For the 2015 Abu Dhabi GP, Mercedes AMG F1 set out to counter the criticism from the media that they were ‘remote controlling’ their drivers in terms of race strategy. Toto Wolff relished in pointing this out to Sky TV following the chequered flag: “This time there were two strategies that could have worked so we left it to him [Hamilton], his race engineer and his side of the garage to decide which strategy he would rather go for.”
Lewis also complained in Brazil and Mexico about the lack of opportunity for him to challenge Rosberg by switching strategies during the race, so Mercedes’ response may have been designed to give Lewis his head on the issue.
Mercedes have been consistent throughout the year, insisting there is one race strategist for the whole team and he will call the strategy best for Mercedes Benz and not individual drivers. In Abu Dhabi all this was to change.
Having saved some tyre life on Saturday in Q2, Rosberg commanded the first stint pulling out almost 1.5 seconds on Hamilton during the first lap after the lights went out. Over the next 5 laps Nico eaked out a further 0.7 seconds over his team mate in P2 before putting the hammer down and putting a further 3.3 seconds on Hamilton in the 4 laps before he stopped.
Hamilton’s ‘team’ decided to stop him the following lap, which was clearly the right call because Rosberg was now going even quicker on his second set of tyres. Having started on the super soft tyres and taken the soft tyre at the first stop, all options were now open to Lewis and his side of the garage.
Hamilton set about closing the 6 second gap to Rosberg in a measured manner, averaging just under 0.3s a lap quicker than the German. During this stint Lewis asked his race engineer whether a one stop strategy was doable. “If I back off now and look after these tyres to the end, how much time would I need to slow?” Hamilton queried on the radio.
Lewis was informed by Peter Bonnington the numbers had been crunched and this would be impossible, so his strategy should now be to run longer than Rosberg in this second stint. Toto Wolff confirmed Hamilton’s side of the garage thought this would give them the option of running the faster super soft tyre at the end of the race. “It was an off-set strategy and it was worth consideration,” said Wolff. “Go a bit longer, see how that pans out and then if you could have made that tyre last he could have gone on the option [tyre] and that would have been a real go to win the race”.
Rosberg stuck to the optimum strategy and pitted at the end of lap 31 for another set of the harder tyre compound. He emerged around 20 seconds behind Hamilton but was now set to run to the end of the race.
Lewis ploughed on for another ten laps on his second stint, but was losing an average of 1.3 seconds a lap to Rosberg, then on lap 40 Hamilton was told his final stop was imminent and asked whether he wanted the soft or super soft tyre fitting for the final stint.
Mercedes later revealed Lewis refused to respond to this question, so Bonnington and Lewis strategy ‘team’ decided to fit the soft tyre. Toto Wolff later confirmed this decision was made because Hamilton’s ‘team’ were concerned “the [super soft] tyre wouldn’t [last].”
Lewis emerged around 12 seconds behind Rosberg, but on fresh rubber he quickly made inroads into his teammates lead at the required 1 second a lap. However, during this phase of the race there were a series of radio instructions given to Hamilton and clearly the team were forcing his hand.
“Ok so strat mode 10, strat mode 10. If you do not comply we will just turn Nico to strat mode 6”. Lewis apparently ignored the instruction and the next Mercedes message was to Rosberg. “So Nico go strat 6, strat 6.”
Around a lap later, Hamilton was now given a team order. “Ok so strat mode 10, strat mode 10 – that is an instruction.”
Lewis apparently this time complied because not long after, Rosberg was switched back to his original engine setting. The radio message confirmed this, “And strat 10, strat 10 please Nico.”
Following the race, Lewis was asked about his tyre strategy in the bull pen round of interviews. It was put to Lewis that the radio transmissions suggested he wanted to stay out, but that Mercedes had called him in. Hamilton appeared to be confused by the question asserting “the team asked me to stop and I stopped.”
Hamilton was pressed on the matter and asked if he wanted to stay on the second set of tyres to the end. After a couple of false starts in answering the question, Lewis replied: “Errrm… no well I would have tried to see… I think… I think if errrm… that was ever an option before – perhaps I could have made them last for.. for a while, but at the time I pitted… for sure I couldn’t take them to the end, I’d taken too much out of the,. But I think if I’d… I’d opted for them earlier on… I think I might have been able to stretch it to the end.”
Lewis was then asked if he’d taken the super soft tyre at his final pit stop, whether he could have caught Rosberg and won the race. Hamilton responded, “Errm… I don’t know. At the end of the day the gap was way to big…. We left it too big… particularly on the same tyres… there’s no way you’re going to able to catch that gap up…so I mean I did everything I could, pushed as hard as I could… which was a shame because I was quicker in the middle stint… so to then… to have that pace and come out 11 seconds behind.. yaeh that’s not such a great feeling.” Lewis would have us believe that the responsibility for decisions on his strategy lay firmly elsewhere rather than with himself.
Lewis did concede, he didn’t have the big picture and “You have to rely on the engineers to give you the optimum strategy at that point,” emphasising again the problem he faced having run long in stint two. “Honestly I don’t really understand it, I came out 11 seconds behind and had a mountain to climb and then the tyres went off.”
As it happened, unlike Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel did fit the super soft tyre for his final stint which was longer than Hamilton’s and the German subsequently made a net gain on the race winner of around 4 seconds.
Lewis Hamilton appears to be suggesting he just followed the team’s instructions and even questions the strategy he had for the second set of tyres. Though Toto Wolff would have us believe Lewis had freedom of strategy and in fact abdicated the responsibility over the final tyre choice back to his pit wall crew.
Maybe Mercedes were just demonstrating to Lewis that the optimum strategy that they have been giving the lead driver on track this season – is in fact the fastest was of approaching the race and that Hamilton’s complaints in Mexico and Brazil were groundless.
Lewis may have left McLaren with the offer of more freedom for his off track activities, yet Mercedes have created a straight jacket for their drivers ‘on track’ opportunities – such as Lewis has never known.
The mystery around the ‘strat’ mode radio instructions unfortunately will have to remain exactly that, due to the fact that neither the BBC or SKY raised the matter with anyone wearing Petronas branded clothing.
Ted Kravitz of SKY did however stir the pot a little when reporting in his ‘notebook’ that Lewis had made a remark casting doubt on his long term future at Mercedes, saying ‘he hoped’ to be with the Brackley team for three more years.