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Analysis: Mercedes trying to cover up British GP mistake

Mercedes is certain they made the right call to not pit under the safety car in the British Grand Prix, but do the numbers support the theory?

Media swarm Lewis Hamilton back during pre-season testing in 2016. This picture optimizes their current situation though, as a Mercedes strategy call has landed the team in headlines for the second time in two weeks.

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For the second week of Formula 1 running, Mercedes-AMG was forced to make a strategical decision to win a Grand Prix. In Austria, they kept Lewis Hamilton out, and he lost the race. In this weekend’s British Grand Prix, they did the same with both drivers and they both failed to win.

Lewis Hamilton came home in P2 as Sebastian Vettel went on to take a win Maurizio Arrivabene described as “well deserved.” So, why on earth are Mercedes applauding it as a correct decision?

This is not a joke, the team had this to say post-race:

“It was absolutely the right decision [to stay out],” Lewis Hamilton said, even though he originally commented over team-radio that not pitting had left him “no way to compete.”

Hamilton explained more in-depth post-race why he seemingly changed his mind:

“If I had followed them [Ferrari] into the pits I would have come out behind them on equal tyres and I would have struggled to get by them and most certainly would not have been second.”

Toto Wolff corroborated the claims post-race too, saying Mercedes “made the right call” with both cars. “We had planned to do the opposite to Ferrari,” Wolff revealed, “as it was our best chance to win.”

The Theory and its proof

But, was staying out really their best chance to win? What if, quite simply, Mercedes are covering up a strategical error in the British Grand Prix? There’s evidence that they had a quicker car than Ferrari, yet they seem to claim a different reality. What could’ve conspired if they had pitted behind the safety-car? Was taking track position really the “right call” as Wolff claims?

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Lewis Hamilton celebrates after sticking his Mercedes W09-hybrid on pole position for the 2018 British Grand Prix.

Toto Wolff didn’t shy away from the fact that Mercedes had a brilliant car in the British Grand Prix. “It was encouraging to see the underlying pace of the car,” he said, adding that Mercedes had better tyre wear than any other team, something they didn’t have a week ago in Austria.

Before the lap 33 safety-car for the stricken Alfa Romeo Sauber of Marcus Ericsson, Mercedes claim Valtteri Bottas was in a prime position to win the Grand Prix. Wolff said he was “closing fast” whilst James Allison added that Bottas was in “very good shape.”

Race lap data corroborates these claims; Bottas was 3.602s behind Vettel when Hamilton pit on lap 25. Vettel’s tyres were only a lap older than Bottas’ and the Mercedes hunted the Ferrari down, getting within 2.069s at the end of lap 32, just before the safety-car period.

In seven laps, Bottas had taken 1.533s out of Vettel on equal tyres, an average difference of 0.219s per lap. 

Between laps 10 and 19, both Vettel and Hamilton found themselves in clear air on the same tyres, the softs. Over these ten laps, Lewis Hamilton gained 5.944s on Sebastian Vettel, who’s tyres appeared to fall away, with reports of a severe front left blister.

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In ten laps, that’s a frighteningly quick average gain of 0.594s per lap for Hamilton.

Plus, Hamilton should’ve been slower because he had to make his way up from the back of the grid, which meant he spent more time off the racing line making overtakes and in the dirty air. Yet, he still went quicker.

On both occasions, Ferrari and Mercedes were in equal conditions on practically equal tyres and both times Mercedes has quicker raw pace.

So, what does this mean?

It’s simple: Mercedes effectively had a quicker car than Ferrari, and that shouldn’t be so unexpected. Sure, Ferrari definitely improved this weekend due to the addition of a new floor, but this is Mercedes, a team that had won every British Grand Prix in the hybrid era before this weekend.

James Allison acknowledged Hamilton’s “blinding pace” and how Ferrari were “more challenged” with tyre wear at Silverstone.

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Lewis Hamilton on-track during qualifying for the British Grand Prix.

If Mercedes had pit Bottas and Hamilton when the safety-car came out on lap 33, they would’ve come out in P2 and P5, respectively. The two Mercedes would’ve been on practically equal tyres to everyone around them. For Bottas to win, he would’ve only needed to get past Vettel. For Hamilton to be victorious, he would’ve passed Raikkonen, Verstappen, Bottas and Vettel.

The only real reason that’s been put forward to explain Mercedes’ lack of a pit stop is their lack of fresh soft tyres. But, in saying that, Mercedes had worn soft tyres which had only been used for a few laps. It’s hard to believe this would’ve been the deciding factor.

Given the pace advantage Mercedes clearly held earlier in the race, it would’ve made sense that they could’ve challenged Ferrari if they had pit. Yet, Hamilton, as mentioned earlier, refuted that he wouldn’t have been able to challenge the Ferrari on equal tyres.

