How Mercedes ended up in a team orders crisis

2014 Hungarian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2014With the drivers’ championship almost certain to be won by Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, Mercedes’ treatment of its drivers has come under fierce scrutiny for signs of anything that might tilt the playing field in favour of either one of them.

That seemed to happen during Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix, when Hamilton was told to let his team mate past – an order he controversially, though perhaps not surprisingly, chose to refuse.

Mercedes have generally avoided putting their drivers on significantly different strategies because that can create exactly this sort of tension. They ended up doing so in Hungary because they hedged their bets on which was the best strategy for their drivers.

The Vergne problem

By lap 31 Rosberg had spent more than half his race stuck behind Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso. With the track drying out and opportunities to overtake growing ever scarcer, Mercedes gave up on the possibility of Rosberg making a pass stick on the track. As they approached the pit lane he was told to take the opposite strategy to Vergne:

Lap From To Message
32 Tony Ross Nico Rosberg So box, box, box, but do the opposite to Vergne.

At this point, with 38 laps remaining, Mercedes could have put Rosberg on the medium tyre and run him until the end of the race. Toro Rosso had embarked on that plan with Daniil Kvyat two laps earlier.

But they may have doubted the tyre could last that long. It turned out they would have had good reason to, as Kvyat struggled horribly with his tyres at the end of the race.

It’s easy to look back on race strategies with the benefit of hindsight and say that one route was obviously the better choice. It wasn’t clear to Mercedes at the time, and that’s partly why they ended up putting their drivers on different plans – something they have tended to avoid doing in previous races.

Another reason why that happened was that Hamilton had seized the initiative in the following laps. He was shaping up to pass Sebastian Vettel when the Red Bull driver helpfully spun out of his way. He then attacked Vergne and pulled off the move which had eluded Rosberg – a quite brilliant one on the outside of turn four.

Crucially, that also put him far enough of Rosberg that he would stay in front of him when he made his next pit stop:

Lap From To Message
36 Tony Ross Nico Rosberg Lewis is in front of you if he boxes now. He’s safe to you.
37 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton OK Lewis, so we have Nico on our pit window. Zero on our pit window.

Hamilton jumps Rosberg

Hamilton’s tyres still had more to give, so he kept on pushing:

Lap From To Message
38 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton OK Lewis, so one more lap. One more lap.
38 Lewis Hamilton Peter Bonnington I could probably eke out another one or two laps at this pace.
38 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton OK, just go for it, Lewis. Go for it. Do as much as you can.
39 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton OK, you’re in a good place. So we’re boxing at the end of this lap. Box at the end of this lap.
41 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton So we’re going to the end, Lewis. We’ve got 31 laps remaining. All we need to do is keep Alonso within ten seconds. He’s currently at 4.7.

Because Hamilton pitted seven laps later than Rosberg, Mercedes faced a different scenario when deciding what to do with his strategy.

Since Rosberg had come in Vettel and Vergne had also pitted for medium tyres and would clearly be running to the end. Doing the same for Hamilton offered the opportunity to consolidate the places he had gained on them – and Rosberg.

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Mercedes split the strategies

Race strategy at the Hungaroring typically revolves around the sheer difficulty of overtaking. Even with two DRS zones (one of which was shortened slightly this year, reducing its effectiveness) passing remains very difficult. This was easy to forget in the first half of the race when the track was damp, but as it dried in the second half there were far fewer passes throughout the field.

Therefore at the Hungaroring there is greater value in being in front of a rival compared to having newer tyres than they do. Recall how last year a frustrated Vettel was climbing all over Kimi Raikkonen’s tail as the race ended, the Red Bull’s fresher tyres unable to tip the balance in his favour.

This was why Mercedes felt the best option for Hamilton was to make a final pit stop, put on the medium tyres and run to the end – splitting the strategies between their drivers.

“We put Nico on a three-stop strategy and Lewis on a two-stop,” Paddy Lowe explained afterwards. “This caused an interaction which we explained as best we could to each driver.”

This “interaction” was, of course, the controversial moment when Hamilton was told to let his team mate past. Although Hamilton later said he was “very shocked” by the order, he had a clue it was coming soon after his second pit stop when he was alerted to the difference between their strategies:

Lap From To Message
42 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton Nico is the car behind. He is on soft tyres.

“Why is he not letting me through?”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2014Mercedes’ decision to put their drivers on different strategies created a new tension. In order to maximise the potential result for the team, the logical thing to do was have Hamilton let Rosberg pass him at the earliest opportunity. That would put Rosberg in a stronger position at the end of the race.

This is fairly routine when two drivers are on different strategies. At the Nurburgring last year, Rosberg was told to let Hamilton pass for the same reason – and he complied within a couple of laps.

