Tuesday 29 July 2014

Mercedes too clever by half with team orders

The Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg fight for 2014 F1 supremacy is the gift that keeps on giving. And even though the goings-on of the Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying session couldn't have done more to keep the pair apart for last Sunday's race, it still managed to provide another dollop of intrigue. But it wasn't really either driver at fault this time, rather Mercedes the team - which has spent just about the entire season making all the right moves on letting the drivers race and stressing equity, despite facing on occasion rather lurid claims to the contrary - in Hungary rather blew a giant hole in its own foot.

In Hungary last Sunday it was Lewis Hamilton,
not Nico Rosberg, on the podium
Photo: Octane Photography
Why? Well the team that doesn't do team orders, did team orders. And rather clumsily. At around two-thirds distance as Nico got up somewhere near Lewis's tail - either on divergent strategies - the Merc pit wall told Lewis to let Nico through. Lewis didn't, and the consensus was that he was absolutely right in his stance. In the end he finished third to Nico's fourth, and Lewis's bewilderment at the matter afterwards was tangible. Merc boss Toto Wolff gently stoked matters by saying something not long after the chequered flag to the effect that Nico could have won had Lewis complied. But the management backtracked eventually.

So, how exactly did the previously imperious Merc get into such a fine mess? For me the most likely explanation is that Mercedes got too clever by half. We still these days often hear talk of strategy being decided by 'the guy on the pit wall', but these times are in fact long gone. Now it's churned out by vast armies equipped with all sorts of extrapolations, algorithms and game theory, many of them back at the factory. But sometimes it can be a curse as much as a blessing, as we on occasion witness times on which its outputs have been rather over-used, perhaps at the expense of what might loosely be termed as human savvy. A little reminiscent of the Little Britain 'computer says no' sketch. Indeed, we saw something in a similar ilk in last Sunday's race with McLaren at the first safety car; the team deciding to take on more inters for both cars when all others were putting on slicks, as a radar of its said some rain was on the way (wrongly). Human savvy might have told them they should have waited for an umbrella or two to go up at least before making that call...

And so it was here. No doubt the Merc systems produced an output that said it would be beneficial for the team all-in for Lewis to cede the place to Nico. At the time Nico, on soft tyres compared to Lewis's mediums (combined with that Lewis was running to the end on that set), was lapping around six to eight tenths a lap faster before getting onto his tail, and then spent 11 laps behind. The time 'lost' (though it's not known for certain what Nico's tyre deg would have done to potential lap times in that spell) appears enough on paper at least to vault Nico to the win, given at the end he was 6.4 seconds shy of winner Ricciardo (though Nico would too have had to overtake on track Fernando Alonso, maybe twice, as well as Ricciardo once; in none of these cases the work of a moment). As James Allen has outlined such ceding of places by team mates when on different strategies is pretty routine, especially for midfield squads who like to split their tickets. And one can see how a Merc dumb system could conclude that it was preferable to make the team order call, as the 1-4 or possibly 2-4 the team would probably have got with a 'switch' of course results in more points than the 3-4 it actually got without it.

But there are a few things that the systems didn't account for seemingly. The overarching one is that the ceding of the place also likely would have ruined Lewis's day. At the time he was within sight of Fernando Alonso, as well as within range of Daniel Ricciardo who was about 18 seconds ahead and clearly planning another stop (which would lose him around 21 seconds). And as has been pointed out by Martin Brundle and others had Lewis yielded the place on the pit straight (where his team told him so to do) the lifting off combined with presumably a slightly scrappy braking for turn one probably would have lost him two seconds at least. And these in a tight fight would have been crucial - consigning him to P4 at a point at which he was genuinely fighting for the win.

Rosberg spent several laps stuck behind Jean-Eric Vergne
Photo: Octane Photography
The time loss also was related to the slightly curious auxiliary story in that while all of this was going on Nico was hardly all over the back of Lewis in a way consistent with someone clearly quicker. Indeed earlier on in the race after the first safety car period Nico again was curiously subdued with cars around - first of all letting Jean-Eric Vergne and Fernando Alonso past, and then sitting behind Vergne for no fewer than 16 (count them) laps. That a handful of these were behind the safety car only slightly tempers matters. This was additionally after an early part of the race where he seemed to have the rest on toast, almost every time lapping a second and a half faster even than the next guy up in P2. Nico had reported brake problems not long before, which might have been a factor. Whatever was the case, as Peter Windsor noted without the time lost there the situation causing all of the fuss probably wouldn't have arisen in the first place. Indeed, Nico's adoption of a three-stop strategy, which was what put him behind Lewis, seemed at least in part inspired by the need to get out of Vergne's wake.

And this all is without even mentioning that Nico and Lewis are title rivals - and the only title contenders - and that the team therefore was asking Lewis to not only compromise himself but also to aid his team mate and sole championship antagonist. Seemingly the Merc computer and subsequent decision didn't account for this either. Drivers generally don't wave rivals by in races if they can help it even if they are running different strategies and the guy behind is much faster, as the possibility remains that your strategies playing out will bring you back together by the end. That's exactly how it happened in Hungary with Lewis beating Nico to the flag by a car's length. His deaf ear to the team's 'phone call' was indeed crucial.

