MPH: Did Mercedes strategy call provide window into wild F1 future?


The strategic game of chess that played out between Mercedes and Red Bull in Spain could carry on into next season – but with even more on-track action

Hamilton Spain finish 2021

Mercedes pulled off a strategic masterclass in Barcelona, but Hamiltin feels he could have potentially overtaken Verstappen without the second stop

Grand Prix Photo

If we get cars which can much more easily overtake on track next year – the main reason for the change of regulations – then it’s interesting to ponder how the circumstances of last week’s Spanish Grand Prix would play out.

On one of the more difficult tracks on the calendar for overtaking Lewis Hamilton won by making a second pit stop from behind Max Verstappen and then using the advantage of his newer tyres to catch and pass before the end. This was all based upon the two cars being quite similar on one-lap pace but the Mercedes having better tyre deg.

Hamilton said afterwards that from in the car he felt as though he could have overtaken on track and was watching for the signs of Verstappen’s tyres dropping off, after which he reckoned the speed difference between Max and himself, in a car with four-lap newer tyres and which was easier on them anyway, would have been enough. “I was about to, I think, have a shot before I pitted right at the end and I was really conflicted. Do I come in or do I ignore the call and stay out? Obviously, I did what the team asked and natural that’s because there is a great trust between us.”

Had he ignored the call and made the overtake on track, Red Bull would likely have been very relieved – and Merc’s Andrew Shovlin explained why: “If we had done that you then have the disadvantage almost of being the race leader and Max could have done to Lewis what we did to him. So, he could have converted to a two-stop as soon as Lewis had overtaken him, and this might have happened around the point that we decided to pull the trigger on the extra stop anyway.

Verstapen Hamilton Spain 2021

Red Bull could have potentially pulled the same strategic trick as Merc – but would Verstappen been able to get past Hamilton?

Grand Prix Photo

“So, in some ways it was actually better to not do that overtake on track, use the fact that for Lewis he was in P2 and the worst-case scenario of the extra stop was that he would finish in P2.

“For us it was worth a gamble but there was less chance that Max as the race leader was going to make that move for the extra stop.”

Verstappen would have no longer had anything to lose if he’d been relegated to second. He may – or may not – have then been able to catch up and pass in the way Hamilton did to him. But possibly not, because all he had left in the garage was a set of softs, rather than the superior mediums Hamilton was able to get onto.

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Regardless, imagine now that there was no difficulty in overtaking, that you no longer needed to be at least 1.2sec faster than the car ahead to be able to overtake, that just one or two tenths faster would allow you to do it. Which is what we are expecting of the ’22 cars.

In this scenario Hamilton would have overtaken – maybe towards the end of the first stint as Verstappen’s tyres began dropping off earlier than Hamilton’s. Which would have triggered Red Bull into immediately bringing Verstappen in, so as to use the undercut advantage of new tyres to reclaim track position over the Mercedes.

They’d then be fairly evenly matched again for a while, with Verstappen ahead once more and Hamilton waiting for the Red Bull’s tyres to drop off earlier than his. Then either he’d pass again on track or be brought in for the undercut at the second stop. Or Red Bull would anticipate the Mercedes undercut and pit first. But the last stint would still likely have been some variation of Verstappen leading and Hamilton overtaking him before the end.

So the strategic game would be much the same as it was, but to the casual observer there’d appear to be many more twists and turns because of the overtakes. With this happening throughout the field these races may be quite challenging to stay on top of as a spectator.

F1 races have transitioned over the decades from sprint wheel-to-wheel duels to strategic contests. Next year, if the cars work as planned, will be the first time we have both. It could be wild.