30 May 2015
Race Summary: Nico Rosberg won the Monaco Grand Prix for the third consecutive year. Sebastian Vettel came home second for Ferrari with Lewis Hamilton close behind in third place. Red Bull drivers Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo took fourth and fifth places. Jenson Button secured McLaren’s best finish and first points of 2015, taking eighth place at the chequered flag. Williams endured a disappointing weekend with Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa making no impression on the race and struggling home to 14th and 15 places respectively.
I was not able to cover the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix or preview the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix due to some personal circumstances. However, WheelSpinF1 is now back!
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
It’s been almost a week since the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix. I wandered around in shock and surprise for a few days after race day. How could Mercedes get it so wrong? What made them decide to pit Hamilton from a commanding lead of over 19 seconds with only 13 laps remaining?
In the 25 years or so that I have been glued to F1 motor racing, I cannot remember such a glaring strategic error that resulted in the loss of an almost-certain victory. Like many fans, I watched speechless as Hamilton rejoined in third place. He had thrown away the lead and the win. Did that just happen?
Mercedes’ reason for stopping Hamilton for a second time? They said their numbers added up. They assumed that they had sufficient time to pit Hamilton and get him out ahead of Rosberg and Vettel. However, on his in-lap to the pits, Hamilton caught the safety car, which had been deployed after the crash involving Verstappen and Grosjean, and then he lost even more time in the pits when Mercedes had to wait to release him safely.
Subsequently, radio transcripts revealed that Hamilton had questioned Mercedes’ original decision to keep him out on track rather than pitting as he assumed that Rosberg and Vettel would pit for new Supersoft tyres, leaving him vulnerable to attack at the race restart.
Then, in a post-race interview, Niki Lauda conceded that prior to pitting Hamilton, there had been “a lot of radio chatter and confusion” as Mercedes’ engineers, strategists and management discussed the decision.
As fans, we have a partial view of F1. The teams have a lot more data than we do on which to base their decisions. However, these factors above indicate three things to me:
1. Regardless of whether Mercedes’ numbers added up or not, it is surely not controversial to suggest that pitting the Briton and getting him out in front of Rosberg and Vettel was always going to be a close run thing. A ‘normal’ pitstop at Monaco took 24 seconds. Hamilton had a lead of 19 seconds, although he did not need the full 24 seconds because the rest of the field was at two-thirds racing speed whilst under safety car conditions. However, any delay, which is not unlikely at Monaco, would have left the Briton vulnerable to losing track position. This was Mercedes’ real error: forgetting or downplaying the fact that at Monaco, track position is king. You do not put anything else above it. Not switching to faster tyres, not anything. Not doing your maths properly is embarrassing, but giving up track position so willingly is terrible judgment.
2. Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said that Hamilton had questioned Mercedes’ original decision to keep him out on track rather than stop for a second time because his tyres were losing grip. Hamilton said afterwards that he assumed Rosberg and Vettel would stop for new tyres. But why did Mercedes listen to Hamilton on this occasion? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for F1 drivers taking the initiative and making calls that might go against the team view. Drivers are after all in the unique position of actually being able to feel what the car is doing rather than having to interpret what the car is doing by looking at the data feed. However, Mercedes’ decision to pit or not to pit Hamilton had less to do with how Hamilton’s car felt to drive and more to do with where the Briton was in relation to his pursuers. On this score, Mercedes had better information than Hamilton. They presumably knew that they would not stop Rosberg a second time whilst they surely had enough timing data to know that Ferrari could not stop Vettel and bring him back out in third place. The team should have overruled the driver, but they didn’t.
3. In the aftermath of the race, some fans called for Mercedes’ strategist to be fired while at least one pundit has said leave the strategist alone. Both views overlook the real problem in my opinion. The fact that Mercedes changed its original decision not to pit Hamilton together with the chatter and confusion on the Mercedes radio suggest instead that when it comes to making critical decisions under high-pressure, the Mercedes leadership is not always up to the job. There needs to be someone charged with making that final call, coldly assessing the facts relevant to the decision as well as the risk and reward. Is Mercedes sure they have the best decision-maker? After all, this is not the first time that Mercedes have stumbled over strategic decisions mid-race. Think back to Malaysia earlier in 2015 or Hungary in 2014. The radio chatter that was broadcast in those races indicated doubt and confusion on the pitwall, not cold and clear thinking. I can’t imagine Ross Brawn calling Hamilton in for a second time at Monaco last weekend…
There’s a storm coming…
What is the likely effect of the Monaco Grand Prix result on Hamilton and the psychological battle with Rosberg? In mine – and I’m sure many other peoples’ view – Rosberg was gifted a race win that he did not deserve. He was well and truly beaten all weekend. In qualifying, Hamilton secured pole by a third of a second while Rosberg locked up on his hot laps. And in the race, to be almost 20 seconds ahead of your team-mate on the same tyres shows the true gulf in class between the Briton and the German.
Hamilton, to his credit, did not turn his fire on Mercedes after the race. Hamilton from seasons past might well have publicly attacked his team. I think the disappointment of losing a win at Monaco will fire him up rather than knock him down, as it might have done a few years ago. I see Monaco as having a similar effect to Belgium in 2014 on Hamilton. I predict that Hamilton will move up a gear from Canada onwards.