But on Sunday it was clear to Hamilton that letting Rosberg past could undermine his chance to stay ahead at the end of the race. Given the pair are locked in a tooth-and-nail fight for the championship, and that Hamilton was poised to finish ahead of his team mate despite his race being scuppered for the second week in a row by a car failure in qualifying, how many on the Mercedes pit wall seriously expected him to comply with the order?

Tellingly, from the messages that were broadcast it seems Hamilton only received a few requests to move over. And unlike when similar scenarios have unfolded at other teams – such as Red Bull in Malaysia last year – it was never escalated beyond the race engineers to more senior team staff.

After the race Rosberg pointed out he had not asked for Hamilton to pull over, but on the radio he made sure the team knew he thought it was time for his team mate to get out of the way:

Lap From To Message
47 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton OK Lewis. Gap to Nico one second. He’s on the [soft] tyre. He has one more stop, so don’t hold him up.
48 Lewis Hamilton Peter Bonnington I can’t imagine these tyres lasting another 20 laps.
48 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton So the softs did an equivalent of 24 laps – albeit from damp conditions – so wear shouldn’t be an issue.
48 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton So there’s free track behind Nico. You don’t need to use the tyres up defending against Nico.
51 Nico Rosberg Tony Ross Why is he not letting me through?
51 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton OK Lewis, if you let Nico past this lap, please. Let Nico past on the main start/finish straight.
51 Lewis Hamilton Peter Bonnington I’m not slowing down for Nico. If he can get close and overtake, then he can overtake.
51 Peter Bonnington Lewis Hamilton So stay in torque mode-zero, Lewis. And if you can let Nico past into this braking area.
52 Nico Rosberg Tony Ross Why is he not letting me through?
52 Tony Ross Nico Rosberg He’s had the message, Nico. He’s had the message.

Clashing priorities

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2014When Hamilton and Rosberg thrilled us with their wheel-to-wheel fight for victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix earlier this year, Mercedes did what they could to make it a fair fight. They put that commitment to fairness in jeopardy in Hungary by deciding to split the strategies between their two drivers.

But despite what the Sunday night strategists say, it was not obvious which was the better option to take. These same people would be fulminating with rage had Mercedes put Hamilton on a three-stop strategy only for him to get stuck behind another car as Vettel did last year.

There are reasons why Mercedes should have considered putting Hamilton on the more aggressive strategy. They could have anticipated Fernando Alonso trying to make it to the end on a set of soft tyres and the difficulty he would cause. And as Hamilton had further sets of unused soft tyres available he was the best-placed of their drivers to make a more aggressive strategy work.

But we only know with hindsight how quickly Rosberg was able to catch the front runners, which is what makes his strategy look better in retrospect. And had both Mercedes drivers been on it, Hamilton would not have been contributing to the slow pace of the leading trio, and they wouldn’t have been caught as quickly.

Nor was the order to Hamilton proof that Rosberg’s interests take priority over his – or, to adopt the tiresome mantra of the conspiracy theorist, that partisan ‘Germans’ at Mercedes are favouring their ‘German’ driver.

Rather, this was an object lesson that it’s not always possible for strategists to simultaneously do what’s best for the team and what’s best for each of their drivers. With Mercedes’ position in the constructors’ championship increasingly secure, now is the time to reaffirm their commitment to ensuring their drivers race on an equal footing.

Radio transcripts by @WillWood. ‘Lap’ refers to the lap on which the message was broadcast.

2014 Hungarian Grand Prix

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Image © Daimler/Hoch Zwei

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136 comments on How Mercedes ended up in a team orders crisis

  1. OOliver said on 29th July 2014, 14:12

    This won’t be the first time a safety car has wrecked a leading driver’s race. Almost all the front running drivers have suffered such a fate in the past.
    Had Ericsson’s accident not looked far worse than it really was, the safety car would have not been so slow.

  2. Chris Kiss (@bluechris) said on 29th July 2014, 14:15

    Nothing can changed as matter SC car.. i strongly believe that the call was right to took out imediatlly the SC and wrong in previus race where people trying to clean a track with F1 cars passing by risking a fall and be crossover by a car. Americans in ovals are more safer imo which is the key here, safety 1st.

  3. Kyalami79 said on 29th July 2014, 14:23

    Great, great article. Accurate, well written, perfect ending too. Best thing written on this subject.

  4. stefano (@alfa145) said on 29th July 2014, 14:39

    such a great article! big KUDOS to you

  5. Michael (@freelittlebirds) said on 29th July 2014, 14:58

    Great article – I think once Mercedes decided to put their drivers on different strategies, they should have realized that team orders should not have been issued and in fact the team should have told the drivers “you’re racing guys!” when they got close to each other.

