Lewis Hamilton only managed to finish fifth at the Turkish Grand Prix, thanks in no small part to a confused pit stop strategy from Mercedes.
Lewis Hamilton isn’t known to be someone who hides how he feels. The Englishman does not rant and rave, but he does not hesitate in speaking up. But his anger at the end of the Turkish Grand Prix on Sunday (October 10) was a few notches higher than what is normal.
To pit or not to pit; that was the question. And whether it was nobler to let Hamilton stay out and suffer on tyres that were worn but, crucially, still giving him plenty of grip. Poor Shakespearean analogies aside, Mercedes eventually opted to bring him in with a few laps remaining – even when Hamilton was clear he did not want to pit.
Thus, when he lost third position and emerged in fifth, his anger found an outlet on team radio. “F*** man, why did you give up that place? We shouldn’t have come in,” he said.
More was to come shortly thereafter. Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington, known to most fans and Hamilton himself as “Bono”, popped up on team radio to give information on the drivers behind.
“Leave me alone man,” came Hamilton’s curt response. It spoke volumes; not only does Hamilton share a cordial and tight-knit relationship with the Mercedes pit wall, but he is especially close to Bonnington.
Afterwards, Hamilton did not rule out the possibility that this was the moment that denied him an eighth world driver’s championship.
“Time will tell,” he said. “If I had stayed out you don’t know if I would have held position. But I am a risk-taker so I would have wanted to take that risk.”
Which begs the simple question: what was the right time to bring Hamilton into the pits?
The thinking on the pit wall seemed to have been to wait as long as possible before pitting Hamilton. The reason for this was two-fold; Hamilton was comfortable on the first set of intermediate tyres and there was a chance that the track would dry out and slicks would come into play.
The latter did not happen, as was demonstrated by Sebastian Vettel’s doomed single lap on the medium compound. Yet the fact that the team chose not to pit Hamilton around the same time as the frontrunners did was puzzling.
If Hamilton pitted then, he would have faced the same short drop-off in pace as everyone else did when tyre overheating kicked in. Yet that was manageable after a point, since the track did not dry enough anyway.
The faux pas is made worse by the fact that, on race day, Hamilton had shown he had the pace to win. He started 11th after taking a grid penalty for getting a new internal combustion engine. However, he had gained five positions in the space of 15 laps before getting up as high as third.
If he pitted along with the other drivers, he would have been taking them on in equal conditions. Hamilton is a tough driver to beat on an off day, but he was clearly on at Istanbul and could have finished ahead of Verstappen in the right circumstances.
It was the call to pit late – a result of a tug of war between driver and team – that led to him finishing behind his title rival. But the muddled thinking came at the worse time for the team.
Since 2014, Mercedes have won every world driver’s and constructor’s championship on offer. From the seven driver’s titles won, six alone have been claimed by Lewis Hamilton.
It is the type of domination not seen since Ferrari won five straight titles from 2000-04. And the main reason for this domination, aside from Mercedes mastering the turbo-hybrid engine regulations, has been astute strategy calls.
And if Lewis Hamilton is a risk-taker, Mercedes are the opposite. Every move made by the team is calculated; even the calls which seem risky on the onset appear supremely logical in hindsight.
Which makes their brain-freeze at Istanbul all the more uncharacteristic.
To be fair, Mercedes always believed that a change to new inters was needed. The main reason the change did not happen was because Hamilton believed he could make the tyres last.
But that’s the thing with drivers – they are in a bubble of their own. Teams have the benefit of data analysis and thus, the call in such situations should always rest with the team. McLaren and Lando Norris found that out the hard way at Russia.
And while it is impossible to predict the future, it does seem like the title is now Max Verstappen’s to lose due to this mix-up. A six-point lead with six races left doesn’t seem like a lot. But the remaining circuits do favour the Red Bull’s slightly.
This made getting maximum points for Hamilton on the day all the more important. Yet Mercedes leave Istanbul Park with serious doubts over their strategic prowess under pressure – and an almighty fight to win their eighth straight championship.