Tactical Analysis: Why Mercedes were incredibly lucky to win in Sochi

I felt that Mercedes were very lucky to win the Russian Grand Prix this weekend. It was a tough race and there was no doubt that any of Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull could have been the victorious constructor. Mercedes won, but it wasn’t as polished a performance as it could have been. Here are my reasons why I think they were fortunate.

Firstly, Mercedes’ pit stop strategy seemed to be a little confused, and although Bottas quite rightly as the lead car of the Silver Arrows got the choice of first or second stop, and took the first, Hamilton’s stop when he changed his tyres from the purple-walled Ultrasoft to the yellow-walled Soft was maybe 1 lap too late. Realistically, the lap that your rival comes in to pit and you stay out, you have to really draw everything from the tyres before they are ditched, and Hamilton wasn’t able to do that because Ferrari used the undercut superbly when they got Vettel in. But had Hamilton been brought in a lap earlier, Ferrari would not have had this undercut, and Mercedes would not have run it so close with getting Hamilton out in front of Vettel. The fact that Hamilton managed to get back in front of the German after being initially overtaken by him was a good piece of driving – I’m not denying that – but all I’m saying is that Mercedes could have made life a lot easier for themselves if they had pitted Hamilton one lap earlier. One second later and Vettel would have been in front much quicker, and maybe (and it is just a maybe), Hamilton would not have been able to get back in front like he did.

Secondly, this race could have actually ended with a Red Bull victory, because Max Verstappen was having the drive of his life on his 21st birthday (Happy Birthday Max) and had gone from 19th to 1st, but hadn’t pitted and his Soft tyres were starting to wear a little, and although the tactic was clear for them – use up the Soft tyres for as long as possible, and then switch to the pink-walled Hypersoft tyres (although they actually opted for the Ultrasoft in the end) to try and get some quicker laps to attempt to get as high up the finishing ranks as possible. It was a really good tactic, but for me, like Mercedes, I think they left Verstappen out just a little too long, because when he came back out from the pits, there weren’t enough laps left for him to realistically fight for his place back, so it was more like a few qualifying laps for him as he backed off slightly and saved the engine. Considering Red Bull’s now famous engine problems in this and previous seasons, this was a smart move once the race was beyond them.

On a side note, Ferrari in the second half of this season (following the summer break) have been very disappointing by their standards. In the first half of the season, I would go so far as to say that they were matching if not beating Mercedes on performances, and I even wrote a post looking at whether Mercedes’ era of dominance was coming to an end, and I said then that the Silver Arrows would be back, and so they have done. But at this stage, I would back anyone who said that Mercedes have the Championship sewn up now.

Finally, I want to say I feel really sorry for Valtteri Bottas, because I know that it was the right thing to do as a team to let Hamilton win, because team strategist James Allison had spotted some blistering on Hamilton’s tyres and decided to get him in front and protect him from any Ferrari overtake threat. But as human beings, I think Mercedes should have allowed Bottas to have a victory, especially at a track where he has history of winning the race, let alone finishing on the podium. The thing is that Bottas won’t want to stay around that long at Mercedes if he knows that the team don’t seem to care about him in the same way as Hamilton. As I say, I understand why they made the decision and gave the team orders, but I feel for Bottas and I just want to underline this point that he won’t want to stay if he is consistently placed aside in favour of his teammate.

So clearly some people would say that this is when the team strategy goes just right, but it was more I think a case of “phew thank goodness we pitted then and not a lap later” from Mercedes. They got lucky. This is perhaps not the view of lots of people, if anyone, but this is what my conclusion was about the race.

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