In his analysis of a Bahrain GP that saw Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel claim his second win in three 2017 races, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team boss Toto Wolff reflected on a 'perfect storm' that tripped up the Silver Arrows after they locked out the front row of an F1 grid for the first time this year.
Lewis: A big congratulations to Valtteri
Saturday's early evening 6pm qualifying hour was a thrilling session, with Valtteri claiming his first ever F1 pole position. His 1m28.768s second Q3 run just pipped Lewis's 1m28.792s pace-setting first run. Some 168 races had gone by since Finland's last pole - Heikki Kovalainen at Silverstone in 2008!
Lewis was gracious: "A big congratulations to Valtteri. He's been working so hard, has gelled so well with the team and today he was just quicker. He did the better job, so hats off to him."
Vettel's third fastest 1m29.247s was further from the Mercedes pace than the four-time champion expected, but he was still confident he had a competitive race car in his hands, and so it proved.
As the starting lights extinguished, Valtteri converted his pole position and led into Turn 1 but Lewis struggled a little more with traction on the dirty side of the grid and could not prevent Vettel going around his outside in Turn 1 to snatch second place.
It was soon apparent that the pace Valtteri had shown on Pirelli's SuperSoft compound tyre to take pole, was absent, and a train of cars were able to stay with him, comprising Vettel, Lewis, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Räikkonen and Felipe Massa. Unable to break the 1s DRS range to Vettel, the team told Valtteri to use the overtake button to defend. As early as lap 8 Valtteri was on the radio reporting "the tyres are not good..." The surface temperature had been hot from the start and the pit wall confirmed that the pressures were too high.
Toto: Our generator broke on the grid
There was a reason for that, as Toto explained: "Our generator broke on the grid, so we were starting with completely the wrong tyre pressures on his car and knew he'd be struggling. And, with Sebastian running second, there was nothing we could do. That opened up the opportunity for Ferrari to undercut us and they did it quite early."
"I could feel the problem from lap two," Valtteri elaborated. "I was just sliding around with the rear end, struggling to get on the power out of the corners, so the pace wasn't good and Sebastian was really putting pressure on. Trying to extend the stint I couldn't keep up with the pace, the tyres were just dropping."
Utilising the same aggressive strategy already seen in Melbourne and Shanghai, Vettel headed into the pits for a fresh set of SuperSoft Pirellis as soon as possible, just 10 laps into the 57-lap race and re-joined 10th, Ferrari not concerned with traffic in the belief that those in front would soon pit or else have insufficient pace to resist the freshly re-shod Ferrari.
Of the leading group, Verstappen pitted on the following lap but any potential threat from the Red Bull evaporated as the young Dutchman crashed following a braking problem. The next curve ball came in the form of a lap 13 Safety Car when Carlos Sainz collected Lance Stroll at Turn 1 after re-emerging from the pits. Vettel reported a couple of missed heartbeats when he momentarily thought that the benefits of his undercut strategy were about to be undone by the appearance of the official Mercedes for the second time in seven days! This time he need not have worried, it was our turn to suffer misfortune.
Valtteri: Without the problems it would have been close
As all those who hadn't already stopped piled into the pit lane under the Safety Car, Valtteri had a slow stop. A problem with the wheel guns meant they did not operate as they should, slowing the tyre change initially, the issue compounded by the team having to wait for Ricciardo's Red Bull to go past before they could safely release Valtteri. The upshot was that he re-emerged behind Vettel's Ferrari, losing his lead. "Without the problems it would have been close and we might have hung on," Valtteri reckoned.
Behind him, Lewis had problems of his own. Knowing that he was going to have to wait for Valtteri's stop to be completed before his car could be serviced, he backed off to allow a gap so that he would not have to be 'stacked' in the pits, in the hope that he would not lose a position to Ricciardo, who would be re-tyred immediately given that team mate Verstappen had already stopped earlier and was out of the race. But Lewis drove a little too slowly in the pit lane, impeding the Red Bull, and an investigation would later see him serve a 5s penalty at his second pit stop; the same wheel gun problem also meant he lost position to Ricciardo during his stop.
The reality is that in such a situation a driver is doing quite a lot -- trying to manage his Safety Car time delta and gaps to the cars around him. In Lewis's case the slow pit stop for Valtteri exacerbated the situation although he was quick to accept responsibility: "It was completely my fault with the Safety Car, just a misjudgement."
When the Safety Car pulled in and racing resumed on lap 17, Valtteri, on another set of SuperSofts, made a valiant attempt to wrest the lead back from Vettel, bravely trying to go around the outside of the Ferrari in Turn 4. It almost came off, but not quite. Behind, Lewis was soon back into third position as Ricciardo, struggling to get heat into a set of the Soft compound Pirellis, dropped places to Massa and Räikkonen as well.
The question of team orders became urgent
Amid his opening stint struggle, Valtteri had been told about the high tyre pressures, that he would have more grip on his second set of SuperSofts and to adjust the differential accordingly. Lewis, meanwhile, had been put onto the yellow-walled Soft compound Pirelli for the second stint. The team thinking was that running the Soft tyre in the middle stint gave more options at the end of the race, as well as affording a tyre comparison to see which tyre was better. Interestingly, for Mercedes, that turned out to be the Soft rather than the SuperSoft.
