When the biggest decision you have to make is which of many aspects of Sunday’s eventful race would be good for discussion, it’s easy to sit back and criticise a Mercedes strategy call made in the heat of the moment.
Three things about that calamitous judgement stand out: Lewis Hamilton’s calm “we’ll talk later” response after being plunged from first to fourth with little hope of a comeback; James Vowles very public declaration of culpability, and Toto Wolff’s demonstration of a team winning and losing together by backing his strategist without hesitation.
Perhaps it’s just as well that the work of the strategy team will not receive the intense scrutiny it might otherwise deserve. Mercedes have much on their minds thanks to equally pressing issues this week, such as two very different mechanical failures and concern about tyre performance given the predicted high track temperatures at Silverstone next weekend. Nonetheless, despite the mature reaction in public, Toto Wolff must be concerned about more than one tactical mistake in a season as competitive as this one.
Algorithms were to blame in Melbourne. Sunday’s fault seemed to be more fundamental, coming as Mercedes tried to deal with the shock of seeing Valtteri Bottas parked with leaking hydraulics and predicated on trying to cover all eventualities in the 40 seconds or so of thinking time available.
It would seem to the layman that their fast-forward thought process went along the lines of: ‘Ferrari could do A, we could do B, but they know we know they could do A, so they might do B when they know we know they know about A and so they could then do B, particularly if Red Bull do A, knowing they know we know they could also do B – oh, hang on; Lewis has just passed the pit entrance.’
That’s not quite how it was, of course. But you get the point and find yourself wondering what’s wrong with the instant racing gut reaction: ‘VSC? Pit! Now!’ A case of No-brainer v Know-too-much?
Max Verstappen continued to apply his instinctive reactions despite the criticism that had come his way during each of the first six races this year. Verstappen maintained nothing had changed in his approach and he showed it by going for a diminishing gap approaching Turn 7 as Kimi Räikkönen had a wobble through Turn 6.
As you probably saw, the two cars brushed wheels – but Max was through. As things would turn out, that was the move that won the race. We won’t go into the condemnation that would have come his way had either the Red Bull’s nose wing contributed to the familiar and unnecessary spraying of carbon debris, or one or both drivers had lost control. The fine line of risk – the difference between admiration and condemnation; between being a daring racer and a downright liability – was never better illustrated.
I’m glad the move came off because it allowed Verstappen to demonstrate very intelligent control in the closing laps as he protected his blistered left rear through the quick right-handers before the pit straight. For those who enjoy statistical tidiness, it also means we’ve had nine races with three wins apiece of each of the leading three teams. You can’t ask for more going into the British Grand Prix.
Following disappointments such as this, Hamilton tends to come back even stronger. He has an enviable record at Silverstone and the Mercedes should be perfectly suited to it. But then I was not alone in thinking Mercedes would use the fastest car last weekend to make Austria a dull affair and mark a pivotal point in their long-term favour as the championship approaches the halfway point.
Sometimes you can know too much.