Listening to Mercedes and the story of the rogue algorithm, apart from making a note of this new entry in the Motor Racing Book of Excuses, it was difficult not to think of Williams at Monaco, back in 1997.
Williams had been relying all weekend on a weather forecast that had been accurate, almost to the minute. This was critical since Williams had Heinz-Harald Frentzen on pole and Jacques Villeneuve directly behind him; an important asset on a track with even fewer overtaking opportunities than Albert Park.
On the grid, light rain fell as predicted. But Williams fitted both cars with…slicks. The computer also said the rain would stop several laps into the race. Given the importance of track position and the time lost getting in and out of the pits, you can see the logic. Sort of.
It would only have taken a few seconds for the team strategist to stick his head out of the office door to see and sense the pure folly of his technically correct and practically daft decision. The track was a skidpan and the Williams pair went backwards with immediate effect; Frentzen’s bout of rare brilliance in qualifying rendered completely worthless.
You can say the same about squandering Lewis Hamilton’s awesome Q3 lap on Saturday when the Mercedes gurus, glued to their computers, were led by the nose thanks to automated reasoning that was wrong through no fault of its own.
I’ve no idea how much can or can’t be seen or sensed from the pit wall but it’s tempting to wonder if any of the racers seated there had a gut feeling that the gap to Vettel might be even tighter than it seemed. Saying that, who would dare question, never mind overrule, the bank of complex and expensive computer technology doing its stuff in Melbourne and 17,000 kms away in Brackley. Welcome to racing in 2018.
Either way, the rogue algorithm kicked off a more important debate on the precise application of the Virtual Safety Car. The VSC is a very good solution to the previous problem of advantages being lost and gained by the rolling safety car while allowing marshals to go about their important work in relative security. But with the pit lane being free from VSC control, an anomaly arises that Ferrari were aware of as soon as Romain Grosjean stopped his Haas in an awkward place.
The ultimate winning advantage gained was the reverse of what was usually expected from the Melbourne pit lane since, under normal circumstances, it is a place to be avoided thanks to its narrow confines and the pit boxes being close enough together to cause further time loss through traffic and subsequent delayed releases.
If a solution is thought necessary, then closure of the pit lane or the application of the VSC to the entry and exit would get rid of the anomaly. The irony is that the critical change of position for the lead was created off the track rather than on it. Like most during the race, in fact.
You don’t need an algorithm to work out that the inability of the current cars to actually go racing is a more serious problem. It’s been said before and bears repeating: there’s about as much point trying to race with these ridiculous front wings as there is in running slicks on a wet track.