SILVERSTONE, U.K -- As Lewis Hamilton walked away from Mercedes' pre-race strategy meeting on Sunday morning, he had a clear plan of how to win the British Grand Prix. Starting from second on the grid behind teammate Valtteri Bottas he knew it wouldn't be easy, but nothing - not Bottas, not Pirelli's temperamental tyres, not even the British weather - was going to get in his way.
As events transpired, a well-timed Safety Car gifted him the jackpot of a free pit stop and the lead of the race on lap 20, but this was not a lucky victory. Based on what we saw on Sunday, Hamilton would have won at Silverstone regardless of the Safety Car, and tracing the story of how the race could have panned out without Antonio Giovinazzi's spin into the gravel on lap 19 offers a valuable insight into why Hamilton is the best driver on the grid right now.
Strategy was key
Mercedes holds a Sunday morning strategy meeting ahead of every race. The team's key engineers and team principal Toto Wolff meet at 9:30am to discuss how the race will unfold before the drivers join half an hour later to add their input. No stone is left unturned and every detail of how the race will pan out -- from tyre strategy to fuel saving to whether it will be possible to claim the bonus point for fastest lap -- is discussed. Wolff takes the opportunity to remind the drivers to keep the racing between each other clean and it's been known for replays of previous years' starts to be shown as a warning about potential pinch points on the opening lap.
By the time the meeting has finished, each driver will leave with a Plan A strategy, plus a number of back-up plans should rival teams become more or less of a threat during the race. The plans are dictated by the data available to the engineers, most of which is gathered during long runs in second practice on Friday afternoon. In order to keep things fair, the driver who qualified higher on the grid (Bottas at Silverstone) is allowed to pick the optimum strategy and the driver starting lower on the grid moulds his plan around that.
In Silverstone, all the data suggested the key factor in the race would be tyre wear. It's important to make a distinction between tyre wear, which rarely becomes a factor in modern F1 races, and tyre degradation, which almost always dictates strategy. Wear refers to the physical loss of rubber from the tyre as it is torn away from the carcass, while degradation is usually a symptom of overheating the compound, reducing the chemical grip of the tyre against the track surface.
After Friday practice, a number of teams were experiencing high levels of wear, especially on the soft compound tyres. Silverstone's newly-laid track surface is particularly smooth and the high-speed nature of the corners caused serious abrasion on the rubber, resulting in large chunks being torn off the tyre. Anybody with an unbalanced setup on heavy fuel was at serious risk of tearing their tyres apart and the Ferraris, for example, were destroying their front-left tyres in a matter of laps.
Mercedes tyres looked good by comparison, but they certainly weren't immune to the heavy wear. A precautionary spark plug change on Bottas' car meant he missed out on some of the heavy-fuel running on Friday and completed just a single run on the medium compound, while Hamilton gathered data on both the soft and the medium compounds. Due to Mercedes' tyre choices, which were decided eight weeks in advance, each driver only had one set of hard tyres for the entire weekend and as result they were saved for the race and not tested on Friday. So basing their knowledge purely on how the soft and medium tyres held up on Friday afternoon, the main lesson was that a two-stop strategy would be necessary and the ideal strategy would avoid using the softs, which were particularly prone to wear.
And so, when the Sunday morning briefing rolled around the drivers were told that a two-stop strategy was the fastest way to the flag and the best combination of tyres was believed to be medium, medium, hard. Both Hamilton and Bottas would start the race on medium tyres having used that to set their fastest time in Q2, with Bottas, as the driver higher up the grid, getting preference on strategy.
Hamilton could have followed the same strategy of medium, medium, hard, but given the potential for variation in strategy over two pit stops, it was agreed that the two drivers would be allowed to diverge in their tyre choices. That gave Hamilton the option of attempting an "offset" strategy of medium, hard, medium to try and be quicker than Bottas at the end of the race.
"In our strategy meeting in the morning, actually the drivers brought up whether there was an offset strategy possible for the guy running second, because if you put them on the same tyre, this is probably how the race is going to end," Wolff explained on Sunday night.
"So picking up on that suggestion, we decided that the second-placed driver would run an offset strategy with the hard tyre in the middle. We weren't quite sure whether one stop would make it, probably rather thinking it would be a two, also because of the lack of data we had on the hard from Friday."
And so everybody left the meeting thinking both drivers would make two stops -- the only difference being that Bottas would take on the medium at his first stop and Hamilton would take on the hard.
