Taking care - not risks - can be Lewis Hamilton's smart way to the F1 title

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Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 makes a pitstop during the F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Intercity Istanbul Park on October 10, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey - Getty Images Sport
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 makes a pitstop during the F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Intercity Istanbul Park on October 10, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey - Getty Images Sport

A fortnight ago Mercedes nailed their strategy, helping Lewis Hamilton to another wet-weather victory in Sochi. It was a call that secured his 100th Grand Prix win and also gave him back the championship lead from Max Verstappen.

The communication in Turkey on Sunday did not go quite so well. Starting from 11th and having made it up to third before his pit stop, Hamilton finished fifth and was vocal in questioning his team during and after the race. Essentially, he believed he could have finished the race without pitting for new tyres. His team didn't, and made him come in for new rubber with eight laps remaining.

It is always notable when a driver questions their team so boldly - especially a driver/team combination as successful as this one. With Verstappen finishing second, it was a five-point swing that put the Dutchman ahead in the championship again.

Was Hamilton right in this instance? Should Mercedes have been bolder in their strategy? Or was the decision so marginal as to make no real difference?

Why Mercedes played it safe

The weekend was all about championship damage limitation for Mercedes. Starting 11th after a 10-place grid penalty, a good outcome would have been Hamilton losing just a few points to Verstappen. Something better was possible and this probably triggered Hamilton’s discontent, especially given the superiority of the Mercedes to the Red Bull and the damp and miserable conditions.

This helps put Mercedes' decisions in context. They wanted to match the strategies of those around them as drivers started to come in for fresh intermediate tyres around lap 40. In short: copy Verstappen, get as close to him as you can. Take no real risks, even if the potential reward is a win, in a close championship and at this late stage.

True, in staying out there was the potential for Hamilton to stop once to change onto slick tyres - if the track dried enough - then enjoy a significant pace advantage and win the race, but that would have meant taking on a large burden of risk. When Hamilton eventually pitted, his car was instead fitted with new intermediate tyres.

The call was smart: Hamilton's approach risked far too much

After the race, Hamilton remarked that Alpine’s Esteban Ocon had managed to make his tyres last the duration, so why could he not? Firstly, the Frenchman’s tyres were worn through to the construction at the end. Secondly, Ocon’s final 10 laps were at an average time of 1:36.809sec compared to Gasly’s 1:33.560sec. Falling back in a big way would have been far more likely than moving forward, even given Hamilton's tyre-preservation talents. Thirdly, Ocon is not fighting for a title and had little to lose.

Knowing what we know now, a no-stop strategy would have been unlikely to get Hamilton much more than fourth and could have even been disastrous for his championship hopes. Simply, he would have had to have stopped at some point having lost plenty of time, all while risking tyre failure or dropping dramatically off the pace. The advantage he had over Leclerc, Perez and Gasly could have evaporated, leaving him in fifth. Or worse.

Hamilton’s feel for the conditions and his tyres of course counts for something. But not everything. It seemed that the disagreement came from differing priorities. Hamilton wanted to maximise his result while the team wanted to minimise any title deficit, eliminating risk as much as possible.

That it looked so baffling in the end - and may have been so confusing to Hamilton - was primarily down to the driver. In ignoring his team's requests to pit at around lap 40 he put himself in a strategical no man’s land, making the stop on lap 50 look slightly oddly timed and without sufficient time to claw back the advantage of fresh intermediate tyres as others enjoyed the best life of theirs. He was soon vulnerable to Gasly, though kept him behind, and then failed to get past Leclerc for fourth.

Mercedes could have been more aggressive or trusted their driver more. But the reverse could be said, too. Once Hamilton had breached the top five after starting 11th, and with Bottas keeping Verstappen well at bay, Mercedes were correct to be more cautious than Hamilton wanted. It was not a heroic call, but it was a smart one.

Errors will define and decide the season from here

There is no way for a team or driver to eliminate errors completely. The moving parts and variables are so vast and fast-moving that no decision is ever black and white, even with the huge amounts of data and brainpower available to the teams.

As Toto Wolff alluded to after the race, avoiding the large errors is crucial. In doing so in Istanbul, Hamilton is still within touching distance of Verstappen. Win in Austin next week - as he has done on five other occasions - and he is back in the lead.

In bringing Hamilton in when they did (eventually), Mercedes avoided a season-defining error. With the championship as close as it has been, with just five points separating the two men at the top after 16 races (and with six remaining) it is more likely to be errors rather than acts of sublime skill that decide the destination of the championship.

“DNFs are going to make [the] big difference and that was another consideration today. Not three- or four- or five-point swings,” Wolff said. It is impossible to deny the truth of this. At this point, a mistake of the magnitude of Hamilton’s Baku snafu or the pair’s high-speed collision in Silverstone could have enormous consequences.

In 2016, Hamilton’s non-finish in the Malaysian Grand Prix gave Nico Rosberg a 23-point advantage with five races left. Rosberg won in Japan to extend his lead and that gap meant he could finish second to Hamilton in the final four races and still take the championship. Similar could happen this year.

It is as likely that smaller errors will be the critical factor. With so few races left, a combination of a marginal strategy call here or there or a ragged qualifying performance or a move that is too aggressive or too defensive in wheel-to-wheel combat could be decisive.

In their seven seasons of total dominance, small errors by Mercedes or Hamilton have been largely inconsequential. With a resurgent Red Bull and a rapid Verstappen champing at the bit, things are different this year. Hamilton's antsy response to his race engineer Peter Bonnington was disproportionate to the reality of the situation. It is not that relationships are breaking down, far from it, but the enormity of the challenge and the intensity of the battle is significant and increasing. It would be strange if those involved were not feeling it. Coping with it will be critical.

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