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The strategic drive key to Hamilton's first F1 title

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The strategic drive key to Hamilton's first F1 title
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May 11, 2020, 11:59 AM

On this day in 2008, Lewis Hamilton took second place in the Turkish GP to keep his title challenge on course, a result for which he had to use an unusual strategy as an emergency measure

Lewis Hamilton had unique tyre issues at the 2008 Turkish GP, but a superb drive to second salvaged precious points – and contributed to his world championship success that year.

In past decades we were used to the top teams trying different strategies in order to find an advantage, but in the era of control tyres from one supplier we've generally become accustomed to seeing the frontrunners doing exactly the same thing, with maybe a lap or three separating them in the pitstops.

Thus Hamilton's efforts in Turkey in 2008, when he pitted three teams and his rivals stopped twice, came as a breath of fresh air, and provided us with an exciting afternoon.

However, Hamilton's unusual tyre strategy that weekend was not a clever attempt by McLaren to outfox its rivals. In fact the team put Hamilton on three stops as an emergency measure in an attempt to avoid a potential tyre failure – a concern that was related to his specific driving style.

That 2008 season had continued as the previous one had finished, with Ferrari and McLaren at the forefront.

Hamilton bounced back from the disappointment of his final round defeat in 2007 by winning the opening race of the season, but thereafter Ferrari had the edge. Kimi Raikkonen won for the Maranello outfit in Malaysia and Spain, while Felipe Massa triumphed in Bahrain. Another great championship looked in prospect.

Round five was in Turkey, which is where tyres became a concern in the McLaren camp.

The situation had some similarities to the Michelin affair at Indianapolis in 2005, because it involved high vertical loadings through a single extremely high-speed corner – a combination that puts extra stresses on tyre sidewalls.

Except this time there was a major difference, since the problem affected not just one team, but one driver in that team.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008 leads Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes, Kimi Raikkönen, Ferrari F2008 and Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes at the start

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008 leads Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes, Kimi Raikkönen, Ferrari F2008 and Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes at the start

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Hamilton had previously suffered a tyre failure in Istanbul in 2007, a mishap that dropped him from third to fifth in that race. That cost him two precious points, and while there were other late season dramas that contributed to him ultimately losing the World Championship, Turkey made a big difference.

Naturally McLaren fully investigated that incident at the time. Even before returning to Istanbul in 2008, the team had taken steps to ensure that it did not happen again.

"Lewis has a certain driving style which requires us to set the car and just loads up the front tyres a lot," team boss Ron Dennis explained.

"We're aware of it. All of the relevant data was provided to Bridgestone, and they felt it wasn't going to be an issue, but it proved to be."

It was in Friday practice that the team discovered that once again there was a potentially worrying issue, although it was kept quiet at the time.

"The answer is very, very simple - Turn 8," said McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh.

"We're very, very strong in high speed corners; we generate a lot of front end. In fact last year it was a chunking problem in the tyre, this was a delamination in the sidewall, so this was a different problem this weekend.

"We're generating high vertical loads through those corners, and I think Bridgestone acknowledge that.'

The problem was examined overnight on the Friday, and even before Saturday morning practice, the team was looking at three stops as a potential strategy, simply because it would break the race up into four bite-size chunks, and minimise the mileage run on each set.

"It was decided on Saturday before we were running in P3 as a consequence of durability concerns on the tyres," said Whitmarsh of the three-stopper.

"So from that point on we knew that we had a problem there. Obviously we didn't advertise the fact, but with Lewis in particular, we had a problem.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008, leads Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes and Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber F1.08

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008, leads Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes and Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber F1.08

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

"We took a number of measures with Bridgestone. We came here running the pressures and camber that they specified. We then increased the pressures on Saturday morning, hoping that would solve the problem, and in fact Bridgestone were very confident that it would solve the problem.

"It didn't sufficiently to give us the comfort that we needed. We made some adjustments, and we limited the range for the race."

As far as the team was concerned, there was a clear explanation as to why Hamilton was affected, and Kovalainen wasn't.

"They've got a slightly different set-up, which puts a bit more load on the front tyres on Lewis's car," said Whitmarsh.

"Lewis was reasonably aggressive through Turn 8 – very, very quick incidentally – but he changed his style and driving line on Saturday.

"On a circuit like this when you see there's a concern with tyres you've got to put safety first.

"We took a decision which I don't regret. I regret the fact that we had to make a decision, but we made a decision which was, 'How do we run this race safely for Lewis?'

"I think it was the right decision with the information that we had available at the time."

The bottom line was that Hamilton went into qualifying knowing that he would have to make three stops when two was optimal. That meant he absolutely had to be on pole to have any chance of converting that strategy into a decent result.

This was the era of qualifying with race fuel, and he had one advantage in that the schedule automatically meant he would be light – indeed come the race he eventually came in on lap 16 compared with 19 for Massa, and 21 for Kimi Raikkonen. But there were added complications.

As Whitmarsh noted, he had to adjust his line for Turn 8, and more importantly, there was clearly some debate about which tyres to use. He felt more comfortable on the harder prime, which was of course a highly unusual choice for qualifying.

In the end he had to settle for third on the grid, behind Massa and teammate Heikki Kovalainen. His demeanour after the session indicated that things hadn't gone to plan.

It wasn't hard to guess that he was frustrated because he knew he was lighter than Kovalainen (in fact it was by a significant amount), but what we didn't know was that he was also already committed to that extra stop. From third it was going to be hard work.

Going straight into the FIA press conference he basically admitted that the choice of prime had been a mistake (although he emphasised that it was his choice).

