Reigning F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished the 2021 Turkish Grand Prix in fifth place, was frustrated over his tire strategy and result. The Briton was penalized for an engine change which resulted in him starting the damp race from 11th place on the grid. Although he voiced his dismay at the tire strategy, Mercedes, along with F1’s tire supplier Pirelli, felt otherwise.
The seven-time world champion accomplished the uphill task of surging into the top five within the opening 20 laps of the race relatively smoothly. He bid his time patiently behind a difficult-to-overtake Yuki Tsunoda for a number of laps. Hamilton eventually got past the Scuderia AlphaTauri driver with a well-timed move around the outside of the Japanese rookie.
However, after refusing to switch to a fresh set of tires earlier in the run, the team had to pit him for fresher tires on lap 51 towards the end of the race. The late pitstop resulted in him losing positions and a potential podium.
In damp race conditions, the Intermediate tires usually start performing like slicks after a certain race distance is completed, since they lose their groove depth that's so crucial to displace water. However, their wear and tear depends on the how hard the driver pushes as well as track conditions.
In Hamilton’s opinion, it would've been better to stay out and complete the whole race distance on the same set of tires. It was a task accomplished by just one driver in the race - Esteban Ocon, who finished in P10.
Around Lap 42, Hamilton was asked by his engineer over the radio to "box" (pit), to which he asked "why" and was told "new inter is the way to go". At that point, the Mercedes driver disagreed with his team and decided to stay out. Eventually, he gave in to his team's pleas and made the pitstop for fresh Intermediate tires on Lap 51.
Hamilton rejoined the race in fifth, losing two positions. After struggling to get by the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, even he was on slightly older Intermediates compared to Hamilton, the Brit began to vent his frustration over the radio, saying:
“We shouldn't have come in. Massive graining. I told you.”
Speaking after the race as soon as he got out of his car, Hamilton said:
“I feel like I should have stayed out. My gut feeling was to stay out and I feel that’s what I should have done. So I’m frustrated in myself for not following my gut.”
He explained his reasons for being frustrated, saying:
“I think probably in hindsight, I should have either stayed out or come in much earlier, because when you come in with eight laps to go you don’t have time to go through the graining phase of that medium tyre on a drying track. So, then I went through this whole sliding phase where I nearly lost more positions. So yes, a bit frustrating, but it is what it is.”
While Hamilton protests his pitstop, Mercedes and Pirelli defend it
According to Hamilton’s team boss Toto Wolff, the team feared a possible DNF (did-not-finish), or losing even more positions, had the Brit continued on the same set of tires. Speaking to SkySports, the Austrian explained:
“DNFing and losing all the points, that's obviously catastrophic. We would have been caught up by Leclerc and Perez anyway if we had tried to stay out, so that wouldn't have worked.”
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who had made a similar call as Hamilton a few laps earlier, succumbed to Valtteri Bottas while he was the leading the race. It was then that his team decided to call him into the pits, two laps before the Briton. Mercedes, who were keeping an eye on Leclerc, responded by advising their own driver to come in and change tires.
Explaining the initial strategy, Wolff said:
“So we balanced between pitting, taking it very conservative fighting against Leclerc and Perez on the track for P3, or taking a little bit of a gamble and either winning or finishing third.”
As Hamilton stayed out, Mercedes calculated the risks by watching Leclerc, to which Wolff explained:
“Then we saw Leclerc dropping off and Lewis was dropping off and it was clear we wouldn't make it to the end.” According to the Mercedes team boss, Hamilton probably wasn’t aware of his tires being on the edge, saying “he didn't see how much he was dropping off.”
Pirelli boss Mario Isola disagreed with Hamilton’s opinion of not changing tires and told Sky Sports:
“Looking at the tires after the race, I would say no or at least it was really at the limit.” He added “The wear of the tires, especially at the end of the race, they were basically running on the construction. It is a bit dangerous to push the boundaries like today.”
According to the Pirelli boss, Hamilton’s tires were “really, really at the limit”. He said they had even warned teams not to push a single set of tires for the whole race length, and urged them to change to fresher sets instead.
Ocon, who Hamilton thought had a successful run on his tires, admitted after the race that it was difficult towards the end. The Frenchman said:
“It was tricky at the end, a couple of more corners (and) I would’ve lost that point. One more lap, (and) I think we would’ve got a puncture. It was a risky bet.”
With the title battle at its peak, every tiny margin counts, and Hamilton’s frustrations are justified. Finishing fifth aided his title rival Max Verstappen in not just grabbing the lead of the championship but extending it by six points.
However, Hamilton has himself to blame for rejecting the team’s call to pit earlier in the race, which could have probably produced a different outcome in the race, and translated differently in the championship standings.