Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says Mercedes Formula 1 team’s strategists made a “magic call” in pitting Lewis Hamilton late under Virtual Safety Car, which helped him defeat Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel in the Spanish Grand Prix.
Pole-sitter Hamilton had lost out to Vettel at the start and followed the
Ferrari driver during the first two stints of the 66-lap grand prix.
But when contact between the McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne and the Williams of Felipe Massa left the former stranded in the gravel on lap 33, Hamilton used the resulting Virtual Safety Car period to make his final stop.
The British man wound up waiting until lap 36, taking to the pitlane as the “VSC ending” message appeared on the screens – and as the green flags were waved, he was already approaching his pit stall.
“There was a bit of thought process in the strategy group [during VSC] – at a certain stage we planned to do the opposite to Sebastian,” Wolff recounted. “And then the magic call was the one to take the pitstop at a time when it looked like the VSC would end soon.
“Because [otherwise] Sebastian could have reacted to that, pitted next lap. So we timed it perfectly, I really take my hat off to James [Vowles, Chief Strategist] and his group of strategists.”
Vettel had been almost eight seconds ahead of Hamilton before the VSC was called out, but, after he responded by pitting under the green flag a lap after his rival, he came out only just ahead.
He had to squeeze Hamilton to the outside on exit of Turn 1 to keep the lead and couldn’t break away afterwards, eventually surrendering first place with 22 laps left.
Wolff elaborated further: “You lose so much when you do a regular pitstop during the race. Your pitstop loss is around 21s and all cars are at speed – so you lose time being stationary and by being slow in the pitlane.
“And on the VSC everyone on the track is moving much slower so the effective pitstop loss is less. I don’t know the overall number but the actual loss is probably around 12, 13 seconds – so it is much better.”
Wolff admitted that Mercedes was “on the back foot” at the end of the first stint, as Vettel pitted early for new softs, preventing an undercut. He emerged behind the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo but cleared the Aussie in no time.
“We had hoped that Ricciardo would make his life quite difficult but Sebastian’s pace was just so much faster and he got past him quite easily,” Wolff said.
“And from then on we were on the back foot. And there wasn’t really a lot to do so we tried to extend the stint and hopefully, towards the end of the race, have a better tyre.”
Hamilton wound up running a different two-stop strategy to his Ferrari rival, going long on softs early on before a switch to mediums and a final stint on softs against Vettel’s mediums.
“We started to go on a remote strategy – that was to put the medium tyre on and keep the soft for the end to, hopefully, attack.”
Talking on the wheel-to-wheel battle between Vettel and Hamilton, Wolff said: “First of all, that first defence was great, maybe a little bit on the aggressive side but that is racing.
“He [Vettel] pushed him [Hamilton] wide and, from then on, we knew we had an advantage of the soft tyre that was almost brand new. We knew we had a chance.”