Scenting the chance of an improbable podium or even a win, Lewis Hamilton over-ruled his Mercedes team a number of times as they pondered the difficult call of whether and when to change tyres during the Turkish Grand Prix. Hamilton had started 11th after a grid penalty, but with 15 laps to go he was up to fourth place and could see his title rival Max Verstappen in front of him.
The Dutchman had already made a pit stop for a fresh set of treaded intermediate tyres on a track that was resolutely refusing to dry and Hamilton, despite his more worn tyres, was keeping pace with the Red Bull. In the circumstances, it was no wonder Hamilton rejected his team’s request to pit. The call, as he put it, “was a risk either way”.
If he stayed out, his tyres might hold on long enough for him to finish on the podium. Or, if the track dried quickly enough and everyone had to stop for dry-weather tyres, there was even the distant chance of victory. On the other hand, if he did not change his tyres, they might dramatically lose grip and he could tumble down the order to sixth or even seventh spot. Or a tyre might explode and force his retirement – the worst possible scenario.
But if Hamilton did pit, he would certainly drop to fifth. There would be the chance of finishing fourth or perhaps even third, but the moves would have to be made on track. “If I had stayed out,” Hamilton said, “you don’t know if I would have held position, but I am a risk taker so I would have wanted to take the risk. It’s hard to want to give something up when you don’t fully know the whole picture.”
It was a point he reiterated in a social media post on Monday, one in which he also rejected claims that he was “furious” with his team. Mercedes let him have his way for a while. But in the end they did call him in. Fifth is where he ended up, losing eight points to Verstappen, who now leads one of the tightest championship fights for years by six points with six races to go.
A gamble not tried for 24 years
Who was right? Should Hamilton have stayed out to the end, gambled that his tyres would stay together and he could hold on to third? Or should he have listened to the team and stopped when they first asked him to, 10 laps before he actually did?
Even looking back at the race, it is hard to be sure what the correct answer is. To give some context to Hamilton’s desire to stay out, no driver has completed a grand prix without changing tyres since Mika Salo took fifth place for Tyrrell at Monaco in 1997. It’s just not a thing that you do in modern F1, since pit stops were re-introduced in 1982 by Brabham and became de rigueur the following year.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it the wrong thing to try. In hindsight, the right time to stop for tyres was with just over 20 laps to go, when Red Bull called in Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez, and Mercedes stopped Valtteri Bottas when leading.
When Perez pitted on lap 37, he was fighting to hold off Hamilton for fourth place. The stops by Bottas and Verstappen brought them back towards the seven-time champion and handed the lead to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who had run a strong third from the start.
Heading into the last 18 laps, the top four were covered by just 15 seconds. Hamilton could see Verstappen just three seconds in front of him and both lapping at around the same pace – and he and Leclerc were thinking of staying out to the end.
So, when Mercedes first called Hamilton in for tyres, it is no wonder he refused. At that time, Mercedes were happy to leave him out, realising the potential upside was big. But within a few laps, the picture had changed. Suddenly, Leclerc’s tyres were beginning to fade badly and Bottas was reeling him in hand over fist. The Mercedes re-took the lead with 10 laps to go, prompting Ferrari to pit. Still Hamilton stayed out, but by now Mercedes believed the game was up.
Hamilton’s tyres were shot – there was cord showing through the tread and the team feared they would fail. Mercedes knew they had fallen between two stools and were now on what’s known as a “bail-out strategy”, but felt they had to call Hamilton in. They still left him out for a couple of laps, hoping for a safety car, but eventually ordered him to pit when he still had the chance to get out in fifth, in front of Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri. The potential downside was now too big, they felt, to leave him out.
Hamilton eventually pitted from third place on lap 50, with eight to go. At the time, he was lapping a second slower than Perez, but had a 12.5-second lead. But within a couple of laps, the Mexican was lapping a second quicker again. Had Hamilton stayed out, he would have been defending a lead of around 10 or 11 seconds for eight laps against a car lapping two seconds faster and Leclerc was not far behind Perez either.
It would have been a tall order even if his tyres did not get any worse, which Mercedes felt they certainly would. And for evidence post-race, they looked at Esteban Ocon’s Alpine, who did stay out to the end, and who lost a place as his times dropped off by a further second or more in the last few laps. Once he had pitted, Hamilton still had a chance to take fourth from Leclerc, but went too hard too soon on his tyres.
His first flying lap out of the pits got him onto the Ferrari’s tail, but then his tyres suffered ‘graining’, where the surface tears and grip is lost, and he dropped back, forced to spend the last four laps defending from Gasly rather than attacking Leclerc.