Forty-three points blown - Mercedes explain Austria F1 tactical error and reliability issues
"When you lose 43 points.
"When you lose 43 points...for me and for the team, this is the most painful day of the last six years - to lose a possible 1-2 finish in this way, through our own mistakes and unreliability, just hurts so much,"
This was Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff's reaction to the team losing out on a big result at the Red Bull Ring. In another dramatic twist in the championship battle, a double-retirement for Mercedes in Austria handed the lead in both the drivers' and constructors' championship to Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari.
But it was a weekend of regrets for the Scuderia too. Vettel qualified third ahead of the race winner Max Verstappen. But an avoidable penalty for blocking in qualifying meant Vettel started sixth and a delayed pit stop didn't help.
The Ferrari looked after its tyres well and this was a winnable race. So for Mercedes, at least the saving grace was that Ferrari didn't take maximum advantage of their worst day since Malaysia 2016 and their first scoreless race since their disastrous 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, where Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided on the opening lap of the race.
Amazingly, it's their first ever double-retirement due to mechanical issues in their current Formula One presence as a works team (2010-present).
It looked a race Mercedes were destined to win.
With Valtteri Bottas taking his first pole position of the season, the Finn was looking to end his run of poor fortune in 2018. However, an early retirement from second place brought out the virtual safety car, which would begin the unravelling of his team-mate's race.
With the field running at a reduced pace under the VSC, most drivers were instructed to make their one-and-only pit stop, with many teams even bringing both cars into the pits at the same time.
Hamilton was not brought into the pits and, with the VSC ending moments later, their sole chance to pit at a reduced time loss was gone.
The Briton quizzed the decision over the team radio, and chief strategist James Vowles responded by taking full responsibility for the error and urging his driver to press on regardless.
Whilst the pit stop miscalculation was eventually rendered insignificant due to Hamilton's retirement late on in the race, team principal Wolff suggested that Mercedes over-thought the situation, meaning that they didn't react quickly enough to the scenario.
“We've just discussed it, and what I think happened was we were running one and two and controlling the race, and suddenly you see your second car stopping," he said after the race.
"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 [only] 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.”
Despite the team being involved in a couple of strategy mistakes this season, Wolff stood by Vowles and dismissed any ideas of making any reactive changes to the team.
"We don't need to make changes," he said. "The most important thing is to understand why an error happens, and go back into the situation and analyse it.
"I don't think that we would make an error twice. It's just that the situation is very complex, we are fighting [between] six cars and it's just a tough situation.
"For me, James is one of the best ever, and it needs guts to come out and in order to save the best possible result go out there and say in front of millions of people and say, 'That was my mistake, now you can still do this, with the car you have'."
Vowles has made many winning calls in his time running strategy for Mercedes since 2010 and inevitably a few mistakes along the way. The fact that he chose to 'go public' and come on the radio, knowing it would be broadcast, showed much about the way the team works.
Mechanical problems and tyre blistering
But Hamilton was more concerned with the reliability question.
With Mercedes frequently having one of the most reliable packages on the grid, a double-DNF comes as a major surprise.
However, Wolff was quick to defend the latest power unit upgrades, which were initially delayed due to a "quality control issue" before being introduced at the previous round in Paul Ricard.
“It's nothing to do with the reliability of the engine as far as we can see," said Wolff.
"We had a hydraulic leak that was to the steering of Valtteri and we had a drop in fuel pressure on Lewis’s car which was linked to the fuel system.
"This is our current understanding. So no regrets on introducing the engine.”
Even before Hamilton retired, he had lost a position to Vettel partly due to tyre blistering, and Mercedes were one of the few teams to stop again for fresh tyres due to performance and degradation fears.
“The only ones who didn't have the tyre problems were the Ferraris, but all others suffered from heavy blistering and that was definitely not something that we expected.
“I think it was 10 degrees hotter than planned, but I guess it was due to the fact that everyone who suffered from the blistering was attacking.
"We were going flat out, and going flat out means you are overheating the surface of the tyre, and that causes the blistering.”
By: Luke Murphy & James Allen
All images: Motorsport ImagesDo you think Mercedes will regret their Austrian Grand Prix weekend at the end of the year, or do you believe they maintain their front-running pace? Leave your comments below.
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