The British Grand Prix demonstrated that it takes more than dominant car to win a Grand Prix; victory demands aggressive team decisions made in a split second. While Lewis Hamilton’s 38th Formula 1 win might have seemed predictable, looking back over the race, team decisions meant nothing was certain until ten laps remaining.
The key to Hamilton’s victory came with a perfectly-timed pitstop for intermediate tyres, just as an intermittent rain turned into a full shower and teammate Rosberg was making huge inroads into his lead. But the variables that lead to that moment were far from predictable.
From the 46th pole position of his career, Hamilton made a great start as did Rosberg, but Felipe Massa Williams exploded past them into the lead from P3, leading teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton retook second, but Rosberg got stuck behind Bottas. The foursome then separated from the pack, with neither Mercedes able to make a dent in Massa’s pace.
Behind, the two Lotus of Grosjean and Maldonado wrecked, with Alonso avoiding them, but taking out teammate Button. A virtual safety car (VSC) period was called to clean up the mess.
At the restart, an aggressive Hamilton ran wide trying to pass Massa, and Bottas rushed past, making it a Williams 1-2 once more.
At this point, the Williams teamed decided to solidify their gains with a “no racing your teammate” call, but immediately Bottas complained that he was quicker than Massa. With the Mercedes of Hamilton all over his gearbox, Bottas had no choice, but to ignore team instructions, and attacked Massa using DRS into Stowe on lap 10, but Massa covered him.
Williams then revised their guidance to “it has to be a clean move, Valtteri” – and Bottas promised to make it on the back straight.
Despite the benefit of DRS, Bottas’ front wing’s loss of grip in Massa’s dirty air (as much as 25% of the car’s overall downforce) kept him from getting close enough to pull a ‘clean move’ at Stowe, and, with his front tires now wearing heavily, radioed to the team “it’s too late”.
Had the team ordered Massa to let his clearly faster teammate past, Bottas would have used the clean air to open up a gap immediately. Massa would have kept pace and thus kept the DRS advantage. Had Bottas later failed to hold the gap over Hamilton, et al, Williams could have had Massa take the position back. Williams, at that point, were in a strong position to take the win and blinked.
Seeing Williams’ hesitation to dominate, Mercedes made the crucial choice to pit Hamilton first on lap 20, looking undercut Massa with fresher tires. With a very quick 2.4s stop, Hamilton rejoined ready to move to the front.
Massa and Rosberg pitted together a lap later, with Massa stationary for 3.8s due to a baulky right-rear change, yet he still managed to squeeze out of the pit lane ahead of Rosberg. They both rejoined behind Hamilton, however, who was now the virtual leader as Bottas stayed out another lap on his old mediums. Bottas pitted on lap 22, with a 3.2s stop, and rejoined behind both Hamilton and Massa.
Thus, Hamilton found himself in the lead by 3s, ahead of Massa, Bottas and Rosberg.
Mercedes’ decision to pit Hamilton first was key to moving him to the head of the race, as Williams later ruefully explained that had they gone for new tyres any earlier, those tyres might not have lasted until the end.
Williams’ conservative race strategy of holding a faster Bottas back, and keeping Massa out a lap longer on worn tires had put the team on its back foot. Conditions were about to change that would knock the legs out from under them.
Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso stopped near the racing line at Club corner on lap 34 and needed removal by marshals. The race was instantly neutralised under the VSC.
And then the sky began to spit rain.
When the rain came down, the Williams car’s greatest strength became their worst nightmare. Their car’s performance envelope trades a compliant suspension and low downforce for substantial straight line speed; the car instantly lost overall grip in the now soaking corners. Conversely, Mercedes’ W07’s more balanced overall performance capabilities now found itself fully in its element.
Rosberg picked up his pace in the now slippery conditions, first passing the now struggling Bottas for third and then gobbling up Massa for second on lap 41.
As Massa and Bottas faded, the victory was now between Hamilton and Rosberg.
Rosberg began chewing into Hamilton’s lead too, gaining 2s on lap 42. Hamilton radioed that he had no grip on his tyres and decided to pit at the end of lap 43, going on to intermediates just as the rain – which had eased – suddenly intensified.
That left Rosberg to struggle on slicks for an extra lap. He pitted a lap later, but the damage had been done; he rejoined 10s behind Hamilton, and that’s where he finished.
Vettel’s Ferrari had pitted for intermediates on the same lap as Hamilton, and moved to third. He had passed Raikkonen for fifth just before Raikkonen pitted early for intermediates. Raikkonen’s inters gamble meant the tires had burnt out before the heaviest showers and he tumbled down the order on the dry track, eventually slipping to eighth.
Massa and Bottas finished fourth and fifth. Had Williams pitted Massa for wet tyres the same lap as Hamilton & Vettel, Massa might have still finished third, but seems a gamble the conservative Williams’ couldn’t make. Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat finished seventh ahead of Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Perez and Alonso, who scored his first point of the season for McLaren.
The weather intervened to make the 2015 British Grand Prix a remarkably engrossing race. Combined with a full collection of “what ifs” and “if onlys”, it proves that once a Grand Prix’s finishing order, not to mention, the first lap leader, becomes a toss up, Formula 1 can still provide the absorbing drama of teams forced to put everything on the line with a split-second’s gamble.
We welcome the return of the “glorious unknown”.