Analysis: Why Mercedes didn't give Lewis Hamilton the strategy he wanted in Brazil
Race Strategy decisions were at the very heart of the headlines arising from the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Race Strategy decisions were at the very heart of the headlines arising from the Brazilian Grand Prix. Nico Rosberg led home Lewis Hamilton, but the world champion was unhappy that his Mercedes team did not give him an alternative strategy to try for the win. We will examine why this did not happen - and is unlikely to in Abu Dhabi - in this report.
Meanwhile Force India secured a valuable fifth place in the constructors’ championship with Nico Hulkenberg’s splendid sixth place, which was achieved with a very high-risk strategy.
Most teams were briefing before the race that it was likely to be a two-stop race with some drivers considering three stops. Simulations showed that three stopping was around 5 seconds slower, but could vary to be more with back marker traffic.
Pirelli once again brought the medium and soft compound tyres and the medium was clearly the favoured race tyre. Mercedes saved all three of its new sets of medium tyres in qualifying, so that it could run a three-stop strategy on new tyres, if necessary.
The expectation from practice was that 35 laps was the absolute maximum for a stint on mediums.
Why didn’t Mercedes give Hamilton an alternative strategy to try to win?
During the race, Hamilton radioed his team to ask if they could switch him onto an alternative strategy to try to win the race, as he was tucked up behind Rosberg with no chance to overtake.
One possibility discussed was to extend his second stint, to give him fresher tyres for the final few laps than Rosberg and try an attack there. But this was discounted as Hamilton had already told the team that his first set of medium tyres was not going to last. In fact he managed just 20 laps on them.
What Hamilton had in mind was something completely different – a strategy to create real differentiation between the two cars.
Mercedes did not want to go down that route and it’s clear that the reasons lie in a fear of setting a precedent. You can understand why; in 2009 when the team was Brawn, they sometimes had the drivers on wildly differentiated strategies and it led to public recriminations afterwards when one worked out and the other didn’t.
However, as Mercedes this team has had a policy of giving the driver in second place a chance to do a variation within a similar strategy if he feels he has better pace and we have seen plenty of examples of that in the last three seasons of the Hamilton-Rosberg era.
Spain 2014 is a good example, where Rosberg lost the start to Hamilton and went onto the Plan B agreed before the race, which was to switch to the harder tyre at the first stop and look to attack in the final laps of the race on the softer tyre when Hamilton would be on the harder one. Here they’d do the same number of stops, but it gave a chance for Rosberg to benefit from superior pace, if he could show he had it. On that occasion he did not and Hamilton won the race.
This kind of offset increases the pressure on the leader and is more of a psychological challenge, because the gaps are offset and need to be calculated all the time, allowing for the difference between compounds.
That kind of variation within a two-stop strategy, for Hamilton to use his better pace if indeed he had it, wasn’t an option in Brazil. The medium was clearly the better race tyre than the soft, with less degradation; so to go radically different would have meant putting Hamilton on a three-stop plan and leaving Rosberg on a two stop.
If Mercedes had done this with Hamilton, then Vettel would have acted differently. He tried something different to try to shake the tree, with a switch to three stops and a second stint on softs. Mercedes covered that off by also moving to an extra stop.
But had Hamilton committed early to a three stop, then Vettel would obviously have stayed on a two stop, to interfere with his race. So Hamilton would have had to fight hard with him and pass him after his final stop. A three stop at Interlagos was five seconds slower than a two stop in theory, but there would be a lot more backmarker traffic to deal with and the reality was that it ended up being more like 9-10 secs slower over a race distance for those who tried it. The result would have been the same for Hamilton.
A free for all in Abu Dhabi?
As for the idea of letting the drivers do whatever they like in the final round in Abu Dhabi now that the championship is won, it’s a great idea in theory, but from a team point of view one suspects that they will fear the consequences, even if it would be considered a ‘novelty’ race. Highly competitive racing drivers will always try to take whatever advantage they can over each other, so it would become an unwelcome and unnecessary precedent.
