Hindsight is undoubtedly the most precise of all of the forensic sciences, and in the wake of the chaotic closing stages of the Russian Grand Prix there were those who heaped culpability onto Lando Norris’ shoulders and those who held McLaren responsible.
First and foremost amongst the incandescent heartbreak of Lando Norris’ long-time lead being so cruelly snatched from his grasp, it’s once again easy to overlook the most remarkable of achievements – the centesimal of Grand Prix wins for Great Britain’s Sir Lewis Hamilton.
Ever more incredible is the unlikely nature of the victory at a past Mercedes stomping ground, but one in which features in a 2021 season that’s no longer applicable to past case studies. As right now in F1 there is a large proportion of the grid so close in performance terms, that their respective advantages and nuances swing in unpredictable directions at each grand prix. Making for a truly spectacular 2012-like F1 season.
For Mercedes, tactics was the name of the Russian GP game from the get go. Bottas’ 7th place qualifying performance in the damp conditions was sub-optimal for certain, but somewhat attributable to his teammate. It prompted an unexpected but strategic engine change – of which Bottas thought he was clear of after a change at the Italian Grand Prix – which took Hamilton’s teammate out of the Top 10 fight instantaneously. Bottas since revealed the brand new Monza engine is “gone.”
What this meant was Lewis and Mercedes didn’t have that crucial backup in the dry part of the race, which makes the win even more impressive in my eyes. Team this with some ‘dummy’ or ‘do-the-opposite’ calls to their drivers, and Mercedes played some tactical McLaren-weakening masterstrokes countering Hamilton’s pair of costly Qualifying errors and Bottas’ penalty.
I’ve been avoiding the subject of Lando Norris up to now, but I suppose it’s time to talk about *that* utter heartbreak. For a driver it’s horrible when you realise you’ve made the wrong call, especially in something as high profile as F1. Your tiny misjudgement or oversight is played out live on air to millions of hyped and sometimes judgemental people. This is something strategists experience all too often.
When you’re out front only just ahead of second place, the last thing you want to do is concede your position. In Lando’s head he would’ve been convinced Mercedes had Lewis on a do-the-opposite strategy, which in hindsight yes will have destroyed Lewis Hamilton’s chances and aided Norris – but there were 17 other cars in the race at the time that Norris thought could be breathing down his neck post-pit stop.
He’s in a bubble in the car, so he doesn’t see the full picture. All he knows better than everyone watching is how the car feels in the current conditions at that particular point of the circuit. Crucially not all the track was as underwater as Turn 5.
The driver in second has a much easier decision as he has nothing to lose, and that was especially the case in Sochi as Hamilton had more than a pit stop advantage over third place. He either stays out and follows Norris round in second hoping the McLaren driver goes off, or takes a punt that’ll bring him out in a secure second place bar any repeat pit lane calamities.
The different protocols of the two teams, Mercedes and McLaren, played their part in how they inevitably handled the situation and also how the drivers were trained to react to their respective team’s requests. Norris showed his inexperience, but showed a cool enough head to be mistaken for an experienced champion earlier on in the race. In that regard he’s utterly comparable to Lewis Hamilton – cool under pressure, but with the measure to make mistakes infrequently enough for them to glare back at you ignobly.
At the end of the day, for both the drivers and the teams, you guessed correct or you guessed wrong.