Mercedes gave Lewis Hamilton all the strategy freedom he wanted in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but even that was not enough to beat teammate Nico Rosberg, as Adam Cooper explains
Having got everything right in Mexico and Brazil, Nico Rosberg made it three on the bounce as he finished his season in perfect style in Abu Dhabi.
Once again Lewis Hamilton was left with much to ponder after a third frustrating Sunday afternoon since he secured his World Championship in the USA – and not for the first time, that frustration was reflected in some intriguing radio conversations as Hamilton discussed strategy options with the pit wall.
"It was a tense race, to be honest," Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com. "I said to the team this morning we've got to treat it as a normal race, and it's going to be difficult to go out there and get a one-two. We can't take it too conservatively just because it's the last race.
"And so it proved to be. Ferrari were quick, I would say not quick enough, but they kept us honest. And we had a good battle between the two drivers.
"Unlike Brazil there was a decent alternative strategy, which we put Lewis on. He knew exactly what he had to do, and he gave it a good effort."
Having stayed ahead at the start, poleman Rosberg put in a storming first stint on the supersofts. He was 1.4s ahead at the end of the first lap, and initially that gap didn't grow by very much. But then after lap seven it stretched to 2.7s, 3.6s and then 4.6s before Nico came in for softs on lap 10.
Hamilton goes long
Lewis had second call on strategy and was kept out until lap 11, longer than anyone else who started on the supersofts (indeed, some drivers had offloaded them as early as lap five or six).
"I tried as hard as I could in the first stint," said Hamilton. "I tried to keep a relatively decent gap to Nico, looking after my tyres and then my right front, or both fronts, went off quite early, and Nico in the clean air was able to look after them."
Clearly those last few laps cost him time to his team mate, and left him much to do in the next stint.
When he got up to speed on his fresh tyres, he was 6.2s behind Rosberg, and he also had to find a way past Sebastian Vettel, who started on the softs and had yet to pit.
The fortunes of the Mercedes drivers turned around in that middle stint. The gap actually grew in the first few laps, to as much as 7.1s, as Rosberg pushed hard – possibly too hard as it turned out, as thereafter Hamilton began to make inroads into Nico's advantage.
Over the next 10 laps he cut the gap back to 2.6s, and then down to 1.3s. Rosberg was suffering from front tyre graining, and Lewis was given some extra motivation when told about it by his engineer. Nico came in on lap 31, just before Lewis got within DRS range. Despite the tyre issues, the stop was as scheduled.
"That was on plan," said Lowe. "But he'd lost a lot of time. I think Nico was in trouble there, but the thing you needed to do was manage this tyre in the early part of its life, and he maybe pushed it a bit hard that second tyre. And actually in the middle stint it looked like Lewis had it in the bag."
Up to Hamilton
We've grown used to the Mercedes drivers running identical strategies, with one of them stopping one or at the most two laps after the other. But Hamilton didn't follow Rosberg in on lap 32 or even lap 33, and instead he kept on going.
The general idea was to do something different and leave himself with a shorter final stint than Nico, and thus fresher rubber for the closing laps.
"We left it to him actually," Toto Wolff told Motorsport.com. "I don't know what was broadcast, but there was lots of debate between himself and his race engineer about soft tyres and supersoft tyres, and whether to make the stint a bit longer in order to offset himself."
Tyres remained the key. Rosberg had understood his problems in that 21-lap middle stint, and he knew he had to focus on keeping that final set of primes alive for the 24-lap run to the chequered flag.
"I think he realised what he needed to do on that last stint," said Wolff. "And he managed the tyres better, and was just in a class of his own."
Indeed Nico was so careful initially that three or four laps into his stint he was told: "If you can pick up the pace a little bit, we need to close the gap to Lewis."
When Rosberg took his new tyres, he initially dropped 20.1s behind Lewis, but once he got going, the gap came down at more than a second a lap. It was at that point when we heard a fascinating conversation, as Lewis suggested to his engineer that he could stay out and run to the end.
This was around lap 39, when he was still 11.6s ahead, but he had 15 laps to go – and it would have meant running a marathon 43 laps on that set (for the record, the longest anyone ran on softs in the race was 31 laps, by Nico Hulkenberg). The chat continued like this:
Pit: "Lewis, I think that will be pretty much impossible to do. I think what we are currently planning is the way to go"
HAM: "Please give me the calculation."
Pit: "Lewis it's not even worth bothering working the numbers, it would be a real gamble, it wouldn't pay off, I can guarantee it."
HAM: "The reason I'm asking is these tyres still feel good."
