Analysis: How Hamilton made up 18 places with just four passes

Lewis Hamilton finished the Belgian Grand Prix in a remarkable third place, having started from the back. But it wasn't the charge it appeared to be, as Adam Cooper explains.

Analysis: How Hamilton made up 18 places with just four passes
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF16-H
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF16-H
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid makes a pit stop
Fernando Alonso, McLaren is congratulated on his seventh place finish
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid makes a pit stop
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid makes a pit stop
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Sergio Perez, Sahara Force India F1 VJM09
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
The race is stopped
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
The podium (L to R): Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing, second; Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, race winner; Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, third
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid celebrates his third position at the end of the race
Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Podium: Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, third place Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Podium: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 celebarte with the team
Podium: Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1
(L to R): Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 on the podium with Mark Webber, Porsche Team WEC Driver / Channel 4 Presenter
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 celebrates his third position in parc ferme

The Belgian GP produced a near-perfect outcome for Mercedes, as Nico Rosberg returned to winning form and Hamilton overcame his power unit grid penalties to take third place, minimising the loss to his teammate to just 10 points.

Before the race, his team had told the world champion that the predicted outcome was a humble eighth, one place worse than he managed from the back in China back in April.

Such was the level of carnage that in the end he made just four passing moves on healthy cars - two before the red flag, and two after it - as he climbed from 21st to the podium.

It was an eventful afternoon, but one that would have been much more intriguing had all the main participants made it around the first corner intact.

Instead, the clash between Max Verstappen and the two Ferrari drivers left only Daniel Ricciardo in a realistic position to carry the challenge to Rosberg, and gave Hamilton a huge helping hand in his quest to make up ground.

The red flag that followed Kevin Magnussen's accident was another spoiler, as there was a strategy reset where everyone had the opportunity to take on new tyres.

It was thus ultimately something of an unsatisfactory race, as the two incidents robbed us of a chance to see how it would have unfolded on pure performance.

There's no question that Mercedes was feeling the heat at Spa, in large part as a result of the high tyre pressures mandated by Pirelli. The supersoft was a real struggle.

Rosberg got it just right in qualifying, sailing through Q2 on soft tyres so he could use them at the start – as did the Ferrari drivers and Ricciardo – and finding just enough performance on supersofts in Q3 to beat Verstappen to pole.

But he had four quick cars right behind him, and there was the extra twist provided by the fact that Verstappen was to start on the supersofts. Mercedes had plenty to think about before the race.

"We were watching Verstappen," Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com. "But we predicted that he would have to do a three-stop, starting on the supersoft.

"We even had the sense that if he'd taken the lead from the start of the race, we wouldn't have been bothered by that – because of the long game, we would have got through.

"We were perhaps slightly more worried by the Ferraris, but overall we were happy in the fact that we had a bigger stock of tyres at the harder end of the spectrum than anyone else, except perhaps the Force Indias."

Indeed, the team went into the race with a focus on using the medium tyre. Both men had two sets to play with, although one of Hamilton's had been scrubbed.

"We had run the medium in P2, we were very clear that it was a very good tyre for the race," said Lowe. "They both had two new mediums heading into the race. Technically one of Lewis's appeared used, but it was just an install lap."

With those four strong cars behind Rosberg, Mercedes had discussed every conceivable outcome, but much of that went out of the window when 75 percent of the German's main rivals ruled themselves out of contention.

"It all changed after Turn 1," said Lowe. "We've got a chart of what line not to take into Turn 1, and that was exactly the one that Max took!

"Fortunately he managed to take out himself and two Ferraris. It didn't seem to stop, all afternoon they seemed to be tangling with each other as far as I could see…

"The main point was that Nico was clear, and he had very good pace straight away. It was clear that we could control the race."

Rosberg was helped further by the fact that Nico Hulkenberg had jumped up to second, ahead of Ricciardo, the last major threat to Mercedes – who was also hampered by front wing damage. At the end of the first lap Rosberg's lead was a massive 4.1 seconds…

The VSC for the Carlos Sainz incident interrupted Rosberg's progress, and Hulkenberg closed the gap to 2.8s, but on a green track he soon opened it out to over four seconds again.

Then came the safety car for Magnussen's crash. Hulkenberg led a charge into the pits, but Rosberg stayed out, as did Ricciardo.

Force India did a great job and Hulkenberg slotted back into the queue third on fresh tyres, and looking well set for the resumption. But then came the red flag, the chance of a free tyre change for those who had not pitted.