    Second at one point many felt that this was Hamilton’s race to win. However, Wolff believed that Rosberg could have won it and Paddy thought that neither could have won it. That poses several problems:

    1. Mercedes is a house divided.
    2. The orders would have been destructive to Lewis if Wolff was right and Nico won the race letting Nico by.
    3. How come no one believed that Lewis could have won the race when everyone else thought so? He had race setup and unused sets of softs. I’m sure Horner had more belief that Lewis would win over Mercedes…
    4. How can Lewis trust his team moving forward? We’ve seen him doubt the team’s intentions in the past especially after Bahrain. It does appear that Mercedes’ strategy, whether intentionally or not, has a tendency to bring Nico out close to Lewis with softs and plenty to go with Lewis having to defend against a quicker car.

    • Hamilfan (@hamilfan) said on 29th July 2014, 15:53

      @freelittlebirds

      has a tendency to bring Nico out close to Lewis with softs and plenty to go with Lewis having to defend against a quicker car.

      I see your point and have had a subconscious feel that it is so . Though on hindsight , I would argue that in Bahrain , the safety car played into Nico’s hands . otherwise he would have spent his tyres more catching up the nice little deficit of 8 odd seconds .

      As far as Hungary , It might have might not have worked . It was a gamble and considering how Lewis qualified , for damage limitation ,they went for track position for Lewis I believe . And I still feel it was very close at the end . He could have still got 2nd had he passed either Alonso in the last lap or defended Ricciardo (He did have a couple of lock ups in the end ,remember).

      But I will be keeping watch for the future how Merc carry about with their strategy to see , if they always give Rosberg the better tires and a gap to get to Lewis than track position .

  6. PMccarthy_is_a_legend (@pmccarthy_is_a_legend) said on 29th July 2014, 15:39

    Hardly a crisis. Mercedes is actually managing the situation pretty well actually, much better than previous teams in a similar situation (Ferrari, Red Bull I am looking at you). Especially when you take into account this is the very first year this group of people are faced with this a situation where they have the dominant car with two of the best drivers in the grid. Kudos to Mercedes.

    • matiascasali (@matiascasali) said on 29th July 2014, 18:53

      i don’t know if Ferrari… at least they were quite overt to the number 1 number 2 status within the scuderia… and as for redbull… well, they’ve spent a ton of money into Vettel, it’s obvious they going to prefer him over webber who is an “outsider”. and that’s the tricky part of Mercedes, right? the heads on daimler, most certainly would want to have a German champion… but they’ve spent 100millions on lewis.. .

  7. Hamilfan (@hamilfan) said on 29th July 2014, 15:45

    Excellent article @keithcollantine ! Thoroughly enjoyed it . All points comprehensively analyzed .
    What stood was to me was this:

    But we only know with hindsight how quickly Rosberg was able to catch the front runners, which is what makes his strategy look better in retrospect. And had both Mercedes drivers been on it, Hamilton would not have been contributing to the slow pace of the leading trio, and they wouldn’t have been caught as quickly.

    Something that none of the proclaimed math experts usually consider.

    • Damonw said on 29th July 2014, 15:50

      Well that’s why they pay the strategists and engineers the big bucks!

      You’re telling me they wouldn’t have a clue how much quicker the Softs were? Hell I even knew after practice that the Primes were useless as a race tyre around this circuit!

    • Michael (@freelittlebirds) said on 29th July 2014, 16:10

      +1
      Contrary to popular belief, hindsight in F1 is not 20/20 as any change may have unforeseen effects that cannot be accounted for.

  8. greg-c (@greg-c) said on 29th July 2014, 15:46

    Merc wanted a merc to win , thats it !
    They were not in that likely position ,
    They rolled the dice ,
    It didnt work for either driver ,
    This is not Nico V Lewis ,
    This is Merc trying to beat everyone else , into the ground .
    Merc want 1-2 races , every race ,
    Hungry didnt work ,
    Merc changing stratergies so one driver “doesnt” win is rubbish

  9. Maksutov (@maksutov) said on 29th July 2014, 16:12

    I’m not slowing down for Nico. If he can get close and overtake, then he can overtake.

    Fair and square.

  10. Maksutov (@maksutov) said on 29th July 2014, 16:24

    They could have anticipated Fernando Alonso trying to make it to the end on a set of soft tyres and the difficulty he would cause.

    I disagree with this. No one can anticipate what others might or might not do with their strategies. As a team, you want to maximise your chances for a win. And the best way to maximise that chance is to split the strategies. Why put all your eggs in one basket? Hamilton’s strategy would have worked just fine hadn’t it been for that one very brilliant driver, Alonso. Had Hamilton managed to overtake Alonso, Ricviardo would not have been able to catch Ham in time.