View it in this sense: it took Sebastian Vettel a whole six laps to make it past Valtteri Bottas, with a DRS-assisted, well-executed, and nervy inside dive at Brooklands. Bottas had medium tyres that were twenty laps old whilst Vettel was on a fresh set of soft tyres.

Or, take the times set between lap 48 and the end of the race. This is when Hamilton slotted into second behind the leading Vettel. Originally, the gap was 2.156s (Hamilton lost time getting held up by the struggling Bottas).

In the ensuing final five laps, Vettel’s gap to Hamilton in second increased by just 0.457s, proving Vettel couldn’t definitively pull away from the Mercedes at the end, despite having significantly fresher and faster tyres.

This suggests that Mercedes certainly had superior pace to the Ferrari, which is backed up by their historical strength at fast and flowing circuits.

How Pirelli help to solidify this theory.

Head of Car Racing Mario Isola said after FP2 the gaps between Britain’s three compounds were “slightly bigger than expected.” He later said the gap between the hard and the soft tyres was two seconds, suggesting the medium tyre’s pace lay in the middle.

In theory, the soft tyre should’ve been one second quicker than the medium. Data collected during Friday practice confirms these suspicions. In FP1, the quickest soft tyre time was 0.838s faster than the quickest medium tyre time and that same calculation grew to 1.039s in FP2.

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Pirelli’s data supports the theory that Mercedes would’ve been quicker than Ferrari in the British Grand Prix.

Pirelli’s data suggests the soft tyre was anywhere between eight tenths to a second quicker than the medium, and yet the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton could match the soft tyre-clad Vettel on worn mediums. It doesn’t make sense.

“We took the improved track position and knew it would be tough to hold on,” Wolff claimed. He later said Hamilton’s drive was “maximum damage limitation” given his incident with Kimi Raikkonen on the first lap.

The cover-up theory

This is what has been determined so far in chronological order:

  1. Lewis Hamilton was six tenths quicker on average than Sebastian Vettel between laps 10 and 19 when they had equally worn soft tyres and were both in fresh air.
  2. Valtteri Bottas was two tenths quicker on average than Sebastian Vettel between laps 25 and 32 when they had equally worn medium tyres and were running together.
  3. The soft tyre is roughly one second quicker than the medium.
  4. Mercedes strongly believe they made the right call not to pit under the safety-car, saying they wanted to do the opposite to Ferrari.
  5. Mercedes strongly believe they would not have been able to challenge Ferrari if they had pitted under the safety-car.

It just doesn’t add up that Mercedes would then claim they made the right call not to pit when earlier race pace suggested they could’ve taken the fight to Ferrari. Instead, Mercedes uncharacteristically concluded Ferrari was quicker, and as acknowledged by Valtteri Bottas, the team took a “risk” to stay out for track position.

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From left-to-right: Valtteri Bottas, Toto Wolff, Lewis Hamilton – all of whom claim that they made the right call not to pit in the British Grand Prix. But, are they just saying that?

But, what if Mercedes is falsely claiming they made the right call to protect themselves from a hardship they faced just one week ago: bad press. Mercedes openly admitted they made a strategy mistake in Austria; the team’s strategist James Vowles even took to the radio to claim, “I have thrown away the win today.”

The story got blown up in the press. Toto Wolff had to clarify the team still had faith in Vowles as a strategist; James Allison had to claim that Vowles had “broad shoulders” to send the message; whilst later that week Christian Horner said getting Vowles to send the message was “unfair.”

By taking a different approach and sticking to their guns in Britain, the story seems to have died away a little bit. The unfortunate thing is, no one will ever know what would’ve happened in the race if Mercedes had pit.

And, no one will likely ever know if Mercedes have covered up there mistake in the British Grand Prix.

Just remember though, Hamilton originally questioned the decision not to pit, but later said he thought it was correct…

Steven Walton is an 18-year-old Journalism Student at the Ara Institute of Canterbury. He previously attended St Andrew's College in Christchurch, where he excelled at History and Classical Studies. Steven is the Editor-in-Chief at Green Flag F1 and spends most of his days living, breathing, and immersing in the Formula 1 world.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    July 9, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    Vettel was not pushing his tyres on the mediums stint. He knew he had to make them last till lap 52, and hence was prepared for pressure from Bottas – his tyres seemed good before safety car.
    On the softs stint, why don’t you mention the fact that Vettel intially pulled a 6 second gap – so he had to stress more than Bottas and Hamilton. Also, the fact that Hamilton had to overtake so many cars implies that Mercedes had to use higher engine modes.

  2. Grigoris

    July 10, 2018 at 1:25 am

    As the above guy said, you are missing a big point here. Vettel was in lead, he didn’t have any reason to push. He wanted to save engine and mostly tyres. There is no need to win with 20s gap.
    There is nothing to win from this gap.

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