Sunday’s USA Grand Prix in front of 140,000 spectators featured superb driving and spectacular strategy. A closely contested battle concluded with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen crossing the finish line first, with seven-time F1 Drivers’ Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton less than a second behind. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and as such the Mercedes team reckons that had they chosen a different strategy – pitting on lap eight - they may have won in Austin.
Such a claim that a different strategy could have brought a victory on Sunday may seem obvious. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team’s trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin spoke to the media on this matter:
“Realistically the options to win the race probably boil down to retaining the lead after the very good start that Lewis made by stopping early – and maybe pitting as early as lap eight.” Shovlin remarked after Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton, starting in P2, launched off the line on Sunday and found himself in P1 after the first corner. Such a move prompted Red Bull Racing to have to take an aggressive strategy. Due to being able to hold onto the back of Hamilton’s W12 in the early stages, the team was confident that the undercut was on. With this approach decided, Max Verstappen attempted the undercut on lap 11.
Having seen this early pitstop by their closest rivals, the only response that Mercedes could do in an attempt to counter, was to extend Hamilton’s first stint. By staying out longer, Hamilton would have tyres with more life in them - for the closing stages of the United States Grand Prix.
Unfortunately, for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton running an ever-degrading medium tyre in comparison to Verstappen’s fresh set of hard compound tyres - the pace was lacking. Therefore, by the time race leader Lewis Hamilton finally pitted for hard tyres on Lap 14, Max Verstappen regained the race lead.
The Dutchman came down the main straight and was in front of the current F1 Drivers’ Champion by the time Lewis Hamilton had exited the pitlane. Such a sight delighted the fans in the Red Bull Grandstand at the end of the main straight.
As much as Mercedes and Andrew Shovlin would have preferred an earlier stop, the fact that they were running the medium tyre at the start did not fill them with confidence.
“But given we were struggling on the mediums on such a short stint, we would have never been brave enough just to hold the lead. It would have felt like we would compromise the whole race…But, as it happens, I think we could have gone for an early stop and could have made the finish. But it would have been a case of pulling the trigger earlier and then hoping for the best, seeing if Lewis can keep Max at bay. But really that was the main opportunity.”
As we saw at this season’s Russian Grand Prix, when Lando Norris was leading the race in the closing stages, it is very hard to give up a race lead. On that day, McLaren and Norris’ hesitation resulted in Lewis Hamilton taking the victory by having made a bold decision. Andrew Shovlin also explained how when running in P2, that mindset is much easier to come by
“It changes your mindset when you are in P2, as realistically the worst you can finish is P2 given the races will be won by Lewis and Max without other issues a lot of the time,” stated Shovlin. “But the big question is, could we have kept up? And I am certain we couldn’t have sat on their gearbox in the way that they did to us.”
“Whether we could have even kept to within an undercut range is another matter. It comes down to that weak performance that we had on the medium tyre. And if we weren’t in undercut range, then Max would have just gone long and broken the race up into nice manageable chunks….As it happened, the best thing we could do when they undercut us was to try to create a bit of a tyre offset. But ultimately the race wasn’t quite long enough to have that pay dividends.” Shovlin told the media, as quoted by autosport.com
There was of course one more strategical play which Mercedes could have been tempted by – a one stop race. However, Shovlin’s remarks show that this was never a realistic option due to the degradation of the tyres.
“We saw that in the final stint a lot of the field started managing more, and they got the degradation under control,” explained Shovlin. “But when people were pushing hard, the tyres were falling off at an incredible rate. So one stop would have been out of the [equation]. “The medium wasn’t good enough. We could have done it with two hards, but you can’t race that. For us, we were struggling too much on the medium and a three-stop you couldn’t make the pitstop gap back, so it was a nailed on two-stop which is what we expected coming here.”
Even though Max Verstappen now has a 12-point lead in the F1 Drivers’ Championship, there are still 5 races to go – almost a quarter of the season. As such, Lewis Hamilton will not relinquish his title without a fight.
On social media, Lewis Hamilton showed that he had also done his own reflection on Sunday’s race and hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing: “A day of reflection today. We gave it our all yesterday, but with hindsight you notice there is always more you can or could have done. So we assess, regroup, recharge and fight on!” Hamilton wrote.
Formula One is indeed a team sport and strategy always plays a part when it comes to victory. On this occasion, Mercedes may wish they had taken a different route. Therefore, don’t be surprised to see them ‘pull the trigger’ next time and pile pressure back on their Red Bull Racing rivals.