That fact soon became apparent as Valtteri, who initially thought his second set of SuperSofts to be better, was still in trouble with oversteer and struggled to hold off Lewis on the harder tyre.
It was not long before Lewis was on the radio saying, "Valtteri needs to up the pace, we can't let the Ferrari get away..." and the question of team orders became urgent.
But Lewis was not posturing and his concerns were genuine enough. On lap 18 Vettel led Valtteri by 1.56s and the margin was growing by the lap: 2.06, 2.25, 2.68, 2.87, 3.53, 4.06, 4.88, 6.11. On lap 27 the team made the 'swap' call, Valtteri initially being offered the opportunity to respond and drive to target lap times and target gaps. "We need to be within 1s of Vettel and you have two laps to achieve it," he was told. But, on the SuperSoft tyre at least, Mercedes did not have Ferrari pace.
Toto: We had a short chat about it around 20 laps before the end
Around 11 laps into this second stint Lewis, too, was informed, "We think we should be faster at this time and will review the situation." Lewis's response, that he was worried about destroying his tyres, initially gave rise to the suspicion that the team might even try to get him to the end on single set of the Softs given that Vettel, on SuperSofts, would obviously have to pit again. Such a move would give Lewis the lead and track position, but it would have required 44 laps out of a Soft tyre that was predicted to have a useful life expectancy of 30 laps or so.
"We had a short chat about it around 20 laps before the end," Toto confirmed. "At that stage there were 20-odd laps on the tyre already, so no chance. The intention was to have a long middle stint and then decide whether you put the SuperSoft on for the last blast or revert to the Soft if it was the quicker tyre."
On the Mercedes at least, everything was pointing to the Soft being the better tyre. Four laps after surrendering second place to his team mate, Valtteri made his second and final pit stop on lap 30 and went onto the yellow-walled Pirelli. Immediately, he was lapping significantly quicker - low 1m34s versus a couple of 1:34.9s and low 1m35s on the SuperSoft.
Vettel stopped three laps later for a set of Softs and had 24 laps remaining, while the decision to put Lewis onto Softs at his first stop allowed him to stay out as far as lap 41. He served his 5s penalty, bolted on a second set of Softs and blasted back into the fray 19s behind the race-leading Ferrari and 10s behind Valtteri.
Valtteri: I didn't have enough pace today
Vettel, having been informed that Lewis would come back at him on fresher rubber in the closing stages, was in tyre conservation mode at this stage, but still lapping relatively quickly in the low to mid 1:34s. Lewis's pace though, was electrifying: 1:32.96, 32.88, 32.92, 32.79 - massively impressive high-speed consistency that saw him upon Valtteri within five laps.
"Don't hold Lewis up, he's on fresher rubber and going for the win," was the instruction to Valtteri.
"I think honestly as a racing driver it's maybe the worst thing you want to hear," the Finn admitted post-race, "but that's how it was and for sure I let him by because there was potential that Lewis could challenge Sebastian. In the end it didn't happen but the team tried, which I completely understand. Personally it's tough, but that's life. I didn't have enough pace today and we need to find the reasons why."
Toto himself conceded that he doesn't enjoy making those calls but there was no denying that the team had been more than fair to Valtteri in giving him a chance to respond. Indeed, some even argued that perhaps they were too fair, given that Lewis was just 6.6s behind Vettel at the chequered flag, having served a 5s penalty, had clearly lost time behind Valtteri at the beginning of the second stint and that the win might even have been there.
Toto: It looks like on single lap pace we have a little edge
"It looks like on single lap pace we have a little edge and in the race it's pretty evenly matched," Toto said in summary. "That may be a bit of a bold statement after losing the race but Lewis' pace was good throughout and I think it's going to be close in the next couple of races. As regards letting Lewis past Valtteri earlier, you are always more intelligent looking back and it's a call you don't like to make. I think both have to have a chance of winning the race and having the best possible result and it's only when you realise that, if you don't change anything, you are going to lose the race, that you have to make that unpopular call. We don't like it at all and in past years have tried to avoid it. We would probably have taken a different decision if Valtteri had run at the front with his problem on the tyres and Lewis had been second, but with Vettel between them there was nothing we could do, which was our perfect storm."
Other components of the storm that battered Mercedes in Bahrain were the generator problem on the grid, Ferrari's undercut, wheel gun problems costing multiple seconds at the pit stops, Lewis's penalty and the fact that, as in Melbourne, the Ferrari performed significantly better on the softest compound tyre, notwithstanding that Lewis's potential on it was never actually determined. The team's lack of belief in the SuperSoft was obvious when strategists chose a used Soft tyre in preference to a fresh set of SuperSofts for Lewis's final 16-lap sprint to the flag, a decision they believe right based on Valtteri's second stint.
While admitting that there is some operational "cleaning up" to do post-Sakhir, the big plus for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport is that despite enough adversity for three races all in one evening, Lewis race pace was strong enough to push Vettel hard. He is just seven points adrift in the drivers' championship with the team still within three points of Ferrari in the constructors' battle. For fans everywhere, there is the mouth-watering prospect of one of the most closely fought battles in F1 history.