Valtteri Bottas as the brilliant winner of the Grand Prix of Japan 2019 after a superior drive – it would not necessarily have come to this conclusion. Nico Rosberg even believes that Mercedes sacrificed a possible one-two victory to avoid having to have an unpleasant conversation with the drivers.
“If they had left Lewis out there, I don’t know how it would have gone. I think he would have won,” says the 2016 World Champion in his Vlog. “I don’t think Bottas could have overtaken him. Because overtaking is difficult on this track”.
But this scenario would have put Mercedes in a very unpleasant situation: As was the case at Silverstone, Bottas would have lost a possible victory due to the strategy. At that time it was a virtual safety car, this time it would simply have been the circumstances. “Mercedes suddenly had a problem: How could they have justified this to the drivers?
The alternative would have been to use a team order and bring Hamilton behind Bottas. “But you can’t tell the World Championship leader, who is fighting for his World Championship, to let Bottas pass. Mercedes had maneuvered himself into a lose-lose situation.”
However, this had not been provoked by Mercedes. Sebastian Vettel got the ball rolling at the end of the first stint, much earlier in the race.
“First of all, we have Bottas in the lead. He’s about four seconds ahead. Then Vettel comes in tow with Hamilton. In any case, Vettel had to stop before Hamilton. Otherwise Hamilton would have made the undercut and passed with ease.
“Then the race would have been over for Vettel. So Vettel has to stop early to cover Hamilton.” says Rosberg
“From then on, it no longer makes sense for Hamilton to stop. His only chance now is to drive long. But Bottas has to cover Vettel. Otherwise he would fall victim to Vettel’s undercut.”
“So Bottas comes in for the next lap. Hamilton forces Vettel into the pits and the Vettel stop forces Bottas into the pits. Lewis is now five laps longer than Vettel and four laps longer than Bottas.”
“Now it’s getting interesting: Because Bottas was in the pits so early, it’s unrealistic for him to make it to the end. So Vettel and Bottas stay with two stops and come in again. And suddenly Lewis is out there alone and feels really comfortable on the medium. Suddenly everyone realises that the tyres may be good enough to drive through to the end.” concludes Rosberg.
This was a consequence of the fact that Mercedes had considerably more information in the race at that time than at the beginning. “You learn a lot during the race,” says Rosberg, who can rely on the experience from 206 Formula 1 races.
Bringing Hamilton in a second time didn’t make much sense from a team strategy point of view: Vettel was 20 seconds back after the Hamilton stop with 20 laps to go. So he would have had to catch up one second per lap which he didn’t do. He came close to a maximum of 17 seconds. Hamilton’s additional stop, however, threw him back behind Vettel.
“I think they made this decision because it was a lot easier to explain after the race. That cost them a double victory,” argues Rosberg. “It was a difficult decision, but certainly understandable.
However, he himself would have preferred to see how it would have turned out with just one stop: “Hamilton should get the chance to make the most of the one-stop strategy. He spared the tyres accordingly. That was certainly hard for Lewis, but he should get over it quickly.”
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