Despite what the Internet will tell you, simple human error and confusion cost Lewis Hamilton the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.
If nothing else, it was a timely reminder that at the heart of our sport lay not just computers, but banks of people making split-second decisions – and sometimes they get it wrong.
“We simply got the calculation wrong. We thought that we would have a bigger gap – a couple of seconds more – but we didn’t.”
It would be fair to say that Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff has endured a difficult couple of days following this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.
When Max Verstappen misjudged the braking distance of Romain Grosjean into St Devote on lap 64, the resulting crash caused Race Control to, first, initiate a Virtual Safety Car period (VSC), before assigning the real safety car approximately thirty seconds later.
Amidst a cacophony of radio noise, confusion, misreading’s and changing circumstances, the Mercedes Formula One team and Lewis Hamilton conspired amongst themselves to blow a significant advantage at the front, eventually costing Hamilton the race.
Mercedes still won – although the victory was celebrated by Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel taking 2nd spot – but for a dominant weekend’s performance, Hamilton would be rewarded with just a 3rd place.
The reigning champion tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve and the shock on the Briton’s face palpable, but let us please dispense with the nonsensical conspiracy theories – those meandering thought bubbles really are not worth the time of day.
Shortly after the race, the first piece fell into place courtesy of Hamilton just as the safety car had been called. Glancing up to one of the big screens, Hamilton noted, “I saw the team out in the pit-lane […] and thought Nico was pitting,” before adding, “I came in with full confidence that the others had done the same.”
In reality, Rosberg had not stopped and the Mercedes crew’s presense in the pitbox was a sign of readiness in case Ferrari chose to stop, yet the red team had no intention of pitting Vettel, as revealed by Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene. “In the key moment of the race Inaki Rueda, our race strategist, told everybody to keep calm and stay out on track, while the Mercedes came in for fresh tyres.”
As far as the Scuderia were concerned, stopping would have done little to improve their situation – tyre wear was still solid, and although pressures were dropping behind the safety car, track position is king at Monaco.
Just prior to the safety car, Vettel was still lapping in the late 1’19s–early 1’20s range while in clear air, with Rosberg running to a similar pace. It is highly unlikely that fresh rubber would improve Vettel’s chances – something that Hamilton would later find out for himself.
Out front, Hamilton, was clearly enjoying himself and was stretching his gap to Rosberg by approximately half-a-second to one second per lap. The race had long since been bagged by the Englishman.
By the time the race had been neutralised on lap 64, Hamilton’s lead was a pretty 19.1s; however during the initial changeover from Virtual Safety Car to the actual safety car, that gap extended to 25.7s – and this is where Mercedes engaged a sort of fuzzy logic between the driver and pitwall.
Fearing dropping tyre pressures and under the assumption that Rosberg was stopping or had already stopped, it appears Hamilton triggered an impression that his tyres were badly degrading. According to Wolff, “There was the information that the temperatures dropped and that there was no grip any more on the prime tyres – the numbers just added up.”
Come the 65th tour, the leader had caught the safety car in the final sector, slowing significantly as he lined up behind Bernd Mayländer. In this short period, Hamilton lost twelve seconds to this field, with Wolff acknowedging that the lack of a GPS system around Monaco served to mask just how much time Hamilton had surrendered to the rest of the field.
“We’ll analyse and work out what went wrong, but we’ll do that collectively and try to improve for the future,” said Wolff. “We we’re in a situation of waging common sense against data. Common sense is okay, but it doesn’t win races in the long run. You have to rely on data – and now we have to find out why we got it wrong today.”
As Hamilton emerged out of the pitlane, Rosberg had long since gone through, while Vettel pipped the Mercedes man to the pitlane exit timing line by only a couple of metres. For all his pushing on supersofts in the later tours, Hamilton could not break through back into at least 2nd place and indeed had to fight a minor rearguard action from Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) too.
In all the noise, a mistake was made and contrary to popular opinion, these happen from time-to-time. For this one mistake, Mercedes have also taken twenty-one race wins, as well as a Drivers’ and Constructors’ title since the beginning of 2014 and they will win many more Grands Prix this year.
For now, the championship lead has had another chunk removed from it and the gap between Hamilton and Rosberg is just ten points. The biggest question is ‘will this galvanise Hamilton again or will Rosberg emerge stronger?’