In most instances, Mercedes is synonymous with operational excellence. The Brackley squad execute their races with a level of precision and exactitude that is ballet-worthy. Unfortunately for them, the 2020 Italian GP was not one of those instances.
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas started the race from the front row. If Hamilton got away well, Bottas lost places and dropped down to 6th place. With the race going, both Mercedes’ drivers kept positions, until Kevin Magnussen endured a car failure that triggered a safety car. Hamilton then dived into the pit lane, and emerged facing an investigation for crossing it while it was still closed. That investigation caught the Briton by surprise, since he didn’t seem to think he had missed anything.
Although Hamilton held himself accountable for not seeing the signs after the race, some pundits consider what happened more of a team’s rather than a driver’s error, because Mercedes should have spotted the message from race control and told their driver not to stop. According to said pundits, It would have been hardly achievable for Hamilton or any other driver for that matter to spot the signs, because they were pretty much out of view on the outside of Parabolica.
So it’s fair to wonder how and why did Mercedes, a team so accustomed to get their race execution on point, miss the FIA message that the pitlane was closed. Andrew Shovlin, the team's trackside engineering director and James Vowles, the motorsport strategy director answered. The latter said: “If we go through the sequence of events that led to that, the safety car was first deployed. Magnussen was stranded near the pitlane entry but safe on the grass. Eleven seconds after that we had a message indicating that the pitlane was closed. And ten seconds after that, Lewis [Hamilton] entered into the pit lane.”
“In terms of the sequence, there were two pieces of information to tell us that the pit lane entry had been closed. The first was there were boards around the track that have a cross on it, a red cross indicating that when the driver sees it, he knows that he must stay out. The second piece of information is we have TV screens in front of us [...], one of those is called page 3, and it contains a number of messages that the FIA want to send us [...], and one of those messages was the pit lane entry was closed.”
“So if we go through Lewis first of all and why he wasn’t able to see it. He was just turning into Parabolica at that point, still at full racing speed. The driver there is trying to control the vehicle and just at that point also was getting himself down to the correct delta time for the safety car and preparing for the stop, because we’d already called him to come into the pit lane. There was a lot going on for him, and it’s not typical to be looking at the boards that’s on the far left hand side of the track. Normally that would just show a safety car symbol which he already knows. You get a penalty if you go too fast and you don’t slow down sufficiently under the safety car so his priority was controlling the vehicle and ensuring he got the speed down correctly and preparing things for the stop. There were two boards. The first would have been very difficult for him to see, one was on the left-hand side but as I said, he was in control of the vehicle looking at the dash, and he didn’t see it. As you come towards the pit lane entry, if you look on board from Lewis, there’s actually no indication at that point that the pit lane is at all closed. There are no further boards, there are no lights, there is nothing to tell him anymore that it should be closed. From his perspective, it would have been a very difficult call, just a matter of seconds to look up in the correct place and make a judgment call.”
“From our perspective as a team, we did have that message appear on the screen to indicate to us that the pit lane entry was closed. During this period, when a safety car is called, immediately myself, Shov’ [Andrew Shovlin], Ron [Meadows] and other members of the pit wall and the strategy team are focusing on now stopping the cars. This was a key point in the race where the entire field would have piled into the pit lane. Lewis came on asking for a different set of tyres. We were reviewing whether or not we had time, whether it was the correct decision or not. These were all conversations that took just a few seconds but they all added up. When you are not doing particularly is looking for a single line on a screen to indicate the pit lane entry was closed.”
“Now, both [Andrew Shovlin] and myself have been through similar instances. 2016 was the last time this happened in Brazil, it happened twice there. But it was clear the pit lane entry would be closed then. There was a crash and almost a huge amount of debris. You wouldn’t want to drive into the pit lane at that stage. This was different, it didn’t really prompt us to necessarily look at the screen and look for a single line that was hidden amongst other information, and we missed it. It didn’t take us long to spot it, we were able to still keep Valtteri out. And for reference we can hear from other team radio that it took them about ten seconds to notice it as well. And those ten seconds were the crucial period, because Lewis was so far in the lead of the race that was able to come in.”
With all the benefit of hindsight, we know what we would do differently now. We can put systems in place and software that will enable us to find and ensure that we see these critical messages in just a few seconds.”
How beautiful and cruel as well that sport is! This is the price Hamilton paid for being too good. He was so far ahead in the lead that his team missed the necessary ten seconds to stop him from pitting. Ten seconds that completely changed the face of the race. The Briton took his fair share in the confusion that cost him the win, but Shovlin was adamant to put the blame on the team: “Lewis said this is my fault, I should have seen it, but in reality he’s not the best-placed person to spot this, we should have seen this on the pit wall. The team takes responsibility for it. We’ll put systems in place to make sure we don’t do this again.”