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.”
The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.
The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.
Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).
As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.
Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.
Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.
A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016
The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.
Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.
Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.
The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.
And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.
In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.
Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.
In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.
Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari
The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.
Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.
Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.
All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.
Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas
Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.
However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.
However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.
However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.
The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.