Hamilton wins FI in Montreal but dream team doubts persist

Lewis Hamilton won the 2012 Canadian Formula 1 race and was quick to praise his team. But watchers would have wondered whether McLaren has the high performance team needed to win consistently

Formula 1 racing is an excellent spectacle for observing high performance teams engaged in competitive action. The teams compete with a clear-cut goal, for maximise points. But there are far more complex issues to take into consideration. When Lewis Hamilton praised his team after the race, it should be noted that the term is open to several interpretations.

His car is one of two each maintained by a distinct team within McLaren. Hamilton was probably referring to ‘his’ team. But he might have been referring to the smaller team responsible for the vital pit-changes of wheels and fuel top-ups, or even the wider Team McLaren.

Two inter-related competitions

There are actually two inter-related competitions going on throughout the Formula 1 season. Each contractor provides its own brand or marque, referring to its cars. Some marques have historic names such as Ferrari and Mercedes. Others such as Red Bull and McLaren are more recently successful. The contractors’ championship is a competition between brands.

Each contractor races two cars, with identical characteristics. However, the cars are maintained by two distinct teams, each with its driver. There are pressures on the drivers to compete with each other. The potential for dilemmas between contractor and team(s) is high, as being outperformed by the other driver of a marque may mean being replaced at the end of a season. In our story Lewis Hamilton is paired with, (and against) Jenson Button. Both are top drivers who have won the FI championship once already. Button did not figure highly in the Montreal race.

‘Rules against rules’ of competition are in place to prevent contractors instructing one driver to favour another. If such practice was left unchecked, a contractor would be encouraged to disadvantage one of the drivers, in order to maximise points in the contractors’ competition).

Pit-stops and chess in hyperspace

FI is currently designed to test the cars and the racing strategy of using specified tyres. Teams have to plan complex strategies of changing tyres and re-fueling in pit-stops. The decisions require judgement on tyre wear, fuel, racing conditions including weather, and several other variables. Speed of pit stops is down to the pit-lane team; timing including number of stops down to the broader team. A slight mistake can change the race completely for a driver. It’s like Chess in twenty dimensions. Perhaps a Bobby Fischer is needed for each team.

Hamilton’s pit-team and pit-stops

The pit stops for team Hamilton in Montreal did not appear to have been as slick as was expected. One of the stops was sluggish through a re-start error by Hamilton. The other was a slow tyre change, with evidence of some team scrambling, as a replaced tyre wandered out of control behind the team momentarily. The measurable consequence of each stop was loss of time, placing Hamilton at risk of losing a race he seemed to be winning.

Hamilton’s intercom discussions

The drivers receive up to the moment information by intercom. This is open to other teams (and indeed the to the TV commentators and audience). Hamilton’s discussions showed he was concerned that his rivals were planning a ‘one pit’ strategy which would require Hamilton to drive accordingly. He was repeatedly advised this was not the case. The more he was reassured, the more Hamilton requested re-confirmation.

The one pit-stop option

It turned out that the strategists for Team Hamilton had based their conclusion on the dangers of a one pit strategy not the possibility of one. The dangerous Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso were on a one-pit stop strategy. Eventually Hamilton was told that he was still in a great position because the other drivers would be catchable as their tyres degraded.

Victory and thanks to my team

As it turned out, Lewis Hamilton caught and passed his rivals to win the race. He graciously thanked his team for their brilliant effort in securing him his first FI win of the season.

To the victor…

The press reports barely hinted at the problematic aspects of Team Hamilton’s performance.

Crucially, Hamilton has reclaimed the lead in the championship, even if only by two points from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and three to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.

Regardless, it was a day to savour as McLaren made a two-stop strategy work to perfection, despite initial scepticism when Hamilton made his second trip into the pits with 20 laps to go.

According to McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh:

Lewis drove brilliantly… For Jenson, by contrast, today was another day on which we, his team, failed to provide him with the tools with which to do the brilliant job we all know he’s capable of.

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