Austrian Grand Prix – A mechanical failure might have ended Lewis Hamilton’s race early on Sunday, but Mercedes had already lost the race for him.
Mercedes made a strategic error in the race on Sunday, after the retirement of Valtteri Bottas from P2 on Lap 14. With the Virtual Safety Car deployed and the pace reduced, both Red Bulls & Ferraris dove into the pits, knowing that their pitstops would cost them less time than it would at full racing speed.
Crucially, Lewis Hamilton did not come in. Verstappen, pitting at the end of Lap 15, put in an outlap of 1:33.857. Racing resumed during that lap, meaning Verstappen lost a grand total of just eight seconds by making his pitstop while Hamilton was cooped up by the VSC. Hamilton, having enjoyed a 4.9 second lead over the Red Bull before the stop, resumed just 12.9 clear and with a pitstop to make.
This meant he needed to find eight seconds of race time to just get back out in front of Verstappen and, upon being told this by race engineer Pete Bonnington, responded furiously: “Eight seconds? How did we miss that? I’ve got no time left in these tyres.”
Hamilton stayed out for a further nine laps in his attempts to open up the gap over Verstappen with the Dutch driver on the harder Soft compound tyre. However, their laptimes were virtually identical every single time around. The largest the gap grew was to just 13.2 seconds, with Verstappen closing it back down to 12.8 by the time Hamilton dived in on Lap 25.
Losing four seconds at the end of Lap 25 as he slowed for the pitlane, Hamilton’s outlap was a 1:25.009; meaning the race leader lost 21 seconds in total by making his pitstop. Compared to Verstappen’s lost time of eight seconds, this was a 13 second advantage handed to Red Bull. At the end of Lap 26, the first full racing lap after both drivers had made their stops, Hamilton was 17.1 seconds behind and had Daniel Ricciardo & Kimi Raikkonen ahead to negotiate.
Chief Strategist James Vowles attempted to placate Hamilton by getting on the radio directly and apologising: “Lewis, it’s James. I understand, we’re still with you, mate. It’s my mistake. Give us what you can.”
Despite having 10 lap younger Soft compound tyres, Hamilton wasn’t able to make inroads on Raikkonen. He was still very annoyed on being told that he was a net P4: “I wanna say something but….just leave me to it Bono.”
“I feel like I’m running out of power, I’m not going to be able to pass these guys. We’ve just thrown away a win.”
Sensing a need to placate their man, Chief Strategist James Vowles got on the radio and owned up to making the error that had put him in this position: “Lewis, it’s James. I have thrown away the win today but you have the potential and opportunity to get back up there. Let the tyres cool. We trust in you and believe in you. Sorry.”
While this did seem to calm Lewis down as he put pressure on Raikkonen for a while, his tyres gave up to the point that he was overtaken on Lap 39 by his championship rival Sebastian Vettel. Unable to get to the end of the race with any sort of pace on the Softs, he came in again on Lap 52 for a fresh set of SuperSofts.
The same problem affected Daniel Ricciardo and Hamilton ended up fighting the Red Bull driver over P4 in the race’s closing stages after both had pitted for a second time. Ricciardo retired shortly after with a cracked exhaust, while Hamilton followed suit on Lap 61 with a fuel pressure problem.
While reliability ended Lewis’ race, the victory had been thrown away by the error under the VSC, as Toto Wolff admitted: “We were running one and two and controlling the race – and suddenly you see your second car stopping. The VSC came out, we had half a lap to react and we didn’t. Fact. This is where we lost the race. At that stage of the race with the VSC, pitting is probably 80% the thing you need to do.
“With one car out there against two others, the thinking process that happened was, ‘what would happen if the others pitted a car?’ We would come out behind Kimi, because they would leave Kimi out, and behind Max. What would that mean for the race? “That whole thinking loop I wouldn’t say distracted us, but we spent too much time on that.” Toto Wolff
“We decided to leave Lewis on track for one lap, because we thought it would take longer to clear the car from its position, and be able to react what the cars behind us did on the following lap.”
“But the VSC cleared sooner than predicted; we simply made the wrong decision. That left Lewis with an uphill battle – we pitted soon after racing resumed, put him on the soft tyre, and he then had to try and make up the ground on track. In doing so, the rear tyres blistered, he lost position to Sebastian, then we decided to pit again as there was nothing to lose from doing so – but, shortly after, a loss of fuel pressure forced him to retire.”
It’s the second time the VSC has cost Lewis Hamilton a potential victory this season; Ferrari won at the season opener in Australia after benefitting from pitting under VSC conditions deployed immediately after Lewis Hamilton had pitted. This meant that Vettel lost considerably less time making his stop and came back out on track ahead of the Mercedes.
With Wolff admitting the weekend was ‘the worst’ of the last six years for the team, he praised Vowles for owning his error: “We all were in pain about the mistake that we made. James coming on to the radio is the mindset that we are having.
“We are able to say that we have done a mistake in order to close the matter and also give him (Lewis) piece of mind that there is complete acknowledgment within the team of what has gone wrong and that it was our mistake in order to make him park the thought.
“It was about extracting what was left in the performance – helping him (Lewis) out of the mind loop of how this could possibly have happened. By admitting the mistake, it’s easier to get out of that spiral.
“For me, James is one of the best ever. It needs guts to come out and, in order to save the best possible result, go out there in front of millions of people and say ‘that was my mistake’.”