Over the course of Formula 1’s hybrid era Mercedes has rarely dropped the ball, but the Brackley team did just that during the Monaco Grand Prix five years ago today, denying Lewis Hamilton a near-certain victory.
The 2015 Monaco GP was to prove a very frustrating afternoon for reigning world champion Hamilton, who found himself giving away a win for no good reason by making a pitstop that he didn’t need to make.
The pain was alleviated for his team to some degree because victory went to Nico Rosberg rather than a third party, but nevertheless there was much soul-searching to done in the Brackley camp. A team that so often made the right calls, and could think on its feet better than anyone else, got it wrong in the heat of battle.
Not for the first time, a Monaco GP was turned on its head by some late drama. In 2011 Vitaly Petrov’s crash led to a red flag which ruined a potentially fantastic climax as it meant everyone could switch to new tyres, so we didn’t see how the closing laps would have unfolded for the top three drivers, each of whom had run different strategies.
This time around a crash triggered by rookie Max Verstappen had the opposite effect, turning what had developed into a demonstration run for Hamilton into an extraordinary drama that gave us an exciting eight-lap sprint to the end.
The second year of the hybrid rules was more than just a fight between Hamilton and his teammate Rosberg, because Ferrari had made a big step over the winter. New signing Sebastian Vettel won in Malaysia and was scoring consistently, and thus he was keeping Mercedes on its toes.
Hamilton had the edge in the Mercedes camp, but it was close. He won in Australia, China and Bahrain, but Rosberg was always there or thereabouts, and a victory in Spain showed that he was very much in the title fight. Monaco, where the German won in both 2013 and 2014, was going to be an important marker.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W06
Photo by: Ferrari
Hamilton took pole, and the first part of the race could not have gone any better for him. After just five laps he was already 2.3s ahead of Rosberg, and by the time the German pitted on lap 37, the gap was 7.4s. Hamilton came in the next lap to give himself what should have been a straightforward 40-lap run to the flag on a set of new soft tyres.
The reigning champion didn’t simply consolidate his lead, he extended it, and by lap 63 he was 19.6s ahead of his teammate. But at Monaco you are always in the hands of the gods, and it was while Hamilton was on his 64th lap that Verstappen collided with Romain Grosjean at Ste Devote, and F1’s first ever Virtual Safety Car was called for.
Like all the other drivers Hamilton slowed as required, and on that lap he lost around 14s relative to his previous laptimes, crossing the line with a 1m33.047s lap. His pursuers spent more of that lap at the slower speed, so by the time Rosberg crossed the line the screens suggested that he was 25.7s behind Lewis.
By then race control had decided to turn the VSC into a regular safety car (the VSC was officially in place for 30 seconds), something that the teams knew could happen under the new rules. Initially at least, it didn’t make any difference to the drivers, who ran at the same speed in either case.
It was at this stage that passing by a giant TV screen Hamilton caught a brief glimpse of the Mercedes crew standing in the pitlane, the guys having dashed out “just in case”, as is the usual routine. He knew he wasn’t making a pitstop, so his immediate conclusion was that Rosberg had pitted, and that quite possibly Vettel and other top runners had too.
His first thought was that when the cars were released after the safety car he would find himself stranded on old soft tyres – with low temperatures and pressures – while behind him Rosberg would lead a gaggle of rivals on supersofts. There were still some 15 laps to run, and thus quite a long time for him to hold out.
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W06
Photo by: Sutton Images
That’s what instigated a conversation with the pit wall in which he expressed his concerns about the tyres. He had initially been told that he’d be pitting, but the call had switched to staying out.
“Guys that’s not good,” said Hamilton. “These tyres have lost all their temperature. Everyone’s going to be on options now.”
It’s here where there was a miscommunication – Hamilton thought Rosberg had pitted, and the team didn’t realise that’s why he was so agitated about the tyres. They were not working from the same script.
Instead of reassuring him that neither Rosberg nor Vettel had pitted the team heeded Hamilton’s tyre concerns. It was decided that there was sufficient time for him to pit and resume still safely ahead of Rosberg and Vettel, so the order was to pit after all.
In theory there was nothing to lose – it would give him a little extra comfort zone for those last few laps, and probably allow him to pull away from Rosberg, who would still be on his well-worn softs. That might stop any chance of the two of them getting into a fight that could end in tears, so you could view the decision to stop as a safe, conservative choice.
“You rely on the team,” said Hamilton. “I saw a screen, it looked like the team was out and I thought that Nico had pitted. Obviously I couldn’t see the guys behind, so I thought the guys behind were pitting.
“The team said to stay out, I said, ‘These tyres are going to drop in temperature,’ and what I was assuming was that these guys would be on options, and I was on the harder tyre. So, they said to pit. Without thinking I came in with full confidence that the others had done the same.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 Team
Photo by: Alex Galli
Even at safety car speeds a lap of Monaco passes very quickly, and the tyre conversation, the calculations and the decision to pit all happened in a matter of seconds. The big problem was that in the Swimming Pool area Lewis caught the safety car, which had been busy waving other drivers through.
He had to slow to the pace of the safety car for a couple of corners, while further back Rosberg was still going as fast as he was allowed to under the rules – and that was a crucial difference.
