brought to you by TJ13’s Editor in Chief Andrew Huntley-Jacobs
If dominating a Formula One weekend from FP1 through to the last 14 laps of a race means a driver deserves to win the race, then Lewis Hamilton was robbed at the 2015 Monaco GP.
Having made his one and only pit stop, Lewis proceeded to disappear up the road and by the end of lap 64, he was almost 26 seconds ahead of the second placed driver, his team mate Nico Rosberg.
Then in a little over two minutes it all went terribly wrong for Hamilton, as he stopped for a second time to put on the a new set of the much faster super-soft tyres.
Following the race, Lewis was visibly distraught though he realised his fate was sealed much earlier. Rejoining the track in third place, following his extra stop, Lewis commented on pit to car radio: “I’ve lost this race, haven’t I?”
After the podium ceremony, Toto Wolff took full responsibility on behalf of the trackside team members. “There is nothing else to do than apologise to Lewis,” said Wolff, “it was a misjudgement in the heat of the moment.
“I’m sorry for Lewis that we made the mistake and I’m sorry for Lewis. It should have been a perfect one-two today. We made a decision and it was the wrong decision. We need to analyse it and to apologise to Lewis.”
So how did one of the biggest strategy errors since Ferrari most likely cost Alonso a title in Abu Dhabi come about?
It all began on lap 64 with the youngest ever driver in Formula One, making an basic error, which saw him collide with Romain Grosjean down the pit, straight. The result was the debut of the Virtual Safety car.
Under the virtual safety car, the drivers must circulate below a maximum lap time, which also sees the time differences between the drivers maintained.
Up front, it’s radio silence and all calm. Regular laps in the low 1:19 region and Lewis leads by 17.4s. Nice job. #MonacoGP
Lap 63 tweet
Over the course of laps 63 and 64, Lewis had extended his lead over Rosberg from 17.422 seconds to 25.727 seconds. Interestingly a whopping 6 seconds of this was due to the deployment of the virtual safety car on lap 64.
This was possible because the drivers under the VSC and when catching the safety car are not restricted to a speed limit, but a time over the lap. So Lewis had less track to cover to the end of the lap than the cars behind him. He could therefore still make the delta time but was travelling a lot more quickly.
This gap was more than enough to pit Hamilton because a comfortable pit stop required just 20-21 seconds.
To understand what how Mercedes got themselves into such a mess, its vital to know where the cars were on track during lap 64.
Lewis was 30 seconds ahead of Verstappen and Romain Grosjean, when the Dutch driver made his mistake. However, it was a further 22 seconds before the virtual safety car was deployed.
This meant at racing speed, Hamilton was just 13-14 seconds from the point of no return on lap 64, where he would have to commit to a pit stop. Reduced speed under the virtual safety car meant that this ‘thinking’ time was in fact a second or two longer.
Mercedes sent out the mechanics into the pit lane with a change of tyres for Lewis should the call be made for him to pit. However, the team decided to leave Hamilton out, instructed him accordingly. Lewis then completed lap 64.
30 seconds after the deployment of the virtual safety car, the safety car itself was released. Hamilton had just passed the pit lane entrance and was on his way to start lap 65 at this moment.
In the post race FIA press conference Lewis stated, “I saw a screen, it looked like the team was out and I thought that Nico had pitted. Obviously I couldn’t see the guys behind so I thought the guys behind were pitting”.
The TV screen, which Lewis referred to, was on the way up the hill after St Devote. Rosberg had not reached Rascasse or the pit lane entry, when Lewis saw the screen.
However, there was a crucial misunderstanding that came about because Lewis did not convey his thoughts to the team, that he was concerned about Rosberg being on fresh options.
Hamilton challenged the decision which had been made that he should ‘stay out’, and told the team, “these tyres are going to drop in temperature”.
Lewis had of course taken more out of the second set of tyres than Rosberg and Vettel, building up the 7 second lead he had when Rosberg stopped first time to 19.196 seconds by the end of lap 63. This may have been a reason to switch Hamilton’s tyres, though Wolff confirms Hamilton’s comments.
Toto Wolff confirmed after the race Hamilton’s comments had concerned the team. “He made a call saying the tyre temperatures have dropped and there is no grip anymore.”
By now the chatter on the internal team radio had grown as Toto Wolff and others now joined the debate. Ferrari pitting Vettel for new super soft tyres was now introduced into the discussion.
Given the gap to Vettel, Mercedes had to make the decision to stop Lewis some time before the Ferrari team would become visible making a dash to the pit box, to be ready for the quadruple world champion.
“They could have made a stop – when Lewis was at Rascasse, [Rosberg and Vettel] weren’t even at Tabac,” confirmed Wolff to SKY F1.
Further, the spectre of Monaco 2014 could have been hanging over the team strategists, when Lewis queried why he wasn’t pitted under a safety car. That decision was later thought to have cost Hamilton another opportunity for a win in Monaco. Suddenly the team were today faced with a similar prospect were they to ignore Lewis’ concerns.
During lap 65. Hamilton extended his lead over Rosberg by several seconds, then it diminished again to around 21 seconds just as Lewis exited the swimming pool. This happens because the drivers know when they start a new lap they can blast through the first section of the lap at speeds above the VSC delta lap time or the delta lap time they have been given to drive to whilst catching the safety car.
The drivers slow down to compensate later in the lap.
Mercedes made two fatal errors. Firstly, Lewis caught the safety car on the approach to Rascasse. The safety car is obviously travelling more slowly than the cars who are catching it. Lewis then suffered a net time loss to Rosberg as he was approaching the pit lane entrance.
The safety car then continued on but Rosberg and Vettel were still some way back. Rosberg pushed flat out having crossed the start finish line, as both he and Hamilton had done the previous lap.
This extra Rosberg speed plus the net time loss Lewis suffered when he caught the safety car created the window of opportunity for Rosberg and Vettel.
Yet one of the cold hard realities in the post mortem will be, had Hamilton simply obeyed the instructions from the team to “stay out”, the fateful pit stop would never have taken place. Add to that, Lewis was unhappy with the team’s strategy which failed to pit him last year, and so he added an incremental element of doubt into the confusion over whether Lewis should receive a change of tyres.
Hamilton was remarkably restrained following the race, and maybe this was because he was aware of the small part he played in the big debate described by Niki Lauda as, “a lot of people talking – and the wrong decision.”
Lewis conceded in the media pen, “I feel content in my heart; I did everything I could,” admitting “It was a collective decision.”
Of course it was Mercedes pit wall who failed to correctly asses at the last corner that Lewis no longer had a sufficient gap to get in and get out and remain in the lead, but by then the die was cast and it had been decided that Lewis would be coming into the pits.
Rosberg was magnanimous in victory and his first comment of the podium interview was, “I’m very happy of course, but I know also that it was just a lot of luck today. Lewis drove brilliantly and deserved the win for sure”
Bitter sweet for Mercedes is that Nico Rosberg now joins an exclusive club of just four F1 drivers in history, as Hamilton did in China. Nico’s three consecutive race wins in Monaca places him in the record books alongside Ayrton Senna, Graham Hill and Alain Prost
When the dust settles, this will be viewed as just an unfortunate set back for Lewis – but hardly tragic. The result of a real F1 tragedy sees a young man nigh on brain dead, just 25 miles up the coast from the latest procession that was 99% of the 2015 Monaco GP.