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes, leads Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-23 Mercedes, leads Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

An hour or so later, having talked to the team, he had changed his tune. A cynic might think that his views had been "corrected" by the management (a quarter of a century earlier John Watson was given a dressing down by Dennis for referring to "his" tyre choice rather than "ours"), but Hamilton really did take a look at the numbers, and revise his opinion.

"Coming into Q3 I had to make a decision," said Hamilton. "The team rely on me to make that decision.

"At the end of the day I'm the one that's out there, I'm the only one that really knows what's going on. I think we actually did make the right decision.

"For us that was the best tyre to use, but at the time I thought this wasn't the tyre I should have used.

"I've just been looking at the data, and it was the right decision. I did the best job I could in Q1, in Q2 it was clear the soft tyre wasn't good for me, and my engineer just told me that my decision was right. The hard tyre was the right tyre for me. We [Hamilton and Kovalainen] drive differently."

He said he had good reason to look a little downbeat after the session: "Whenever you go into qualifying you feel you just haven't done a perfect job. As I said, I feel the lap was good, but it wasn't good enough obviously.

"For sure we're third, and it's better than we've had for the last few races, so it's not all doom and gloom.

"We're in a position to be able to attack on the first lap, and I think we're going to be in a good position to challenge for the win. But it's going to be tough, it's always tough from the back.

"I want to win just as much as anyone else, and sometimes you feel if something's not 100%, then it needs to be improved."

On Sunday, it all came together. Crucially he jumped Kovalainen, who made a bad start from the dirty side of the grid, had contact with Raikkonen, and immediately fell out of contention with a puncture.

Aided a little by his three-lap fuel weight advantage Hamilton then stuck with leader Massa through the first stint, Hamilton on primes, and Massa on options.

After the first stops he surprised us all by not only reeling the Brazilian in, but also passing him in great style.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2008

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Both Ferrari drivers felt uncomfortable on their second set of options, and suggested that they might have done better on primes, but nevertheless there was a lot of Hamilton magic involved in that pass.

His extra stop meant that Hamilton eventually dropped back behind Massa. However, he kept pushing throughout, and did enough to ensure that he stayed ahead of Raikkonen. To be fair Raikkonen was nursing some front endplate damage after his first lap clash with Kovalainen.

Massa eventually crossed the line 3.7s ahead of Hamilton, with Raikkonen just 0.5s behind the McLaren in third.

Second place was an outcome that even McLaren could not have predicted at the start, and it earned points that would prove crucial come the end of the season.

"To be sub optimal in your strategy and be so close to winning shows that we were really, really quick," said Whitmarsh.

"Lewis did a fantastic job. I guess Lewis being third in Q3 was the slip of the weekend, the durability of the tyres has been a setback to us, but overall, the team has done a fantastic job.

"The reality is that we wouldn't have three-stopped on either car unless we had to, and I believe that both cars had a reasonable chance of winning, had we been able to conventionally two-stop."

While it may have become clear well before the final stop that Hamilton was not going to beat Massa the strategic variety made for an entertaining afternoon.

Even Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali was impressed by McLaren's approach.

"Of course the performance that we saw today of McLaren during the race was very good," he said.

"And I always said that they are very strong, and I believe that. I think that today I saw another standard that is completely different from the past, that McLaren in order to let's say attack us changed the philosophy of the race, and changed the philosophy of qualifying, above all with Lewis.

"So I think this is important, because they have to react on the performance that we are doing.'

Given that Hamilton had already spilled the beans about the specific tyre concerns in the post-race press conference, it was interesting that Domenicali was keen to attribute McLaren's strategy to a response to Ferrari's recent dominance.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren in parc ferme

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren in parc ferme

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

One question remained. Could Hamilton have actually won if he'd taken pole and been able to escape from Massa in that first stint? We'll never know.

"I would have said from pole it would have been difficult," said Whitmarsh. "But given the performance that he gave in the race, he possibly could have done..."

Bearing in mind this was another Ferrari win, Dennis was surprisingly upbeat afterwards. He was keen to emphasise that without his first lap puncture, Kovalainen – on a relatively heavy load – could have been right there as well.

"I think he [Lewis] did a great job," said Dennis. "He was very disciplined, he did everything that was asked. We asked him to overtake Massa and he did. That was quite impressive! It was, 'If you can, do it,' and he did, and he did it very cleanly.

"Heikki was very, very quick, he was a bit disappointed to get a cut tyre off a skirmish with Raikkonen at the start, but we picked that up with the telemetry.

"It was slow enough that we could do one lap behind the safety car, and avoid coming in with the pitlane closed. So that was a pretty good call.

"He would have been very strong. You can't predict, but he had every opportunity today to win his first race. But that's life!"

Dennis could now see some light at the end of the tunnel, as if he felt that after four straight wins Ferrari's claim on the top step of the podium would end soon.

"I think we came here with the ability to get good results," said the team boss. "I don't like saying we would have won, but obviously I don't think there was any doubt that Ferrari was pushing hard from beginning to end. It was a very close race.

"With all of these cars you're forced to compromise on trying to keep the rear tyre alive. It just requires a knife edge set-up, and getting it right is quite difficult. But we're getting more and more knowledge of the car, and in the end, we're getting the job done. There's a long way to go."

A fortnight later luck would go Hamilton's way when he survived contact with the barrier to win in Monaco, allowing him to take over the world championship lead. However, it was to be far from a straightforward season for the main contenders.

Podium: second place Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Race winner Felipe Massa, Ferrari, third place Kimi Raikkönen, Ferrari and Francesco Uguzzoni, Ferrari chief engineer

Podium: second place Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Race winner Felipe Massa, Ferrari, third place Kimi Raikkönen, Ferrari and Francesco Uguzzoni, Ferrari chief engineer

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

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Series Formula 1
Author Adam Cooper