Seven-time Formula 1 champion finished a distant 5th place in Sunday’s Turkish Grand Prix. To clarify distant – that is in comparison to his title rival Max Verstappen.
Hamilton comes away from the race likely disappointed and regretful. What might have been had I stayed out until the end? Or what might have been had I pit earlier on?
It’s therefore easy to forget he actually started the Grand Prix outside the Top 10 in 11th position. A tactically called 10-place grid penalty sent him tumbling down the Qualifying order after Mercedes chose to change the ICE element of the W12’s power unit. Mercedes are clearly confident they’ve found the culprit of their somewhat under-the-radar reliability crisis.
Mercedes were and still are teetering on the edge in terms of keeping the equilibrium between maximising performance and reliability. So mistakes on track (lock-ups, spins, crashes) are an absolute no-no when you’ve got bigger concerns out of your control that could easily rip the championship out of your hands.
Strategic errors – whether on the driver’s part or the team’s – are also one to undoubtedly avoid as they’re what often give back more to your opponents, in terms of handing positions and points to them on a plate.
Now after a clear error which Toto Wolff attempted to play down post-race, Hamilton’s two point lead over Verstappen in the championship has turned into a six point deficit. But let’s be honest at this point, that’s still an extraordinarily tiny margin with only six races to go of a 22 race season.
The strategy everyone was effectively forced onto by the combination of conditions, track surface and track layout made for tantalisingly marginal calls having to be made up and down the pit lane. However Hamilton’s was probably the most marginal.
If any car and driver combination on the grid could take the intermediates all the way, perhaps bar Sergio Perez in the Red Bull, Hamilton and Mercedes could. Mercedes have arguably the most downforce, especially last weekend, and Hamilton is arguably in the unique club of drivers with the so-called in-built traction control.
Of course early on in the race it wasn’t exactly clear whether the circuit would dry or how quickly the slicks would become an option. The strategists waited and waited for the lap times to decrease close enough to their best guesses at an intermediates to slicks crossover time. However the time never came and it was apparent the asphalt wasn’t draining the standing water away at all, even when the rain stopped completely.
At this point (roughly just over halfway through the race) teams were faced with a dilemma – pit for fresh intermediates or stay on the starting tyres which eventually would become ‘inter-slicks’ as the tread wore away.
Front row starter’s Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen chose to pit for a new set of intermediates at just the right time with enough laps left to make use of the advantage fresh tyres give you. They would go on to safely finish in the order they started, with Verstappen joking after the race of his struggle to stay awake in the car.
In hindsight this is what Hamilton should have done. Mercedes requested the stop but Lewis was having none of it. Instead of sticking with the Red Bull of Perez and taking points for 3rd or 4th place, Hamilton seemingly wanted to out-strategise Sergio Perez.
Eventually Hamilton agreed to pit on the 41st lap, unaware that he would instantaneously lose two positions in the process. Perhaps Mercedes purposely didn’t tell him that fact.
The team needed to get him in as they had noticed signs in the data of the tyres wearing down to the canvas. Photographs of Hamilton’s tyres, that were subsequently shown to Pirelli, confirmed it’d have been a mammoth task to finish the race without a failure.
“My gut feeling was to stay out, and I feel like that’s what I should have done. So I’m frustrated in myself for not following my gut,” a vexed Hamilton noted post-race.
Since then a multitude of social media comments condemned his comments during and after the race, with Hamilton taking to social media on Monday to rightfully address the criticism.
“As a team we work hard to build the best strategy possible but as the race progresses you have to make split decisions, there are so many factors constantly changing.
“We live and we learn. We win and we lose as a team. Don’t ever expect me to be all polite and calm on the radio when I’m racing, we are all very passionate and in the heat of the moment that passion can come out, as it does for all drivers.
“Any angst is quickly forgotten.
“Of course Lewis is entirely correct. When the adrenaline is through the roof, along with it follows passion and frustration.
It’s interesting to refer back to a press conference in 2018 in which Sebastian Vettel implored journalists and fans to understand the human side of a racing driver, even going as far as noting how footballers would naturally be hostile when things weren’t going their way either. It’s entirely natural for athletes.
Nevertheless the past has shown us incredible achievements when it comes to Hamilton’s ability to maximise a set of tyres. As long as the signs are there (degradation, graining, blistering etc) he can manage them super effectively.
Yes he should have pitted earlier when his closest rivals did, but once time went on and the chequered flag neared, there’s a chance Hamilton could have made it to the end. See Esteban Ocon for example.
Ocon completed the race on a single set – the first driver to do so since Mika Salo in the 1997 Monaco Grand Prix. Then his Tyrell Ford was equipped with Bridgestone rubber instead of the Pirelli P-Zero compounds in force nowadays.
The Alpine driver is ultimately in a slower car that puts less pressure on a set of tyres throughout a race distance. The lower downforce produced means less load is put through the tyres during prolonged corners like the quadruple-apex Turn 8. So they’ll take longer to get up to temperature attached to an Alpine compared to a Mercedes, however in theory the tyres won’t wear as suddenly for Ocon – but worn tyres may make blisters or flat spots from lock-ups a lot more likely.
A substantial blister was evident on Ocon’s front right tyre.
In addition it’s worth factoring in the ‘inter-slicks’ phenomenon, which instead of becoming slicks simultaneously as the circuit dried out like last year, the tyres evolve but the circuit’s newly aged surface simply didn’t disperse the standing water like at other circuits. A true dry line barely formed over the entire race.
It’s a double edge sword whether Hamilton should have followed his gut instinct and stayed out, or followed his team as he did at the end. But one thing is for certain, the optimal time to stop was a lot earlier than he did.