Special feature: How Lewis lost the title
Lewis Hamilton encountered two barriers to his clinching the world title during the Brazilian Grand Prix: the transmission malfunction and his race strategy.
He could conceivably have recovered from either one to collect the fifth place he needed, but not both.
The transmission problem has been covered in depth already, with the finger of suspicion having moved on from a software glitch through a dismissed conspiracy of driver error and onto a valve malfunction within the hydraulics caused by an unusual magnetic field.
This lost him around 30s before the system was successfully rebooted, and although he was then back in 18th place, it was only lap eight, with 63 still to go.
As he completed that fateful eighth lap he was 28.6s behind fifth place. He needed therefore to make an average gain on that fifth place of at least 0.45s per lap for the remainder of the distance.
By the time he made his first refuelling stop from 10th place at the end of lap 22, having made his way past seven cars (and benefitted from a retirement ahead of him), he was 22s behind fifth with 49 laps to go – keeping the average gain per lap needed at 0.45s.
He was potentially much more than 0.45s per lap quicker than the cars between his target position and where he was, but would obviously suffer some delay as he found a way past them – as well as past the slower traffic he would drop into after his stops. Whether those delays would more than cancel his car’s lap time advantage when running in clean air was a close call.
Had the team decided to keep him on the originally planned two-stop strategy (with a long middle stint and a short one at the end on the super-soft tyres, the same as Alonso), he would have had an evens chance of depriving Nick Heidfeld of fifth before the end.
So McLaren decided to try to improve the odds.
They put him on the super-soft tyres (which were expected to be slower than the softs in the sweltering track conditions) for a very short second stint of just 14 laps.
When this stint was completed the plan was to fuel him to the end – which would make a final stint of 35 laps. The thinking was that he would be on the faster tyre at the end, when the cars he needed to pass would be faster than the ones he would be passing when on the slower tyre in the second stint.
There was an understandable logic to the plan.
However, as he left the pits from his first stop the team looked at the (harder-spec) tyres they had just removed – and to their dismay found the fronts were very badly worn. If they had only just withstood 22 laps, there was no way a set of the same spec of tyre was going to do 35.
This was against the backdrop of his tyre failures on China and Turkey, remember.
Given that they had just short-fuelled him, they were now committed to bringing him in 35 laps from the end. As such, they had to plan on an extra fuel stop – incurring a delay of around 25s, minus a few seconds the lighter fuel weight would bring.
A three-stop at Interlagos was only ever going to be almost as quick as a two-stop if the three-stop guy could get in clear air in each of his stints – as with Robert Kubica.
And even he emerged from his final stop behind his two-stopping team-mate Nick Heidfeld. He was able to be close enough that he could beat him on the track in the last stint, but the point is that even in ideal conditions for a three-stop, it was marginal.
When running all the way back in traffic, as Hamilton was, a two-stop strategy was always going be significantly faster.
So excessive tyre wear was the final nail in the coffin for Hamilton’s chances. Had Hamilton’s car been kind enough to the rubber to run a 35-lap stint on a two-stop strategy, he just might have got that fifth place.
The McLaren has been harder on its tyres all year than the Ferrari, something that has played a big part in it being better relative to the Ferrari in qualifying than in the races. At a scorching hot Interlagos, where the hottest track temperatures of the season were recorded, that was a trait that was punished heavily.
That said, Alonso managed a middle stint of 30 laps on the harder compound on his two-stop strategy, but Alonso was not trying to make up from an earlier delay or being forced to scythe off-line through traffic, and was simply cruising in a safe third.
Comparisons between Michael Schumacher’s great comeback drive in Brazil of last year are not valid.
Here, Hamilton did not have the car/tyre combination to emulate that feat. Schumacher’s drive was done with a huge grip advantage over most of the field, don’t forget.
It was done on a tyre that allowed Sakon Yamamoto to set the race’s seventh fastest lap in a Super Aguri.
To do great comeback drives, you need everything in your favour.
At Interlagos Hamilton’s tyre wear, the team’s strategy decisions and an overheating engine that forced him to run for much of the distance at reduced revs put paid to that.
You might ask why Hamilton didn’t insist on staying with the original standard strategy. But it is not a fair criticism. He did not have the lap time and position information that the team enjoyed.
A driver is not in a position to make calls such as these as he’s coming through the field with no way of knowing precise gaps to traffic and target position. It had to be the team’s call, and on this occasion they gambled wrong, just as they had in China – although in this case it was a much more understandable gamble.
When they took the Brazil gamble they did not have the information at their disposal of the rate of Hamilton’s tyre wear, whereas in Shanghai it was painfully obvious.
Hamilton should however take some of the criticism for the decision to stay out on the failing rear tyre in China. In Shanghai the team were telling him to stay out while they tried to work out if inters or full wets were needed, reckoning that with each lap they would be better informed.
Only he could feel how dire his lack of grip was. A more experienced driver would surely have insisted he was coming in and taken the decision out of the team’s hands.
Similarly, he looked like a rookie in the opening two corners in Brazil.
At the first turn he was sold the oldest trick in the book when Kimi Raikkonen lifted off mid-corner, forcing him to do the same, thereby meaning he was still off the throttle as Kimi then accelerated.
The loss of momentum also allowed Alonso to pass. A few seconds later Hamilton went off trying a move – a pass on Alonso for third – he didn’t need to make.
As it happened, that was not what did for his title chances. But it could so easily have done.
Lewis has posted a sensational rookie season but he has not been flawless.
Furthermore, his two main opponents, Alonso and Raikkonen, have been below-par on account of making the transition from Michelin tyres that demanded a very different driving style.
There is no way of weighing up the net advantage/disadvantage of their tyre adaptation against Hamilton’s lack of previous F1 experience.
Next year, all three start with those excuses deleted.