MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: The smoking gun that cost Mercedes and Russell a win in Sakhir
Mercedes looked to have everything in place for a perfect result in the Sakhir Grand Prix despite the absence of their talisman Lewis Hamilton who had contracted Covid-19. Hamilton’s stand-in George Russell had proved sensationally fast, adapting super-impressively to the unfamiliar car and despite not fitting properly had qualified within 0.026s of his pole-sitting team mate Valtteri Bottas.
Even an inspired Max Verstappen for Red Bull had not managed to take advantage of Hamilton’s absence to derail the Mercedes train up at the front.
This was even more so after Verstappen crashed out on the first lap, the victim of an over-ambitious move by Charles Leclerc at Turn 4. Russell and Bottas sat 1-2 in the queue behind the Safety Car, waiting for the race to restart. Behind them were lined a bunch of slower cars on less suitable soft tyres that were going to enforce a slower two-stop strategy than the one-stop of the medium-tyred Mercedes. The fastest cars, running 1-2 on better tyres and with their most dangerous rival out.
How did Mercedes lose from there?
The race was almost 70% done and the Mercedes – with Russell still ahead of Bottas – were half-a-minute clear of the field when there was another Safety Car, this time to collect the front wing of Jack Aitken’s Williams after the rookie had spun at the final turn. The barrier had clipped off the wing which deposited itself on the track.
Mercedes at this point decided to use their big margin to make precautionary tyre changes to both cars. In this way, they’d be on grippier rubber at the restart. But a radio problem meant the stops went disastrously wrong.
Bottas’ front tyres were mounted on Russell’s car – which had to be brought back in a lap later to have the correct tyres fitted. Bottas meanwhile had to rejoin still on his old tyres. It was the only way to avoid disqualification for both cars. The tyres are all allocated to drivers and there can be no switching between them. This rule is in place to prevent a driver getting an unfair advantage by using the tyres of his team mate in addition to his own.
Sergio Perez – who had driven a superb race after being spun out in the Verstappen/Leclerc incident on the first lap – was the beneficiary of the Mercedes pit problems and won the race for Racing Point in brilliant style.
In hindsight, two questions arise from the debacle in the Mercedes pits. What was the radio problem? Why didn’t they stay out under the safety car, like Perez and the others did?
The radio problem
Team manager Ron Meadows radioed instructions to the tyre crew in the garages to ready the tyres, but those looking after Russell’s front tyres did not receive the radio message. Hence the wrong tyres were in the box as Russell stopped and he was fitted with Bottas’ fronts.
Track engineering chief Andrew Shovlin. “We have found a smoking gun and that has to do with how the radio system prioritises messages, for instance when Ron is calling out the crews and getting them to get the tyres ready for the two drivers. There were a number of broadcasts at that time on the radio system.
"Now, the system knows to prioritise the messages coming from Ron because the most important thing is the tyres are there, more so than whatever a driver says or whatever someone else in the crew might say but it looks like there is a period whereby as the system is deciding to let the prioritised message through, we missed a key bit of the broadcast such that half of the tyre collectors didn't get the message and it looks like half of them did.
“Therefore, we've got the cars coming in and all the tyres are not ready in the pit lane… There was very little time between the safety car and George coming into the pits and that's where we found a smoking gun.”
Why Stop At All?
Shovlin again: “In hindsight, you can say if we stayed out it would have been [OK]. But as a racing team you can't be afraid of doing a pit stop and you can't be afraid of doing a pit stop under pressure.
“We do hundreds of these in races under pressure, double-stacked, all sorts of things and they go well. The ability to do them under pressure is what often wins you races.
“In a sense, the stop was a precaution, just to make sure we had the best tyres. It would have consolidated the lead of the race if we'd been able to perform it well and we need to make sure in understanding it, like any other fault, you focus on root cause, not all the other sort of noise and chaos around it.
“With hindsight, you could wind it back, it would have been great. We could have won the race on the tyres that we were on but we have to be able to do these stops and is something that could have caught us out in any of the past three years and it could have caught us out at the first race next year. It's something that's been there in the system and it was awfully unfortunate for the drivers and desperately unfortunate for George that we found that today but it could have caught us out at any point.”