Mercedes didn't stop Rosberg, because the team didn't want to change his overall strategy.

"We'd lucked in with Max taking out many of our competitors including himself," admitted Lowe. "At the safety car we wanted to stick with the two-stop plan, stopping right then would have committed you to three-stop."

Red flag help

The other factor was that overhead TV shots of the damaged tyre barrier suggested that a red flag could yet emerge.

Hamilton was in a remarkable fifth place, right behind Fernando Alonso, who had started from 22nd. You might think that he must have put in an amazing charge through the field, but in fact to get there Hamilton had made just two overtaking moves on healthy cars…

So how did he do it? Rosberg had started on the medium tyres to give himself the maximum range for the first stint, and thus a better chance of taking advantage of safety cars and so on.

He gained one place through Marcus Ericsson starting from the pitlane, but then he had a very cautious first lap – Alonso got ahead and he was last as he arrived on the scene of the first corner incident.

Having passed the spun Vettel (for 20th) and the slowing Raikkonen (19th), Hamilton then took advantage of the Wehrlein/Button incident (moving up to 17th).

Meanwhile, Verstappen and Nasr were also heading for the pits, so despite not actually overtaking a healthy car, Hamilton was already up to 15th at the end of lap one.

He had a fortunate escape when Sainz's tyre exploded just in front of him on the second lap (14th), during which he also passed Kvyat (13th), before gaining another spot when Massa pitted (12th).

He overtook Ocon on lap four (11th), and was in the process of passing Alonso when the safety car came out.

"He'd just overtaken Fernando when the safety car was called," says Lowe. "He was doing one car at a time, and in fact he had technically overtaken him, but it was right on the point of the safety car, so he gave the place back."

Magnussen's crash had gifted him another spot, so at this point Hamilton was 10th. Then under the safety car Perez, Grosjean and Palmer pitted on lap six (seventh), followed by Bottas and Gutierrez on lap seven.

Thus when the red flag came and the cars filed into the pits he was fifth – and the only drivers he had actually passed on track were Kvyat and Ocon. He could probably not believe his fortune as he prepared for the restart.

"Then we had a fresh race from first and fifth," said Lowe. "We chose with Nico to split that as two mediums to the end. He had two mediums left, which nobody else had, so it was a very safe two stints.

"With Lewis, we knew that we had some fighting to do to get up further. As it was a marginal call with the remaining laps, and he only had one medium set left, we decided already at that point that he would be on three stints to the end - soft, soft, medium - which is what we did.

"But it did mean he had to run a sprint. We had one poor stop, and unfortunately it lost him a little bit of time. The jack didn't drop. It's on a quick release, so he had to then manually 'unjack' it."

New race

In Part Two of the race, everything unfolded perfectly for Rosberg. He knew he would face a stiff challenge from Ricciardo, who had a new front wing and had switched to a set of new softs, Red Bull preferring to save his only set of mediums for the last part of the race.

Indeed, the Aussie kept Rosberg honest by staying close for seven or eight laps, before he began to fade away. The Red Bull finally came in for those mediums on lap 25, and Rosberg pitted a lap later, and enjoyed a comfortable run to the flag. He was more than happy with the medium tyre strategy.

"That was the plan," he said. "We did great this weekend in selecting the tyres, we were the only ones who really got it nailed with the tyre choice. The medium was the right tyre, it worked out really well.

"Daniel Ricciardo behind me with the soft tyres was pretty quick at the beginning of the stint, and that's the only thing."

Hamilton had a bit more work to do. He passed Alonso for fourth on the second flying lap after the restart, and it then took him some seven laps to get by Hulkenberg for third.

By then Rosberg and Ricciardo were long gone, and with two scheduled stops to come compared to their one – the first for softs and a final one for mediums – there was no way he was going to improve on that. He did however set a series of fastest laps.

"These tyres, you basically need to warm them and run them in, then you can start to push on them," said Hamilton. "The pace was OK at the beginning, then I was just taking it a bit easier, then I started to put the hammer down. The pace was obviously great, but the gap was way too big."

After the final stop Hamilton expressed doubts about the choice of mediums – inevitably he would have preferred softs for a sprint to the flag.

"We had the data to see that it was a great tyre for the race," said Lowe. "And he didn't know that."

Having spoken to his engineers after the race, Hamilton accepted that the right call had been made.

