Lewis Hamilton’s crucial missed pit stop in the final stages of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was due to a confusing situation on the track, says Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
Hamilton was apparently presented with a golden opportunity to stop on lap 37 under a virtual safety car, resulting in a much smaller net loss than stopping under normal race conditions.
That would have capped Hamilton’s recovery run from 15th on the grid with a decent points tally, but he finished 10th, scoring just a single championship point.
The VSC was brought on by a bizarre sequence of events as Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo both ran into car trouble on the latter part of the lap and stopped their cars approaching the pit entrance.
Alonso’s car stopped just outside where the pit lane entry line begins on the track, with Ricciardo just a little further behind.
Hamilton had already slowed considerably in response to yellow flags being waved in the final sector and in the belief that Alonso’s car was still moving. Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles estimated Hamilton had lost around six seconds by slowing down in this manner.
Hamilton, now driving cautiously at a reduced speed, then looked confused as to whether he could enter the pit lane and drove past.
Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, racing behind Hamilton, entered the pits and would finish the race ahead of the Mercedes driver in 9th position.
Radio messages from Hamilton to the Mercedes pit wall suggested the seven-time world champion was unsure if he could stop without incurring a penalty, despite being told to ‘box’, F1 jargon for a pit stop. The Mercedes pit crew were ready for him to pull over when Bonnington called him.
Bonnington: So box, box. Keep an eye on the pit lane [light].
Hamilton: The car is slowing down?
Bonnington: OK, box, box. Box box.
Hamilton: Ahhh, too late…
Bonnington: VSC, so keep the delta positive. The pit lane is closed.
Hamilton: Sorry about that guys. I just… there was a car in the way.
By the time Hamilton pitted two laps later, the VSC was over and Hamilton had slipped from sixth to 14th, but he could have gone all the way to eighth had he pitted.
Hamilton has previous experience in similar circumstances, having lost what looked like an easy victory at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix when he opposed a safety car deployment, only to find he had walked into the pit lane when the lights at the entrance said it was closed for safety reasons. The penalty he received that day allowed him to complete the order and set up Pierre Gasly’s memorable victory for AlphaTauri.
After Sunday’s race, Hamilton said he was unsure if he could safely enter the pit lane without receiving a penalty for doing so.
“It was tough,” Hamilton said. “I saw Alonso slowing down, it was double yellow flags so I didn’t push to pass him, then Daniel was stuck in the pit lane so I didn’t know if I could get in with a car sitting there. It just wasn’t great.”
Speaking after the race, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the confusion had ruined what had been an encouraging recovery driver for Hamilton who started from 15th on the grid.
“I think on the encouraging side, staying on the hard [compound] was positive, I wouldn’t say if it was fast, but it was positive,” Wolff said. “And then obviously Alonso broke down during the lap, Ricciardo broke down with the engine, we We said to go back but there was a double yellow, a car slowing down and one stationary.
“It was just a confusing situation. He drove past and slowed down due to confusion, and that put us out behind Magnussen, and then obviously it’s game over.”