Hamilton’s next stop and then finally some thrilling wheelbanging battling on track, Hamilton ended up getting a vital victory and regaining championship fight momentum.
8. MONACO 2016
Remarkably, it took 2014/15 champion Hamilton until round six of the 2016 season in Monaco to win a race that year.
And that triumph still required a little bit of magic and luck to make it happen.
Hamilton had only qualified third, and spent the early laps on a damp track trapped behind struggling Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
By the time a team order request went in, Hamilton was 13s adrift of Ricciardo’s Red Bull.
Ricciardo was mighty that weekend, and Hamilton couldn’t close the gap on sheer driving brilliance.
What he did manage to do was keep his wet tyres going long enough to skip the baby step of a wets-to-intermediates pitstop that Ricciardo did, and go straight to ultra-soft slicks instead.
Even then, this was still set to be Ricciardo’s race had his mighty in-lap pace not been wasted when a late Red Bull call to go for super-softs not softs (in response to Mercedes putting Hamilton on ultra-softs when he pitted the previous lap) led to a chaotic 10-second pitstop.
Ricciardo came back at Hamilton aggressively but never managed to retake the lead of a race he deserved to win.
7. CHINA 2011
A fuel system problem almost forced Hamilton to have to start the race from the pitlane, and even when that disaster was averted, a race win still looked unlikely when he seemed to be suffering worse from tyre degradation in the opening stint than his many rivals for victory in a wide-open race.
But committing early to a three-stop strategy set up a brilliant Hamilton charge in a race that proved to be a very good advert for the then-new era of high-deg Pirelli tyres and DRS use.
It came down to Hamilton versus top two-stoppers Felipe Massa and Vettel, and though Vettel did an excellent job of fending off the faster-tyred McLaren for as long as possible and forcing Hamilton to get creative, a move into the fast Turn 7 finally settled it for Hamilton with just five laps left.
6. BAHRAIN 2021
This year’s opener wasn’t the only time Hamilton has managed to win a grand prix in a slightly slower car, but there were a few elements that cement its place in his top 10 against-the-odds triumphs.
The extent to which Mercedes trailed going into the race was one. A mix of Hamilton overperforming and then the perfectly pulled-off undercut strategy hid it a little, but as the race progressed and Verstappen closed in it became very clear that there had been no repeat of Mercedes’ 2019 eleventh hour turnaround – it really was slower than Red Bull.
Then there were the circumstances of the final shootout. Verstappen going off the track, race control’s rapid decision over it, and Verstappen losing enough ground and tyre life to prevent a second attack added up to let Hamilton steal the win.
In retrospect it probably could have all been solved with a DRS pass on the main straight next time around, but Verstappen wasn’t wrong to try to make the most of his very first chance to try to take the lead. You don’t waste opportunities against Hamilton. But you also need to make sure you succeed when you try to take them.
5. HUNGARY 2009
Once the first stint of the race was done, there wasn’t too much of the unlikely about Hamilton’s 2009 Hungaroring win.
He’d made sharp use of his McLaren-Mercedes’ KERS boost to make early progress from fourth to second, then grabbed the lead when polesitter Fernando Alonso’s race fell apart at an early first pitstop, before leaving pursuers Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber behind.
It was everything that led up to that Hungary weekend that made the win such an anomaly.
Wrongfooted by others getting the jump on the 2009 rules (and double diffuser trick) while it was throwing everything at its ultra-dramatic 2008 title battle, McLaren had a woeful first half of 2009.
Defending champion Hamilton came to Hungary at the end of July only 11th in the championship. His preceding race results read: 12th, 13th, 16th and 18th.
Hungary suited the McLaren (Hamilton would win on Singapore’s twists too) and this was the start of the recovery. But just a few weeks before it happened, few would’ve predicted it.
4. GERMANY 2008
A Hamilton F1 career oddity in that it’s his only F1 victory battle with his 2006 GP2 title rival Nelson Piquet Jr! And also the only time Piquet got near an F1 win.
The timing of a safety car for a massive Timo Glock crash thrust Piquet’s Renault, which had only qualified 17th, into an ideal winning spot as he had cleared his pitstop by then and was set to cycle to the front of the queue for the restart.
Hamilton had been dominating up to that point, and ended up staying out – along with BMW driver Nick Heidfeld – and trying to build enough of a lead after the restart to pit then recover.
With 17 laps left, Hamilton pitted and dropped to fifth. Heidfeld’s eventual stop gave him one spot, and he was able to repass McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, his title rival Felipe Massa and finally Piquet to grab the lead back with eight laps to spare.
3. MONACO 2008
One of two races on this list where Hamilton spent some of the grand prix driving on three wheels.
He’d been on the back foot going into race day as Felipe Massa – no Monaco specialist usually – led an all-Ferrari front row in qualifying.
And though Hamilton swiftly dismissed Kimi Raikkonen in the damp early part of the race, Massa was still getting away from him.
Then on lap five, Hamilton whacked the Tabac barrier. That could’ve been race over, but he got away with just a puncture and was still as high as fifth when he rejoined with a healthy car and a full tank of fuel.
That strategy change would later let him run long and capitalise on light tanks as the track dried. But it was the fact Hamilton was lapping 1-3s faster than everyone else for chunks of the afternoon that really made the difference in a first Monaco win that he declared the highlight of his life so far at the time.
2. SILVERSTONE 2020
For 51 of the 2020 British Grand Prix’s 52 laps, there really wasn’t anything unlikely about the prospect of another Hamilton home win as he dominated on a track where Mercedes was in its element.
But the fact he finished the race on three wheels, his car dragging along the ground, as he became the final victim of the event’s spate of late punctures turned this cruise into something of a miracle win.
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 2, 2020
Two elements made it possible. The first was that Hamilton managed to minimise his time loss to around 23s even though he lost the tyre on the Wellington Straight so had over two thirds of the lap to still drag the Mercedes around.
The more significant was that those who should have benefitted from the drama couldn’t. Bottas had a puncture of his own two laps earlier, and Verstappen couldn’t profit because Red Bull had stuck with its plan of bringing him in for a penultimate lap stop for a punt at fastest lap.
Verstappen did indeed set fastest lap – by a whopping 1.5s – on that last lap as he charged around frantically trying to catch the hobbled Hamilton, and falling short by just 5.856s. Rather less than a pitstop.
1. GERMANY 2018
Still the only one of Hamilton’s 96 F1 wins that he’s taken from outside the top 10 on the grid.
A hydraulic problem triggered by a kerb strike left him starting only 14th at Hockenheim, and his initial charge only got him up to fifth in the race’s ‘normal’ segment.
Meanwhile, title rival Vettel appeared totally in control, a minor team orders skirmish with Ferrari partner Kimi Raikkonen notwithstanding.
Then a race shower sent everything haywire, and Vettel into the barriers in the stadium section.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 22, 2018
What Hamilton called “just the most confusing second-and-a-half” in which his engineer Peter Bonnington said “in” 14 times, having initially encouraged Hamilton to abort a planned pitstop, ended with Hamilton bumping back over the grass and onto track rather than joining a flurry of pitstops.
But that actually ended with Hamilton in the lead, on a decent enough strategy and heading for a shock victory after winning a brief battle with Bottas.