This was an extraordinary exchange, and one that demonstrated how desperate Lewis is to find any kind of advantage over his teammate. Not for the first time, he indicated that he didn't seem to trust what he was being told by the team, which in turn could hardly believe what it was hearing.
"Unless we misunderstood, the impression we had was that he wanted to try and one-stop it, which was never going to work," said Lowe. "Apart from the risk of simply not finishing, because the tyre runs out of rubber and punctures, he would get caught by Nico in five laps."
"He would have ended up behind the Ferraris if he would have done that!" says Wolff. "It was so obvious, two seconds a lap slower... Fair enough, he doesn't see that in the car, he doesn't realise. You have to accept that he gives his input and takes part. It's normal."
Softs or supersofts?
Just a couple of laps after this conversation Lewis was in the pits for his final stop. We had every reason to expect that he might take the supersoft and thus have some extra pace for the run to the flag – such a choice would have justified that long middle stint.
Just two laps earlier Vettel had done exactly that, although of course he had to use the option tyres, having done two stints on the softs. And yet when Lewis came in, he took softs for the 14-lap run to the flag.
"We wanted to leave the choice to him," said Wolff. "The race engineer opted for the soft because it was 14 laps to go, and that would have been too long. The supersoft grained after six or seven laps in the first stint on heavy fuel, so that was their choice."
"We gave him a chance to express a strong opinion, and he didn't," added Lowe. "In the end we made the call, and we had enough information to decide that was the best chance."
Lowe suggests that Lewis was so focussed on his belief that he could get away without stopping that he put enough thought into tyre choice once he knew he had to stop.
"We heard in Brazil that he was a bit frustrated, and that particular aspect, the tyre choice, there is not an absolute answer to it, so we're giving him the opportunity to engage in the choice," he said.
"He seemed to put his attention onto doing something completely different, which is a one-stop. You can't have a great conversation on the radio with a racing driver..."
The chat was far from over, and in the last part of the race we heard both drivers being informed about switching back and forth between "Strat 6" and "Strat 10" engine modes, and at stage Lewis had to be told: "That's an instruction."
As he had made clear, Rosberg's engine had much higher mileage on it, thanks to his problems back in Monza, and in the race steps were taken to look after it. And the way things work at Mercedes is that both drivers get the same treatment on contentious things like engine settings.
Understandably, Hamilton struggled to come to terms with the fact that he was being reined in because his team mate might have a problem.
"We had a lot of hassle in the race just trying to keep the engine in the right place," said Lowe. "There were various issues in the end with the engines on both cars, which we were trying to manage.
"The drivers, and particularly Lewis, may not have fully understood what we were doing. We were going up and down, and we always do our best to ensure it's a level playing field."
In the end Hamilton just didn't have the pace in that last stint. On the same tyres as Rosberg, albeit a set that was 10 laps younger, he had to make up 12.5s over the last 13 laps. He only got the gap down to 6.8s before realising that it wasn't going to happen, and easing off.
"Nico was extremely strong in the final stint," said Wolff. "Lewis couldn't really make the gap that he needed."
So could Hamilton have done better had he taken a punt on the supersofts?
"That was pretty much the optimal alternative, if that makes sense," Lowe explained. "There is a choice, do you finish on option or prime? In the event we went a little bit conservative to pick the prime.
"We haven't studied the data, but I don't think there's a lot in it. I don't think that would have made the difference."
"It was the decision of his race engineer and himself," added Wolff. "It was a little bit long to go on the supersoft tyre, that's why they opted for the soft to make it to the end.
"Whether it was the right choice or not, I don't know, but it was his choice. Nico was extremely strong, and it was his race today."
Hamilton, meanwhile, was adamant that the tyre choice for the final stint was not down to him.
"It was really down to the team, whether or not we went to the option or the other tyre," said Lewis. "I'm not sure which one was better but the prime tyre was quite good. I'm not sure whether or not I could have taken it to the end but some part of me just wishes I'd just given it a go.
"But no, the engine modes were going up and down throughout the race, not really sure they were like that because they had lots of life left in my engine but I'll ask when I get back to the debrief..."
So another crushing victory for Mercedes, but one tainted by Hamilton's inevitable frustration over strategy calls, something that the team management has to continually find a way to deal with.
"I think we shouldn't let frustration go into the team," said Wolff. "There is no need for frustration, the team did a great job. We're spending lots of time on trying to do the best job for both of them.
"If it is the case that you can't make both of them happy, because one of them is always going to be upset, that's the situation. But we've had that for a while, so that's OK."