    • Sam said on 29th July 2014, 16:47

      I think there was a radio message where they confirmed Alonso was going to the end. The fact they told Hamilton to stay within 10 seconds shows Merc were expecting Alonso to be quicker on the soft tyres than Hamilton on the mediums, and expected Alonso to pit again. The fact that Hamilton was able to close the gap with the slower tyres was impressive. And Nico wasn’t closing Hamilton down particularly quickly either; Nico lost at most 2 or 3 seconds being behind Hamilton and wouldn’t have made it past Alonso before pitting again anyway.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 29th July 2014, 17:05

      @maksutov

      I disagree with this. No one can anticipate what others might or might not do with their strategies.

      Teams do keep an eye on what their rivals are doing, particularly those close by, such as Alonso in this case. But I would agree Mercedes didn’t have long to suss out this particular situation because Alonso made his last pit stop on the lap before Hamilton.

      He had just gone 29 laps on the soft tyre, however. And even though some of that was behind the Safety Car and in damp conditions, given that there were 32 laps to go and track position is so valuable at the Hungaroring, I think they could have anticipated that’s what Alonso was trying to do.

      • DaveD (@daved) said on 29th July 2014, 18:42

        @keithcollantine
        I see your point about them not having long to suss over things when they made the call. But I was screaming “NO” at the television when I saw what they did. The US feed cut away for a commercial so I missed the actual tire change. But at lap 37 when they cut away, Lewis was over 30 seconds and 8 places in front of Nico. This made Lewis strategy obvious in my mind right then.

        If the soft tires with a three stop was the right strategy for Nico to maximize his chances, then SURELY it could do nothing but put Lewis in an even better position. He would get the same soft tires and come back out over 12+ seconds and X positions in front of Nico with the newer tires, better position on track and the same strategy.

        Those factors should have overridden any other consideration in my mind. The only way you could say it wasn’t right was if they thought they had screwed the call on Nico and both cars were doomed with that strategy. Then it’s possible to say Merc were hedging their bets and trying to make sure at least one of the cars finished towards the front with a split strategy. But Merc should be maximizing each driver based on what they’ve done in the race and not putting one in a position to lose to the other based on team strategy.

        They’ll clearly win the constructors title by over 300 points so they should have already shifted focus and make sure both drivers have their best opportunity to prove themselves for the WDC now. They do NOT want to be in the position where it looks like the team favored one driver. I do not think that’s what they were doing…but they need to be careful of the perceptions to the public and more importantly to their drivers at this point.

  11. Sam said on 29th July 2014, 16:37

    For me it was a no brainer that the soft was the right tyre for Lewis to use. As he went in for that stop I was thinking to myself he can probably make it to the end without stopping again as his soft tyres are new, but we know Lewis prefers to push hard, so a 3 stopper would probably work out quicker, and then they went and put the mediums on and that’s when I started shouting at the tv :|

  12. Ken (@myxomatosis) said on 29th July 2014, 16:44

    “I’m not slowing down for Nico. If he can get close and overtake, then he can overtake.”

    @KeithCollantine Why are you (and every media outlet) saying he ignored the order when your own transcripts say he showed a willingness to comply? I just find that really odd in an article that’s been otherwise written with such nuance.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 29th July 2014, 17:07

      @myxomatosis Because Mercedes did not say ‘let Rosberg past if he’s close enough’, they gave Hamilton an unconditional and specific instruction:

      Let Nico past on the main start/finish straight.

      (With the reservation that we only hear what gets broadcast.)

  13. Manu said on 29th July 2014, 17:46

    Its worth mentioning that, I think, Hamilton sped up when he was told to let Nico through. So the gap went from about .7 to 1s. I think Lewis said to himself I’ll break away from DRS and tell the team to tell Nico to get closer. Furthermore, given that Niki Lauda is close to Lewis, Lewis probably thought he would have an ally anyway

  14. MagicSpin said on 29th July 2014, 17:47

    Thank you Keith, for this level-headed analysis. The Sunday night strategists (me included) ought to take notice.

    I still have one question; did Mercedes believe Rosberg or Hamilton was on the better strategy when Lewis got the call? If they believed Rosberg’s was worse, as you imply were they therefore correctly second-guessed by Hamilton?

  15. pH (@ph) said on 29th July 2014, 18:06

    I think there was one more factor in play. The Mercedes staff went into the race with two aims: Make sure Rosberg wins and Hamilton ends up as close to the podium as possible. After the first SC the scenarios they prepared were useless, they were frantically trying to adjust and then at lap 35 they were too stuck in “Nico for first, Lewis up” train of though to start afresh with “LH and NR are now running the same race”. While it may be easy to recognize such thing for someone on the outside, it’s been observed in many cases that the overall atmosphere can have a big influence on how people process information.

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