In other words, if they allowed it in Abu Dhabi, then in tight races next season - when the competition with Vettel’s Ferrari is expected to be fierce - the driver who lost out would keep pointing back to Abu Dhabi and say that ‘this was the way it should be done’ and that ‘the team’s strategy policy is wrong’.
It would create a blame culture – which happened at that team in 2009 for the same reasons – and which is massively damaging in any sports team, especially when you are fighting for a world championship. Why create an unnecessary problem?
In the last two seasons the Mercedes team has won two world championships, scored 31 wins and 22 1-2 finishes using the current strategy set up with no wild variations in strategy and one strategist for both cars -Paddy Lowe’s favoured system and Ross Brawn’s before him. It is the same system that Brawn employed in the Schumacher/Ferrari years, although there existed a clear No 1 and No 2 driver hierarchy at Ferrari, which allowed for wild differentiation in order to get the win for Schumacher. This is not the case at Mercedes.
It is also the system that has brought Hamilton two world titles and 21 wins in two seasons.
One can see how he is dissatisfied currently, because he’s not accustomed to being beaten by Rosberg and in Mexico and Brazil he targeted the strategy as the cause. But it’s the same system he’ll be relying on when the real competition starts again in Australia next year.
The key to their competition is to get pole and then be able to dictate the race from the front, which he has done for most of this season.
High-risk strategy by Force India brings rich rewards
In contrast, Force India took a massive gamble in Brazil on Nico Hulkenberg’s car and it paid off. The points scored at Interlagos guaranteed fifth place in the constructors’ championship and a $63 million payday.
Hulkenberg had qualified strongly in fifth place, but lost places at the start to Bottas and Kvyat. Although the Williams was too fast, the Red Bull was on a similar level, so Force India turned to the strategists to come up with a plan.
The received wisdom was that Red Bull could make the tyres last longer than Force India, but the team turned that on its head when they pitted Hulkenberg early on Lap 9, undercutting Kvyat in the process. This meant a long stint later in the race, at which they’d be vulnerable from Kvyat.
Having lost the position at the first stops, Red Bull’s best response would be to extend the middle stint for the Russian driver so he had an offset of five or more laps in the final stint; that would probably have been enough to overtake Hulkenberg in the final laps.
Force India was taking a massive risk by stopping Hulkenberg so early as it would mean he would have to do a 35 lap final stint.
However Red Bull’s plan was thwarted by the second Williams of Felipe Massa, which pitted on Lap 38, when he was 3.5secs behind Kvyat. This meant that Kvyat could not delay making his stop, as Massa would soon be faster and he’d lose position to him when he stopped. So Kvyat was only able to build an offset of four laps and that wasn’t enough. He didn’t have the pace in the final laps to pass Hulkenberg, who held on to sixth place.
It was another brilliant - if very bold – strategy by Force India, helped by a bit of luck from Massa stopping when he did.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow
RACE HISTORY AND TYRE USAGE CHARTS
Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing - Click to enlarge
A graphic representation of the Race History in terms of the lap times of each car. It shows the relative pace of the cars and the gaps between them in the race. Upward curve is good pace, downward curve demonstrates slower pace. Sudden drop is a pit stop.
Look at Hamilton (solid blue line) drop off in pace at the end of the second stint Laps 30-34, compared to Rosberg. This is due to his tyres going off, having pushed hard in that stint.
Also compare the pace of Vettel (solid red) with the Mercedes, showing how Ferrari has improved its race pace to be close to a match for the Anglo-German team. Conversely see how Ferrari has moved ahead of Williams (Bottas black dotted line)
Contrast Vettel’s second stint pace with Raikkonen’s, which is significantly slower.
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Analysis: Why Mercedes didn't give Lewis Hamilton the strategy he wanted in Brazil
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