Sunday, 24 May 2015

#F1 – Mercedes Pit-iful in Monaco

What a screw-up!  Lewis Hamilton was certain to win the Monaco Grand Prix today – until, only a few laps from the end, Mercedes pitted him under the Safety Car, and caused him to be fed back into the train of cars in third place, behind teammate Nico Rosberg and Ferrari's Sesbastian Vettel.

The reasoning behind this baffling strategic call by Mercedes has not yet come out.  Mercedes have apologised, and they claim they 'got the numbers wrong', thinking they had enough time to get Hamilton back out in the lead after stopping for tyres.  But why did they pit him at all?  Even if he'd had a lead of over a minute, he didn't need new tyres, and stopping under the Safety Car was a completely unnecessary risk.  (The teams' explanation they worried Hamilton would be vulnerable if Vettel stopped for new tyres under the Safety Car strikes me as little more than ex post facto excuse-making; had Hamilton stayed out, he could've controlled the race to end once the Safety Car came in, and even if Vettel had been quicker on new tyres Rosberg was between them acting as a cushion for Hamilton – on the tight, twisty Monaco street circuit, where it is notoriously difficult to overtake, there is no way Vettel would've caught up to the lead with only a few laps to go.)

My reading of the situation is that teams normally see a Safety Car period as an opportunity to take a 'free' pit stop; it allows them to bring a car in for fresh tyres, but without losing time relative to the other runners on-track, as the Safety Car bunches the whole field up and control the pace.  Teams try to react to this quickly, in order to make the most of this opportunity, and I think that is what Mercedes did today – they pitted Hamilton because that is their default reaction as soon as they see that the Safety Car has been deployed.  In other words, it was a knee-jerk reaction, not a strategic decision; another example of Mercedes switching off tactically, and resting on their laurels of having the fastest car a little too much.

In the end, the decision didn't hurt the Mercedes team too much – their drivers finished in first and third, instead of the first and second places they would have been in line to get, so they only ceded three points to Ferrari in that respect.  But in the individual Drivers' Championship, Hamilton dropped points to his closest rival, instead of extending his lead – that has to hurt.

The important thing for Hamilton, though, is how he responds to this.  His interview on the podium was rather more mature and gracious than I had expected from a driver who has a reputation for 'wearing his heart on his sleeve' (read: 'sulking') when things get difficult for him.  In private, though, Hamilton will be raging – and he has every right to! – but he has to try and channel that energy positively.

If Hamilton starts to see himself as a victim, he will only make things worse for himself.  The inevitable paranoid nonsense has been bandied about social media by 'fans' – but the idea that the Mercedes team did this deliberately (either of their own volition, or at Rosberg's behest) is patently absurd.  As I wrote last year (also during the Monaco Grand Prix, funnily enough) on a very similar topic:
To allow oneself to slip into a 'victim' mentality is one of the worst things that can happen to a world-class sportsman.  If Hamilton starts to believe he is the subject of some conspiracy within the Mercedes AMG F1 team, he will effectively derail his hopes of claiming a second Word Drivers' Championship victory this season; he will become paranoid and resentful, and he will start to kick against his team instead of working with them, and he will cease to make calm, rational decisions on the track, instead allowing himself to become motivated by revenge and an attempt to vindicate himself. 
Luck plays a part in any sport.  Part of being a successful sportsman is the acceptance that you don't always get the rub of the green, and sometimes things will go against you; those who are at the very top of their game, in any area, are those who deal with that the best, and getting sucked into the downward psychological spiral of a 'siege' mentality is not the way to do that.
Speaking of luck, d'you know who doesn't have any?  Pastor Maldonado.  The Lotus driver still has not taken the chequered flag in any of this season's six races so far; I know I've brought this up before, but I really do wonder how much longer the team will persist with him.  After Qualifying yesterday, I predicted:

And so it proved.  Both Lotus drivers looked extremely quick throughout free practice, and in Qualifying…  In the race, however, it was a different story – Grosjean kept himself out of trouble, and despite a five-place grid penalty which left him start in fifteenth, he gradually inched his way up into the lower end of the points positions, and would've stayed there had be not been rammed from behind by the Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen (the incident which precipitated Mercedes' pigs ear pitstops!).  Maldonado, on the other hand, was involved in yet another incident, and adds yet another DNF to his rather unimpressive record.

It is easy to say that this incident was not entirely Maldonado's fault – indeed it is easy to say that for many of the incidents which the Venezuelan has been involved in, and there certainly is some truth in that – but he hasn't finished a single race this year, and that record speaks for itself.  There's only so much bad fortune anyone can have, before you start to wonder whether there's a reason all that bad luck keeps happening to the same guy…

The fact of the matter is, good drivers don't constantly put themselves in situations where bad things can happen to them.  They stay out of trouble.  Maldonado is the opposite of this – his bull-in-a-china-shop approach makes him a magnet for on-track incidents, and the result is no points, and a whole lot of repairs for the team to do.  The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that he will be replaced before the season's even over.

But over at McLaren, the long wait for points is finally over, as Jenson Button scored four points for his eighth place finish today.  They told us to wait until Spain – which was another damp squib for them – but this time out in Monaco, they finally got on the scoresheet.  Can it last, though?  The hard-to-overtake nature of the Monte Carlo street circuit will have helped them out a lot, and Canada (next time out) will be a very different proposition; I doubt Button will be able to keep a Toro Rosso or a Lotus behind him for so many laps at a track like that, they way he managed to this afternoon.  Canada could well bring McLaren down to earth with a bump!

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