How the McLaren Pit Lane Mix-Up Could Have Been Avoided, and Why It Doesn’t Matter


What Happens When Switching From Safe to Anything Is Possible

— In Formula1, the emphasis is on taking risks, especially when there are points and victories on the table.  It is the inherent nature of the sport to never settle for a safe second or third when there is a challenge for victory available (see also, Sebastain Vettel and Robert Kubica at the Australian GP this season).  It could not be more clear that this mentality resulted in McLaren’s unpreparedness for Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop Sunday at the European GP.  To be clear, everyone involved in the stop itself has said that the tire tardiness did not cost the world champion the race, and that Rubens Barichello’s Brawn had a pace that the McLaren simply could not match this past weekend.

Still, when Hamilton pulled into the box and the mechanics came scrambling out with tire warmers still on the tires, it made for drama in the pitlane and at home, especially when the five seconds the Briton lost during the stop were the number he was trying to make up at the end.  This is precisely the sort of aggressive strategy F1 teams tend to take, especially when anything feels possible.

After Hamilton’s storm to success at the Hungaroring, McLaren was trying multiple new parts on the car in Valencia, anything at all to match the early season pace of Brawn and Red Bull.  Hamilton ran a shorter wheelbase car, which resulted in a different floor, front wing assembly, and even a moved front axle (see also why Hamilton had no spare parts after a slight off during Friday practice).  Kovalainen also had a new front wing assembly, though the longer wheelbase.  At this point in the season, many of the other struggling upper-midpack teams (how strange, considering recent memory, to classify McLaren in that category) have stopped developing the 2009 car and focused on 2010.  This is precisely why Brawn is performing so well, as Honda had stopped all 2008 development mid-season last year and focused on this season’s car before quitting F1 altogether and selling the team to Ross Brawn for a reputed 1£.  In fact, Kimi Raikkonen in the post-race press conference admitted that Ferrari had begun this process, as “we are not really bringing new parts anymore for the car.”  Still, McLaren is fighting for wins and third in the constructor’s championship.

Into this effort came Sunday’s pitstop strategy.  According to Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren team principal, “we’d adopted a different tire strategy from many of the front-runners…coming in to the final pitstops, in our efforts to convert a safe second for Lewis into a possible first for him, we took a calculated risk in attempting to reverse the sequence of Lewis’s and Heikki’s pit stops at the last second.”  It was this last second decision that resulted in the slow stop.  “The pitwall had initially asked me to pit – but, just when I was coming in, they told me to stay out and do an extra lap – however, I was already inside the white line and committed, so it was too late,” said Hamilton.  The tires weren’t ready and the time was lost.

Without this aggressive strategy, Hamilton and McLaren would likely have still finished second.  “Naturally enough we had very high expectations for today’s race,” said Whitmarsh, but “Rubens’s race pace was such that that couple of seconds didn’t make a difference to the outcome of the race.”  Instead, McLaren’s hard work and aggressive strategy is “simply an indication of just how hard everyone in this team is pushing to win.  We’re never satisfied unless we’re winning, in fact,” according to Hamilton.  A true measure of an F1 team, indeed.

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