Mercedes could have avoid getting Michael Schumacher stuck behind Nico Rosberg in the Japanese Grand Prix if they had left his pit stop one lap later, the team have admitted.
Schumacher spent almost half the race stuck behind his team mate, which cost him a chance of overtaking Lewis Hamilton’s stricken McLaren for fifth place.
As described in this earlier article, Schumacher was pulling away from Rosberg at the time of his pit stop on lap 23. Had he been left out longer, he should have been able to complete his pit stop and get out ahead of his team mate.
The team’s chief strategist James Vowles told F1 Fanatic:
There are a number of variables we consider prior to stopping, including the time a driver takes to enter and exit the pitlane, and the duration of the pitstop. Our pitstops are very competitive, and we have been consistently faster than other teams this year, however there is still up to 1s variability in time taken. Further to this the driver’s performance coming into the pitbox and exiting the pitlane can vary by a similar amount.
The main driving factor to stopping Michael was Nick Heidfeld behind, who had stopped on lap 18, and was lapping around 1’36.9s, relative to Michael’s 1’37.7s, closing the gap and potentially in a position to jump Michael within a few laps. Had Michael had an average pitstop, he would have come out just over 2s ahead. One lap further on, Michael would have come out 1.3s ahead. A poor stop would have put Michael at risk of losing a position to Nick.
In the event, Michael had a competitive pitlane entry and exit, indeed the fastest of the weekend from all drivers, the result being his pitstop was significantly faster than average, putting him closer to Nico than expected (0.8s behind, not 1.7s behind as expected).
Further considerations to stop Michael was that Nico’s performance during laps 20 to 25 was limited by Sebastien Buemi who was just ahead. We could see Toro Rosso were getting ready to stop Sebastien in a few laps, which meant that Michael would, in all likelihood, lose his performance benefit over Nico, and not be able to build the gap required for the pitstop.
We therefore decided that for a potential one position gain, which could be lost if a safety car came out, we would prefer guarantee the position by stopping, reducing the potential risk from a poor stop. However with the benefit of hindsight, we should have kept Michael out for one further lap, putting him in a position to maintain his place over Nico and not still be at risk from Nick Heidfeld.
It’s obviously much easier to work out what should have been done after the race with the benefit of all the knowledge available than to get the decision right in the heat of the moment.
As it turned out, Buemi did not pit until five laps after Schumacher came in, and the strategists did not know that at the time.
What was also interesting about how the race unfolded from that point onwards was that Mercedes did not order their drivers to change places.
On past occasions when two drivers from the same team on different strategies have come into conflict they have changed position with the lead driver seeming to put up little in the way of a fight. Think Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld at Canada two years ago, or Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen driving for McLaren in Germany that same year.
Schumacher was clearly told on the radio the team weren’t going to interfere and he would have to pass Rosberg himself:
Michael, there’s no team orders but Nico knows to be sensible if you make a move.
‘Being sensible’ clearly did not mean Rosberg would not defend his position, as he did so several times.
We all know what Schumacher’s views on team orders are, and it’s hard to imagine he was all that pleased with the team for not moving Rosberg out of the way.
Especially as, with the benefit of more hindsight, it cost him a chance to take fifth place off Hamilton.
2010 Japanese Grand Prix
Image © Mercedes