"They know me, and my job is to question," Hamilton explained. "Basically I'd just done a soft run and it felt good for 10 laps, and what I didn't know was that Nico had done a 15-lap medium run, which they knew. So that's what their decision was based upon.

"I only had to go by what I'd experienced, and I was thinking in order for me to catch the guy in front maybe I have to do these [softs] again, but I had 12 laps, and my softs didn't last more than 10 laps on the previous run, so it was definitely the right decision."

Hamilton was happy enough with third, although he conceded that at one stage he had been a little more optimistic.

"At that point I just thought from here it's a bonus, I'm already in the points, which is just great, let's see where I can get.

"Of course the thought crosses my mind, but I'm conscious that the gap was already quite big to Nico. He was obviously having a Sunday drive, he didn't have any stress from anyone, and he was gone by the time I'd got past the Force India… at that point I was just trying to fight for as many points as possible."

Rosberg was delighted to get back to winning ways, especially at such an iconic track. But Hamilton went home on Sunday night with a smile on his face.

A 10-point loss to his teammate and three new power units in the pool for the remainder of the year? Not a bad weekend's work.

shares
comments
Ferrari says it has "turned the page" on recent struggles

Previous article

Ferrari says it has "turned the page" on recent struggles

Next article

Hamilton wins first Driver of the Day after Spa comeback

Hamilton wins first Driver of the Day after Spa comeback
Load comments

About this article

Series Formula 1
Event Belgian GP
Location Circuit de Spa Francorchamps
Drivers Lewis Hamilton
Teams Mercedes
Author Adam Cooper
Why Mercedes isn't confident it's really ahead of Red Bull at Imola Prime

Why Mercedes isn't confident it's really ahead of Red Bull at Imola

While Mercedes struck back against Red Bull by topping the times at Imola on Friday ahead of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the overall picture remains incredibly close. Despite having a possible edge this weekend, the reigning Formula 1 world champion squad is not taking anything for granted...

What Mercedes must do to keep its F1 title challenge on track Prime

What Mercedes must do to keep its F1 title challenge on track

Mercedes may find itself leading the drivers' and constructors' standings after Lewis Hamilton's victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix, but it is well aware that it came against the odds, with Red Bull clearly ahead. Here's what the Brackley team must do to avoid its crown slipping .

Formula 1
Apr 16, 2021
The double whammy that is defining Vettel’s F1 fate Prime

The double whammy that is defining Vettel’s F1 fate

It's been a tough start to Sebastian Vettel's Aston Martin F1 career, with a lack of pre-season testing mileage followed by an incident-packed Bahrain GP. But two key underlying factors mean a turnaround is no guarantee.

Formula 1
Apr 14, 2021
The themes to watch in F1's Imola return Prime

The themes to watch in F1's Imola return

Three weeks is a long time in Formula 1, but in the reshaped start to the 2021 season the teams head to Imola to pick things up after the frenetic Bahrain opener. Here's what to look out for and the developments to follow at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Formula 1
Apr 13, 2021
The 'new' F1 drivers who need to improve at Imola Prime

The 'new' F1 drivers who need to improve at Imola

After a pandemic-hit winter of seat-swapping, F1 kicked off its season with several new faces in town, other drivers adapting to new environments, and one making a much-anticipated comeback. Ben Anderson looks at who made the most of their opportunity and who needs to try harder…

Formula 1
Apr 12, 2021
The delay that quashed Aston Martin’s last F1 venture Prime

The delay that quashed Aston Martin’s last F1 venture

Aston Martin’s only previous foray into Formula 1 in the late 1950s was a short-lived and unsuccessful affair. But it could have been so different, says Nigel Roebuck.

Formula 1
Apr 10, 2021
Verstappen exclusive: Why lack of titles won't hurt Red Bull's ace Prime

Verstappen exclusive: Why lack of titles won't hurt Red Bull's ace

Max Verstappen’s star quality in Formula 1 is clear. Now equipped with a Red Bull car that is, right now, the world title favourite and the experience to support his talent, could 2021 be the Dutchman’s year to topple the dominant force of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes?

Formula 1
Apr 9, 2021
Is Formula 1 as good as it has ever been now? Prime

Is Formula 1 as good as it has ever been now?

For many, many years Formula 1 has strived to do and to be better on all fronts. With close competition, a growing fanbase, a stable political landscape and rules in place to encourage sustainability, 2021 is on course to provide an unexpected peak

Formula 1
Apr 8, 2021