McLaren and Lewis Hamilton were left blaming themselves after a poor call on race strategy forced the championship leader out of a race for the first time this year.
But when they analyse the mistakes that led up to his retirement from the Chinese Grand Prix they will recognise a series of missed opportunities to avoid the DNF.
Hamilton built up a lead very quickly in the opening stages with a series of quick laps:
Lap 2: Hamilton 1’47.6 – Raikkonen 1’48.5 (+0.9)
Lap 3: Hamilton 1’47.6 – Raikkonen 1’48.1 (+0.5)
Lap 4: Hamilton 1’46.3 – Raikkonen 1’47.1 (+0.8)
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This continued up until the final laps before Hamilton’s first stop on lap 14 – Hamilton taking up to 1.2s per lap off Raikkonen (on lap six). But when Hamilton made his pit stop it was clear his front-left tyre was in very poor condition.
Raikkonen waited until his fuel load was lightest before he set his quickest laps – which were all fastest laps of the race up to that point:
Lap 15: Raikkonen 1’45.0
Lap 16: Raikkonen 1’44.3
Lap 17: Raikkonen 1’43.8
When Raikkonen pitted on lap 18 his tyres were in visibly better conditions than Hamilton’s had been – despite starting with more fuel, covering more laps and setting faster laps. Not only that, but he came out of the pits having cut Hamilton’s lead to 4.1s from 9.0.
It’s easy to be wise after the fact, but at this stage McLaren must surely have been alert to the fact that Hamilton was getting marginal on tyres. Nonetheless, Hamilton kept pushing:
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Lap 20: Hamilton 1’43.8 – Raikkonen 1’44.3 (+0.5)
By this time several laps had passed since the last of the rain and some drivers further down the order had switched to dry weather tyres. Wurz set a new fastest lap on the 23rd tour on standard grooved tyres.
Up front the leaders were all on worn wet tyres and Hamilton’s plight was becoming clear – he was 1.6s slower than Raikkonen on lap 26 as the rain began again. Twenty seconds further back was Alonso, whose tyres were in even better condition having spent most of the race thus far stuck behind Felipe Massa.
Hamilton’s plight would have been familiar to Alonso – because exactly the same thing happened to him at Shanghai last year. Alonso wore his wet weather tyres out too quickly, had to pit for fresh rubber, and fell behind those who were able to continue on the same worn but hot tyres.
But as the track became slippery once more Hamilton’s situation was looking dire. Raikkonen caught Hamilton and, after a lap and a half of frantic defending by the Briton, passed him. Now Alonso was zeroing in on his team mate:
Lap 28 Hamilton 1’55.6 – Alonso 1’53.6 (-2.0)
Lap 29 Hamilton 1’55.3 – Alonso 1’51.6 (-3.7)
Lap 29 was the critical moment for Hamilton. He was unable to put Jarno Trulli’s Toyota a lap down, his right rear tyre was showing visible signs of damage, he’d been carrying a heavier fuel load for longer than anyone else, and his team mate was 3.7s faster than him. Yet McLaren kept him out:
Lap 30 Hamilton 1’56.8 – Alonso 1’49.1 (-7.7)
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Finally the sight of Hamilton losing 7.7s in one lap pushed McLaren into action and he was called in.
He got within one corner of dragging his car into the pit box where fresh dry weather tyres were waiting. But he took a fraction too much speed into the corner, the destroyed rear tyres refused to follow the front wheels around the bend, and the McLaren ground pathetically to a halt in a gravel trap scarcely much wider than the car.
Afterwards Hamilton avoided blaming the team for the bad call and apologised for losing control of the car on the way into the pits:
The tyres were finished, and these things happen. I’m sorry for the team, but I can still do it.
The team accepted responsibility for their mistake. Martin Whitmarsh said:
Quite simply we didn’t call him in. I think with hindsight we left him out a lap too long and I think his tyres were pretty worn.
The weather was pretty changeable at that time and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t taking any risks and that we had to cover Kimi. In the end it was decided we had to come in, but at that stage it was frankly a lap too late.
It was our decision. We were getting the weather information and it was coming and going. We didn’t want to come in and get on the wrong tyre. We took it one lap too long and we regret that now.
It’s the second time Hamilton has found himself on the wrong tyres this year – he switched onto dry weather tyres too early in the European Grand Prix. Was this a risk too far on a day when second or even third place could have made him world champion?