Mercedes blamed a computer bug from an offline software tool for the timing error which cost Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton a chance to win the Australian Grand Prix.
Hamilton looked to be in total control after starting strongly from pole position at Sunday’s season-opening race, but he suddenly found himself behind Sebastian Vettel after coming out of the pit lane.
The confusing incident occurred after a virtual safety car was deployed as marshals removed Romain Grosjean’s stricken Haas car from the track.
When the VSC is used, cars stay on track but slow down to a required non-race pace. There then is a short distance between the designated line of the safety car and the entrance to the pit lane when cars can briefly speed up as they prepare to pit, which is what Vettel did.
Timing proved crucial as Mercedes misjudged the gap to Vettel, enabling the Ferrari driver to pull ahead and win the race. Hamilton finished second.
Trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin explained on the Mercedes website how the team misjudged the time gap – known as a delta lap – between Hamilton staying on track at a slower VRC speed and Vettel pitting.
“The issue isn’t actually with the race strategy software that we use. It was an offline tool that we create these delta lap times with, and we found a bug in that tool that meant that it gave us the wrong number,” Shovlin said. “Now the number that we were calculating was around 15 seconds, and in reality the number was slightly short of 13 seconds, so that was what created our delta. That is why we thought we were safe. We thought we had a bit of margin.”
Vettel came out just ahead of a confused Hamilton, who got on the radio to ask his team what just happened.
“Why did you not tell me Vettel was in the pits?” Hamilton asked.
“We thought we were safe, but there’s obviously something wrong,” his team responded.
The nature of the Albert Park track, which is notoriously hard to overtake on, reduced Hamilton’s chances of catching Vettel. It was an astute move from Ferrari, but a rare lapse from a supremely efficient Mercedes team which has won the past four drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
“We thought that Sebastian was going to come out behind us, we weren’t telling Lewis to push any harder,” Shovlin said. “We were lulled into this false sense of security and we didn’t have Lewis driving as fast as we could.”
Mercedes said a similar mistake won’t be made in the future, starting with the Bahrain GP on April 8.
“We look at everything that went wrong,” Shovlin said, “work out how to solve it and then put the processes in place to make sure we don’t have a repeat.”