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Strategy Poker in Austin: The Secret of Mercedes Tactics

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D as are the moments in which Formula 1 reaches its limits. Three hours of free practice and two qualifying laps took place on a flooded track. The drivers spent all test laps on the bad weather tires. When the sky closed its locks shortly before the start, Pirelli-Reifenche Paul Hembery said: 'Everyone still has the full contingent of intermediates. That is enough for the race distance.'

In fact, everyone in the field prepared on lap 17 to 19 on dry tires. Some tried it beforehand and fell on their noses. The lack of preparation and data and the drying route were a challenge for the strategists. 'In such a case, only experience counts. The usual strategy programs do not work. Because when you start on a wet track you are not forced to use two different compounds. The course of the race and the condition of the tires alone decide,' explained Mercedes chief strategy officer James Vowles.

Why was Hamilton allowed to make the first stop before Rosberg?

Despite the turbulent course of the race and despite the chance to make all the mistakes in the world, Mercedes celebrated its ninth double victory. Accordingly, the command post must mostly have made the right decision. What you can already see in the pit stop log. There were only four drivers who made it through 56 laps with two tire changes: Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.

The first challenge was the question: When do we switch from intermediates to slicks ? The track dried off quickly, but it took a long time to get hold of dry tires. Marcus Ericsson started in the 17th lap. The Swede's interim in the second sector gave the signal to the Mercedes command post. It's time to change.

But why was Hamilton called into the pits before Rosberg, even though Rosberg was at the pit entrance in front of his teammate? 'A borderline decision,' as Vowles admits. At the end of the long straight, Hamilton had his nose ahead of Rosberg. 'And that's where we make our decision. If something changes after that, it doesn't make sense to react to it. Lewis could have countered again before the pit entrance. If you leave that open until the last moment, you create problems at the pit stop. '

In fact, Rosberg had no disadvantage in going on slicks one lap later. The first lap on fresh tires was because ofno match winner on the cool asphalt. 'If we had waited a lap longer with both of them, it would have been a different topic,' admit the Mercedes strategists.

Why did Mercedes stay outside in the first SC phase?

When Marcus Ericsson triggered the first safety car phase on lap 27, everyone was faced with a dilemma. There was a choice between plague and cholera. The timing was simply too early for a clear strategy. You could bet on a change to hard tires and hope to continue with it to the end. You could wait and plan the second stop later. Or choose the aggressive variant with two more stops.

Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez were put at risk. This stop should be her last. Whereby Toro Rosso got involved in a special kind of poker with the soft tires. Nobody had any experience of how the 'soft' mixture would behave over 28 laps. Vettel later had to renounce his tactics. More safety cars and Mercedes forced him to do so.

Mercedes decided to stay outside, also at the risk of the opponents catching up with fresh tires. And despite the fact that Vettel made up massive ground on the Mercedes with the slicks on wet roads. The engineers didn't trust the roast. 28 laps on one set of tires meant too much risk.

With strong re-starts and tires that were only eight and nine laps old, Mercedes hoped to open a gap that would be big enough on a later one Stop either staying in front of Vettel or at the end bring him to his knees with fresher tires. 'We also expected that Vettel would also stop again,' said Vowles.

Why was only Rosberg using virtual safety -Car?

In the 36th lap, Nico Hülkenberg triggered a virtual safety car phase. At the time, Rosberg was just ahead of Hamilton, 8.6 seconds ahead of Vettel and 12.0 seconds ahead of Verstappen. That made it clear. Rosberg has to pit, Hamilton stays outside. The gap between the two was too close to keep Hamilton waiting for his teammate.

A stop at a virtual safety car only costs 12 seconds instead of 21 seconds compared to normal racing pace. Only Rosberg could benefit from this gift. Hamilton would have lost 6 seconds if both cars had stopped perfectly by waiting. Compared to a normal pit stop, the net gain would have been only 3 seconds. While Rosberg returned to the track directly behind Vettel and Verstappen, Hamilton would have fallen further back into the field if he had stopped at the same time. Therefore the order to the world champion was: increase the speed as soon as the race is released again.

It worked. Rosberg overtook with the advantage of fresh tires within 3 lapsVerstappen and Vettel. And Hamilton had 6.9 seconds on Vettel and 12.7 seconds on Verstappen in the 42nd lap. Then Bernd Mayländer moved out a second time because of Daniil Kvyat's accident. It was a present for Hamilton. Because Vettel also took the opportunity to swap the hard tires for the soft ones. And because Mercedes even brought Hamilton in front of the Toro Rosso from Verstappen after its second stop.

Looking back, what could Mercedes have done better ?

From Rosberg's point of view, the second safety car was fatal. It put Hamilton into a box seat behind him, with tires that were 5 laps fresher. The Mercedes strategists are committed: 'Without the second safety car, Nico would have won. Lewis would have had to stop again at racing speed, would probably have fallen behind the Ferrari and the Toro Rosso, but would have overtaken them again. At Vettel we thought us: Either he makes a third stop or he is 4 seconds slower than Lewis with his old tires. '

Looking back, would Mercedes have done something different with more knowledge about the quality of the tires? 'We would probably have split the tactics in the first safety car phase and would have put Lewis on hard tires and let Nico drive on so he could later bring him in and give him more soft tires.'

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