Blog:Why Hamilton’s pit questions were no big deal
“Can I ask why?”
“You need to check his tyres. My tyres are all good.”
“I think that’s the wrong call, but I’m coming in.”
If you’re any sort of F1 fan and you’ve not been living in any sort of seclusion these past few days then you’ll recognise these words as well as who uttered them. Yes it was the wisdom of a certain Lewis Hamilton, as expressed in the Mexican Grand Prix while debating the unexpected decision of the Mercedes pit wall to call him and his team mate Nico Rosberg in for a second tyre stop. Indeed within this time of deliberation he went past the pits once when his crew were out ready to receive his car for servicing. Lewis’s beef was that, with Nico ahead having already pitted, he thought he could get to the end without another stop and – although this part was unspoken – this was a glaring opportunity to usurp him.
On the next lap Lewis relented and came in as intimated, though afterwards on his radio he made it clear he was nevertheless intent on keeping this particular dog wide awake, barking its head off and scampering around the back yard.
And even if you had been existing in that Greta Garbo-style seclusion you probably still could guess the wider reaction. The usual determination out there to attribute nefarious explanations to everything Hamilton does (for reasons I’ve never fully got) was apparent. Sure enough in below the line comments and elsewhere cliché followed cliché – Hamilton’s a brat; Hamilton’s not a team player. While on the opposite side of things one headline in The Guardian
spoke of Lewis being ‘cost’ a win by the strategy. Other outposts too claimed there was ‘war’ at Mercedes.
But is any of it that simple? No. For me on both sides it was a fuss over not very much.
Before saying anything else one thing we can reproach Lewis for, perhaps, is that possibly he knew what he was doing in his post-race comments, which sounded like he’d chosen to bring an extra big spoon with him for the purposes of stirring. “I know the team has felt the need to be extra warm…” he said of his stable mate Nico before stopping himself. And upon being asked to clarify he said: “I do know what I mean but I’m not going to say what I mean. You should ask Toto [Wolff] and Niki [Lauda]. You should put those questions to them about how they feel about it. What they have to do behind the scenes to keep him happy.”
With this, and whether Lewis did indeed mean it or not, given what we know about the fourth estate those screechy headlines of the sort exemplified were close to inevitable.
Yet the strategy call itself made absolute sense, from a team and engineer point of view anyway. The Mercedes pair in one and two had a pit stop’s loss time over the next car, Daniil Kvyat’s, in hand and therefore in a common modern F1 tactic wished to ‘cover the safety car’. The fear was that had a safety car appeared (and this wasn’t unlikely given walls are near the circuit at various points of the Mexican track) at an inopportune moment, perhaps just after the Mercs had passed pit entry or otherwise caught them up in its slow-moving wake before an opportunity to pit, then they rather than their cruise would suddenly have had freshly-booted rivals right on their tail and presumably quicker. Either that or they’d have had to bite the bullet and pit and have cars to clear. The call reflected simply healthy paranoia; heading off a variable with no downside short of seriously botching the stop (Lewis indeed was still nine seconds ahead of Kvyat after pitting). It also, as a bonus, would make a late-race wear-related tyre failure such as that experienced by Sebastian Vettel in Spa much less likely. Mark Gallagher complained it was another situation in that modern bugbear of engineers controlling drivers rather than letting them work it out for themselves on track, but that’s another story.
And on the specific matter of Lewis questioning the call to pit – in something that strikes me as self-evident but seems to escape an alarming number – of course he’s entitled to question a decision. And I can only assume that those objecting to him doing so unquestioningly accept every instruction they receive in the course of their work duties. Putting them at roughly the same level as an automaton.
Ah, I hear those say, this is different. An F1 team on the pit wall has much more information to hand than the driver has with their enclosed and narrow perspective (in every sense) in the cockpit, so the driver should cede to them. Mike Gascoyne on television
in the days after, with the perspective of an engineer no doubt, insisted indeed: “in the team you can’t have drivers making that decision, and in the past we’ve had that sort of thing and I always sit them down and say ‘look, next time we’ll make a call and you will come off worse from that’ because you can’t treat the team like that. You’ve got to be a team player…you’ve got to remind the drivers of who they work for”.
Veteran F1 journalist Maurice Hamilton concurred: “you should zip it because at the end of the day the engineers and everybody back in the pits and back in the factory, they know more than you do in the car” he said, “and if they tell you something even if you think it’s wrong you’ve got to think ‘OK guys, you’re right’”.
He added too that the infamous dud strategy call in Monaco this year that cost Lewis the win there was at least contributed to by Lewis’s tuppence worth rather muddling the team.
