However we slice and dice it, the Austrian GP weekend was good for Formula One. In an era where race strategy is now making a difference, the Styrian venue played its part in dealing the cards which would affect the race winner.
Nico Rosberg had of course on Saturday suffered a mechanical failure which saw him demoted to 6th place on the grid. This led the Mercedes strategists to lean toward a two stop race strategy for their German driver.
The plan for Lewis was to one stop and he was instructed to go to lap 23 on his starting compound of ultra-soft tyre. By contrast, the Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s behind Hamilton were on the more durable super soft compound – and also planning a one stop race.
This was a big ask for Hamilton.
“I was like I will never get to 23, because the other day I only did four laps,” Lewis explained after the race. “But [the weather] being cool for sure meant I could get further. But yeah, I was really happy with how I looked after tyres. It’s not a surprise, I’ve done it in other races…”
Lewis eventually made it to lap 21 on his starting tyres, whilst Mercedes pitted Rosberg from P3 on lap 10. Nico revealed, “I had 70 per cent rubber left, I could have gone a very long way,” he said. “So there’s no difference there. It was just strategy decision to stay ahead of everybody else, and we planned to go for the two-stop.”
The Mercedes drivers were now on different strategies with Lewis going to the end and defending from Kimi and Max Verstappen who were also one stopping. Meanwhile Nico was contra strategy and set for a possible battle with the two stopping Daniel Ricciardo.
The die was cast and as the race unfolded it began to appear the two stop strategy was the better plan as Paddy Lowe explained. “By the time we had got through the Safety Car and seen all the different paces it was clear that Nico’s two-stop was actually going to beat Lewis anyway.
“So even though Lewis was behind and able to do a one-stop, his best race had turned into a two-stop, and he had to compete with Nico head-to-head”.
Data from the one stopping Max Verstappen backs up Lowe’s assertions that the two stopping Rosberg on a third fresh set of tyres would have caught and passed Hamilton on his 50 lap old soft compounds.
Lewis was then given the opportunity to undercut Nico Rosberg on the final pit stop. The plan was for Lewis to attack an in lap, switch tyres and hit his out lap hard – which would then see him emerge ahead of Rosberg after he subsequently made his final stop one lap later than Hamilton.
But problems with Lewis’ left rear tyre being replaced by the pit crew and a less than perfect out lap saw him a few seconds behind Rosberg once again after the German had made his final stop.
Yet there was one last slice of good fortune to come Lewis Hamilton’s way, which may have proved decisive in his bid to catch Rosberg and win the race.
At the final round of stops, Lewis had been given a more durable set of the soft compound tyres, whilst Nico had the next grade down – the super soft.
Hamilton was initially perturbed by this, but was informed his tyre selection was the best available. In fact Paddy Lowe later confirmed it was a better choice than the one Nico had fitted.
“The soft was a better tyre, but we didn’t have a set of softs for Nico.”
The reason for this is simple. Mercedes pre-orders one extra set of the hardest tyre available for one of its drivers each weekend. This is done on a rotational basis. Whoever has the extra set runs them in Friday practice to gather data for the team.
This week the task fell to Lewis, but due to the rain on Friday, the extra set remained untouched.
As the race climax approached, the graining on Rosberg’s softer tyres was clearly worse than Hamilton’s, such that on the final approach to turn one, Nico was unable to place his car exactly where required. This allowed Lewis the run on him up to turn two – and the rest is history.
On such fine margins are races won and lost. And for the conspiracists on the TJ13 jury who believe Mercedes are out to get Hamilton… then if they were, would Lewis have been allowed the extra set of soft tyres for the race?
Because that of course… was not being even handed.