Decisions at the speed of an F1 car

It is wrong to criticise Mercedes’ race engineer for Hamilton receiving conflicting information, but the team had just a few seconds to make that call while the champion drove a 1,000-horsepower Grand Prix car in tricky conditions.

ewis Hamilton finished on top of the podium after starting 14th on the grid in one of the most memorable races of his career.   -  AFP

The German Grand Prix may prove to be the pivotal race in this year’s World Championship battle. Local hero Sebastian Vettel was in fine form in front of his fans and his brilliant qualifying lap put him in a fantastic position to take victory at a circuit that is 20 minutes from the town where he was born. This was going to be a fairy tale day for Sebastian Vettel, and for the first 51 laps it all seemed to be going to plan. Then the dream turned into a nightmare.

As the drizzle turned into rainfall, the Ferrari driver continued his march at the head of the field. On lap 45 when the rain started to fall, Seb’s lead over teammate Kimi Raikkonen was 3.2 seconds, with Valtteri Bottas another 3 seconds behind and Lewis Hamilton 23.2 seconds behind his title rival. In the next seven laps until his mistake, Vettel had increased that lead by another 6 seconds over the Finns, underlining just how much he was pushing on.

The one thing I wonder, and I doubt they will ever tell us, is whether Ferrari were keeping Vettel informed of Hamilton’s pace and therefore getting him to push on. In that same window of seven laps, Hamilton on fresh, hot ultra-soft tyres, which work much better in the greasy conditions, slashed 11.5 seconds off Seb’s lead.

Pushing just that little bit too hard into the braking zone will come back to haunt Sebastian for a long time. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to win your home race and take a big lead in the World Championship.

I always found that after a bad race weekend, the pain took a day to set in because you’re still slightly in shock and pumped with adrenaline on the Sunday. It’s the Monday morning where the pain, anger and frustration sets in. Vettel is a very experienced driver now and one who has had more success in this sport than most people can even dream of. But this will hurt. Instead of waking up 21 points ahead in the championship battle (and with a hangover after a celebratory night out in Heppenheim with his old mates), he now finds himself 17 points behind Hamilton.

It’s funny how certain mistakes as a driver stick in your mind. For example, I still clearly remember a qualifying lap from my Formula 3 days in Knockhill in 2004 where I was battling for pole position and carried a bit too much speed through the chicane, which meant I ended up in the gravel and down in fifth on the grid. If only I went through there a fraction slower. Vettel is a very cerebral driver and he will be replaying that decision to brake where he did and not 5m earlier again and again for a very long time.

It’s incredibly hard to be the race leader in those situations – you set the benchmark in terms of pace and deciding how much risk to take, especially on the entry to the corners. The others behind tend to use you as a reference, although in this instance he was out of sight of the chasing pack.

The mixed conditions created utter chaos on the pit wall for the teams, and calm, clear lines of communication become so important in these moments. When you have rain falling at just one part of the track, it’s so hard to make a call on tyres and really it’s very hard to fault anyone for making the wrong call. When the safety car was deployed, it meant that key decisions had to be made and I do think that, at these times, having a streamlined process is something beneficial.

The teams these days have a lot of people involved with the strategy calls – the individual car race engineers, the chief race engineer, the chief strategist and their team of strategists, the tyre engineers plus, of course, the “race ops” engineers back at base who are also crunching numbers. Throw in the team principal, team manager, chief mechanic and the pit stop crew and you’ve got a lot of people involved between thinking about doing something, deciding to do something and actually doing something!

Sebastian Vettel crashed while leading the German Grand Prix — his home race — and now trails championship rival Hamilton by 17 points.   -  Getty Images

 

The confusion on the radio we heard from Pete Bonnington, the Mercedes race engineer, to Hamilton was undoubtedly an effect of trying to juggle two cars in the pits and making a very quick decision on what to do. When the safety car was called, both Mercedes drivers were very close to the pit entry and the team had to make a call on whether to bring one or both cars in, plus choose what tyres to put them on as the rain had intensified at that point.

There were people in the paddock who were very quick to criticise Bonnington for that radio call, with conflicting information to Hamilton amid the stress of trying to drive a 1,000-horsepower Grand Prix car in tricky conditions. But I believe that they are wrong and it’s quite unfair to criticise Bono in that situation. The team had a few seconds to make that call and I’m sure that their internal intercom was full of chatter, and I have a lot of sympathy for the race engineer because they’re the ones ultimately instructing the drivers and therefore in the firing line when the radio transmissions get broadcast to millions of people around the world.

Sure, as a driver, you always prefer a single, clear instruction. But even if Hamilton didn’t win the race, I’m sure he would look back and realise that, under the circumstances, a degree of indecision is understandable. He was lucky to get back on track unscathed via the grass, and in the end I think that the stewards made the right decision to only reprimand him without a time penalty. What he did wasn’t dangerous, and although I saw lots of people on Twitter immediately point to Baku as an example of why he should have been penalised, the pit lane entry on the two tracks are very different and therefore the instructions from Charlie Whiting in the event notes are different. I appreciate that for people at home, this can get confusing because it may appear to be an inconsistent application of the rule, but that’s unfortunately the way it will always be as long as we have tracks that are all different – and long may that continue!

Further down the field, we saw plenty of people pre-empting the rain and gambling on intermediate tyres, while Pierre Gasly and Toro Rosso even went to the extreme wet weather tyre. Electing to guess what the weather gods are going to do in a lap or two is always a dangerous game to play, but I suppose some people felt like they had nothing at all to lose.

These situations are about trust but also having the guts to stand up and take full responsibility if the call is wrong. The driver trusts his team to look at the radar and make a decision, while the team has to trust that if a driver chooses to stay out on track on slicks in slippery conditions, then they’re doing it because they feel like they can hang on.

Many years ago, I remember having a conversation with Sir Patrick Head, the co-founder of the Williams team and one of the most noted engineers in F1 history, about how to make these decisions so quickly when the stakes are so high. His reply: “When there’s water on the track, you change tyres. Otherwise just bloody get on with it.” A good dose of old school racing practicality is always helpful when things get chaotic!

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