So in effect the pit wall folks were requesting that Lewis - in the midst of a fight for victory - accept 12 points rather than a potential 25, as well as another points swing against him in this title fight with his team mate. Add to this too is that it's in a season wherein rather a lot has gone wrong for him, usually related to Merc equipment letting him down. Is it any wonder he said no? Mercedes it seems on a few levels managed to take a logical calculation to an illogical conclusion.

Inevitably there has been the odd comment aired since to the effect of how can you say that Lewis was justified in ignoring teams orders when such-an-such was criticised (usually Vettel at Malaysia) for doing the same? Well with team orders, as with anything, context is king. It can never be blanket that all team orders should be obeyed, or all ignored; instead it will hinge on circumstance. Indeed any of us are well within our rights to disobey an instruction from our employer that is unreasonable. None of us are (or should be) lackeys.

Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda was
critical of the strategy afterwards, and supportive of Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
And in Lewis's case he surely was justified in not obeying. Further, as Windsor also pointed out, quite why anyone among the Mercedes management - given who we're dealing with here - thought Lewis would obey is anyone's guess (presumably another thing its systems didn't factor in). Perhaps Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda is right that the team simply panicked, partly in response to a topsy-turvey race and having the unusual experience for 2014 of other cars around its own.

It also struck me that it was all rather at odds too with the Mercedes view, expressed repeatedly this campaign, that the team is going to let its drivers fight it out as nature intended, given particularly that it's clear that this title battle is a very private Merc matter. Yes as mentioned in this case in the Hungary race the two were on different strategies, but in those ever-so-clever strategy models referred to track position is a key part of it. Especially at the sinewy Hungaroring track. That Nico got stuck behind someone was just too bad.

The Merc systems also I'd imagine wouldn't factor in what all of this would do the already incendiary Mercedes 'conspiracy' idea. As outlined before on this site repeatedly I do not believe for a second that the Mercedes anti-Lewis conspiracy chat that lives among us in modern times holds a single drop of credence. Simply it does not pass any sort of credibility test (mainly that why would Merc move heaven and Earth - and a lot of cash - to get Lewis aboard only to scupper him deliberately as soon as he has a chance at the championship there?). But the team's apparent bone-headedness on this one doesn't really help in fighting that particular PR battle.

At least though with Lauda's comments post-race - supportive of Lewis's decision - combined with Toto Wolff suggesting there will be a rethink on it all, the Brackley squad at least appears to be learning lessons.


  1. edit: Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug.

  2. You don't mention Mercedes' unusual choice to send Hamilton out on the primes? If they had shod his car with the option tires, he would have been 1-1.5s per lap quicker and could have had a fair shot at the victory.

    Of course, you can dismiss conspiracy theories as boneheaded because MercedesGP went all out to get Hamilton on board, but that was when Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug were there and Toto Wolff was not.

    I don't doubt that Wolff favors Rosberg.

    1. The decision to send Hamilton out on the primes made sense as there was still at that stage a very long way to go (31 laps). OK, Alonso was put on the options a lap earlier but just about everyone at the time thought that a big risk (including Ferrari as it turned out), most thought he'd have to stop again, and we all saw how he struggled for grip in the late laps.

      As for Wolff not being there when Lewis was signed, you forget that Wolff is but one person in a vast organisation, plus if he's going to deliberately scupper a multi-million pound investment made by the organisation in a highly sought after asset (regardless of whether he was there when that investment was made) then he's a very bad manager. And I don't believe he is a very bad manager.

      Plus having witnessed Wolff close at hand after both Germany and Hungary quali sessions he does hurt a lot when Lewis has problems. Either that or he's a very good actor - or I'm very gullible

    2. But the options had already shown to be just as durable as the primes for this particular race, so a minimal difference in degradation and big gain in speed seems like not all that much of a risk.

      And yes, Alonso struggled for grip towards the end, but so did Hamilton on the primes.

      I'm not saying MercedesGP tried to screw Hamilton, but for the team to be so focused on Rosberg's win when Hamilton's race was so much better (I'd argue he actually had a better chance of winning after the 2nd SC), that is facepalm-worthy.

      As for Wolff, of course he is not going to deliberately screw Hamilton over. And I didn't say so. But a personal bias in favor of Rosberg can trickle down the ranks over time and subtly slant the playing field, whether intentional or not. Rosberg leads the WDC, in other teams that would be enough to give him priority.

    3. The options hadn't shown themselves to be as durable. The predictions from practice were 21 laps maximum was possible on the softs; Alonso was able to stretch it out in the event partly from the lower track temperature of race day and partly from doing a stupendous job. And remember that hindsight is a wonderful thing - there was very little reason at the time of Lewis's last stop to think that the soft tyre would last that long.

      For what it's worth James Allen's analysis of the Hungarian GP strategies is excellent, and outlines why Lewis was put on the strategy he was (or at least what Mercedes's thinking was). Here's the link: http://www.jamesallenonf1.com/2014/07/what-really-happened-in-behind-the-scenes-decisions-that-shaped-hungarian-gp/

      As for your Wolff theory, I'm not aware of any evidence for any of that. I'm not even sure I've come across evidence of Wolff favouring Rosberg in the first place.

  3. We all forget, so soon, Massa vs Bottas.Team orders also need to make sense to be obeyed. Drivers will always disobey these. I was so pleased with HAM's response.