But one point to make is that this ‘not knowing everything’ point cuts both ways – as James Allen pointed out
Lewis will have had no idea why Nico had been called in; for all he knew his team mate might have been reckless with his tyres and worn them out ahead of time, in which case why should Lewis have let him off the hook? No doubt adding to it was that easy one-stoppers all round in the race were anticipated for much of the weekend, with the higher-than-in-previous-days temperature on race day changing things. As Allen pointed out too that the Mexican track has rubbered in so rapidly during the race, meaning lap times at the time were swift by the standards of earlier in the weekend, no doubt contributed to Lewis’s sense that his current set of tyres was fantastic and therefore that the call to change them didn’t make sense. “At one point Hamilton did a faster lap on the medium tyres than he had done in the first part of qualifying, which is highly unusual and shows how fast the pace was in the race as the track improved” said Allen.
Furthermore for all of the piety around regarding Lewis’s words it should not be ignored that on the basis of the radio calls the Mercedes team wasn’t entirely straight with Lewis either. His engineer Pete Bonnington, as we heard on the world TV feed, stated that the first sets of tyres that had come off the Mercs were worn down to the canvas – Paddy Lowe said this was higher wear than expected and there was a risk that the same would happen with their current set. Yet Lewis and Nico were now on the medium tyre rather than the soft so the comparison was far from perfect. Plus if this was a real risk it appears to be one that didn’t occur to its rivals – to run to the end Lewis would have required 43 laps from his mediums yet Sergio Perez managed a 53 lap stint and Valtteri Bottas thought (pushing it somewhat) that he could have done the 63 laps required to make the end before the later safety car forced his hand (and the pre-race assumption was that 45-50 laps was the limit). For what it’s worth Lewis also did a stint on the soft tyre longer than anyone else in the race managed. And as outlined wear wasn’t really the reason for Mercedes bringing the cars in. It did seem at least they were making an attempt to pull the wool over Lewis’s eyes somewhat.
And in the broad contention that a driver should always defer to the team on strategy calls, again it’s not that simple. “It’s a very delicate balancing act” said Mark Hughes on the subject
earlier this year; “in some situations the team has a much fuller picture of the crucial pieces of information than the driver can possibly have. Other times the team’s detailed data on gaps and deltas is less relevant and the situation so fluid on track that the driver actually has a much better perspective than the team.”
Furthermore, for the top level F1 driver the ability and willingness to get involved in strategy calls, perhaps even to take them into their own hands, is in the normal run considered a good thing. And Lewis for much of his F1 career has, certainly among the top drivers, been considered the about the least developed and/or willing in this. And this has been considered a weakness of his.
“As a generality he [Lewis] is one of the less proactive” Hughes went on. “[Jenson] Button, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and – in the past – Robert Kubica were always much more likely to take the decision out of the team’s hands if they felt they knew better.”
Indeed it was something plenty thought cost Lewis a freshman drivers’ championship in 2007, when in the penultimate round that season he stayed out for what seemed an interminable period when his tyres were deteriorating disastrously. His McLaren team – minded only of keeping him out until he was in a pit stop ‘window’ – sat on its hands. The decision not too indirectly put Lewis out of the race. And plenty of sages pointed out that Alonso for one almost certainly would have made the team’s decision for it.
Hughes indeed has a hypothesis on this. “Throughout Hamilton’s racing career, from karting onwards his massive talent has been the decisive factor in his success” he theorised. “Has this led perhaps to a less developed sense of ambush and opportunity than in some others? If so, it’s an area of potential improvement he could target as he refines his game.”
It appears Lewis knew this too. And we saw and heard evidence of as much after the Silverstone race a few months back, when Lewis had looked all set to lose to Rosberg before dramatically wresting things back with an arbitrary decision to pit for intermediate tyres, a decision which didn’t look smart when he made it but seconds later proved inspired as the heavens opened properly.
And afterwards he could scarcely contain his glee at the call got right. “For the first time in my whole F1 career, I made the perfectly right choice in coming in [when I did]” he gushed. “I could see the rain was coming and I’ve never had that before.”
Hughes indeed at the time theorised further. “Now he knows what it is to feel the satisfaction of his initiative having been the deciding factor in victory, is it a skill he will now become more confident in utilising?” The events of Mexico suggest that it is. And he’s all the more complete a performer for it.
Of course at the core of this is that Lewis wants to win. Perhaps too after recent events he is minded to psychologically bury his team mate, and arguably his chief rival, yet further. He’ll also be aware that this same team mate has qualified ahead of him in the last four. And of course he’s looking out for number one – he’s a racing driver after all. None of this should we reproach him for.
Finally too, sight should not be lost that Lewis did in the end, after a short spell of deliberation, cede to the team. And it was the right decision. After all had he pressed on it whatever the eventual outcome would have been much more pulling a fast one than commendable self-assertion, amounting to ambushing an unsuspecting team mate (presumably Nico pitted on the strict assumption that Lewis would too) when the team was making a sensible and even-handed decision.
Whether Lewis concluded this out of moral grounds or more that he didn’t think it was worth the inevitable fallout, well I guess short of reading his mind we’ll never know. But whatever was the case Lewis came to the right answer.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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