Right at the end of the lap, just before Hamilton was due to pit, the gap shrank dramatically. For some reason the Mercedes strategy management system didn’t recognise that, even though, as Toto Wolff noted later, the final confirmation to come in was made “50 metres” before the pits.
Only when he came blasting out of the pitlane – and saw Rosberg and Vettel passing by on the track – did Hamilton realise what had happened. The team had got its sums wrong. “What’s happened guys?,” he asked on the radio.
Engineer Peter Bonnington did his best to placate his driver, even suggesting that Rosberg and Vettel might lose temperature on their old primes and Hamilton – with his “very good options” – would have an advantage over the closing laps.
It wasn’t to be. When the track went green, Rosberg ran out the remaining laps without drama, and Vettel followed him home in second. For Hamilton the third place trophy was a poor reward.
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF15-T
Photo by: Alex Galli
“The verdict is that often in life simple things have a big impact,” Wolff told Motorsport.com. “And in that particular case the system showed us wrong data, and based on those data we decided to pit. We thought that we had a gap, but we didn’t have a gap, and because in Monaco you have no GPS it makes the whole thing more complicated.
“He thought that we had pitted Nico, but he didn’t realise the others didn’t pit, he didn’t see that. Our data said we had the margin, and when he said the tyres were gone and they will not come back, it just added up to a whole lot of information, and that made us pit. But the main call was that we had the margin.
“We got the wrong call at the wrong time, him saying the tyre temperatures dropped. We thought we had a gap, but the gap wasn’t there…”
Wolff’s reference to the FIA’s GPS system – whose information is incorporated into the teams’ own calculations – was an intriguing one. It’s obvious why Monaco’s environment makes GPS less effective, but the FIA and the teams back it up with other sources of position information such as loops in the track (there are around 20), and dead-reckoning algorithms.
For some reason Mercedes didn’t pick up on that crucial end-of-the-lap delay behind the safety car, as Wolff explained: “We thought we had 3.5 seconds on top of a normal pit stop. And that disappeared. Somewhere the data got frozen, and we have to find out where. The numbers just didn’t add up any more. The safety car stopped him a little bit…”
In essence, the Mercedes sums were based on Hamilton’s expected VSC speed, but the presence of the real safety car in front of him at that crucial time meant that he was slower than he should have been.
It’s worth noting that Hamilton’s lap 65 – which basically included the pit stop – was 2m11.3s. In contrast, Sauber driver Felipe Nasr, who came into pit entry just 4s later, but crucially did not have to slow for the safety car, did his lap in 1m59.9s. And Red Bull man Daniel Ricciardo, who came into the pits another 31 seconds after Nasr, completed that lap in 1m59.2s.
In other words, somehow Hamilton lost around 11 seconds relative to the time he should have done.
Forgetting the question of what the data said or didn’t say, it would seem that no one at Mercedes noticed that Hamilton had got caught like that. The only man who knew was Lewis himself, sitting behind the safety car, but he didn’t realise that the precious seconds he was losing were so crucial.
At least a bit of that time went also astray in the pitlane itself – his first stop had a pit time of 24.181s, and the second was 25.495s, so some 1.3s went just there. Enough to have got him out ahead of Vettel, if not Rosberg…
Podium: race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, second place Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, third place Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1
Photo by: Sutton Images
As it happened, Mercedes had no reason to fear a Vettel pit stop, because Ferrari had decided straight away that the German should stay out.
“We were nervous at the beginning thinking about them pitting,” said team boss Maurizio Arrivabene. “We were looking at the window, and at one stage the guy working for us on strategy said, ‘Stay cool, they are doing a kind of show, and we stay out.’ In any case he said, ‘If they come in, we stay out.’
“He was really, really straightforward on this, and he was right. I know that we were lucky, I’m not telling to you something different, but in my opinion they were a bit too much convinced about their power. I recognised that they are very intelligent, they are stronger than us, but this time, we were smart…”
“We are all humans,” said Wolff. “Sometimes you need to make decisions within a fraction of a second, and this time we made a decision and it was the wrong decision. We have to analyse it properly, see how we can avoid it in the future, apologise to Lewis, and apologise, and apologise.”
In the end it was a self-inflicted problem. Mercedes advisor Niki Lauda summed it up best: “There was no challenge, there was no stress, there was confusion among the strategy people about what to do, and this is the end of it.
“We have to analyse it first. and then see what we can improve on these matters. I feel sorry for him, because we screwed his race up…”
Hamilton now led Rosberg by 126 points to 116 – without the pitstop it would have been 136 to 109 – and that only added to his frustration. However, when the F1 circus gathered for the next race in Montreal he didn’t want to be drawn on the pitstop or its aftermath.
“I can’t do anything about the past so there’s honestly no point in thinking about it,” he said on the Thursday. “It’s about trying to shape the future. I’ve got lots and lots of races to come, lots of improvements that can be made, I’ve got a great team, got a great car and there’s a championship to be won. So that’s all I’m focused on.”
That weekend he took pole, led Rosberg home, extended his lead in the points – and well and truly put Monaco behind him.
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