Hamilton engineers victory
But assuming he didn't pass Bottas on track, Hamilton still had to find a way of finishing the race ahead of his teammate. By choosing to go on the hard tyre for the second stint, Hamilton was opening up more options and, although the data didn't support it, leaving the door open to a one-stop. Hamilton has one of the best feelings for tyre management on the grid and he knew that by taking the hards for his second stint he could gauge the possibility of a one-stop as he experienced the feedback from the tyres in real time.
"We were both supposed to do a two-stop today, I chose to do a one," Hamilton explained after the race. "I studied the strategy before because there's different ways you have to approach driving [on new tyres] after a pit stop, the laps out of the box, how you treat the tyres, if you lean on them, don't lean on them, all these different additions to the strategy. I knew these strategy options really well.
"I think our team, we've got a great strategy group, and they give us as much information as they can but ultimately I've got to figure out how to get past this guy [Bottas]. If I can't pass him on the track how am I going to out-do him on pace, tyre life, all these kinds of things? I already in the morning decided going into the race that I was going to do a hard tyre on my second.
"When he pitted on lap 16 my plan was to offset as much as I could so I think I went four laps or something [before the Safety Car came out] and probably could have done another lap or two. At the time Valtteri was not catching me which he should have been on fresh tyres, but I was keeping the gap the same.
"I think he came out of the pits 0.7s inside my pit stop window, so I would have pitted and he would be 0.7s ahead, then it came to 1s, 1.5s, stayed around 1.5s to 2s. If I did another lap maybe it would be 2.5s and I would have come out on my fresh hards and I could have just sat behind him if I wanted to and he would have had to pit [again], so I still would have had that 21-second gap. So it didn't really make a difference. Even though if I was behind him I would of course have tried to overtake him, but in hindsight I didn't really need to do that."
So does that mean Hamilton went against the wishes of the team by planning to abandon the two-stop strategy even before the Safety Car came out?
"No, it wasn't agreed, we said that you could do a two-stop," Hamilton said. "I looked at the options and of course I want to try and always offset."
Even with seven laps remaining, the Mercedes' engineers were keen for Hamilton to pit again to eliminate concerns about wear, but Hamilton ignored the call. He could feel where the tyres and see that his fronts showed only limited signs of wear. As far as he was concerned, a second pit stop carried unnecessary risk.
"I had some blistering [in the second stint] and they were asking me to pit, but I was like 'I can't calculate why you are trying to make me pit'," he explained. "I knew there was a gap [to Bottas], I knew he was going to stop, but I was not going to risk it, I was going to stay out.
"And there was no way in seven laps he was going to catch up 21 seconds, so even if I went two seconds off the pace I was going to be good. So I stayed out and stuck to what I thought.
"You know, I study the strategy and I am starting to become a strategist on my own, and I felt today felt just right."
Having taken his strategy into his own hands to secure 25 points, Hamilton also took the decision to pursue the bonus point for fastest lap. Bottas' pit stop seven laps from the end had seen him set a 1:27.406 on soft tyres -- the fastest time up to that point -- but on the final lap Hamilton trumped it with a 1:27.369 on 32-lap-old, hard tyres. It underlined Hamilton's mastery of the tyres and once again went against the advice of the data from the Sunday morning strategy meeting.
"Since we've had the new regulations with the point for fastest lap, the engineers show in the Sunday morning briefing that it makes no sense to go for the fastest lap if you are two seconds slower," Wolff explained. "You can see the drivers are like, 'yeah, whatever', then all this data leads to an absurd situation because on paper a 32-lap old hard tyre should never be good enough for a fastest lap. But he was able to pull that out."
In the cockpit, there was never any doubt that Hamilton would go for the maximum 26 points.
"I was doing 1.29.0s, 1.29.1s and then Valtteri did a 1.27.4," Hamilton said. "So I came on the radio and was like 'I'm going to give it a go', and I think they were quite reluctant initially but they said I could go for it.
"I backed off a little bit the lap before just to cool the tyres just a little bit and then just went for it. The tyre held up, it was awesome, but I had a little bit of a blister on the right front so I was a bit nervous about that but it was really awesome.
"There's no better way than to finish a lap at Silverstone than on a quick lap!"
Having a strategist as good as Hamilton driving the car is a huge bonus for Mercedes, but it also has the potential to create headaches.
The team had no intention of benefiting Hamilton by allowing him to take an alternative strategy, but as things panned out it secured him the win. After the race, Bottas, who saw the gap to Hamilton extend to 39 points in the championship on Sunday afternoon, held no grudge against the team but highlighted the importance of learning from the race.
"Approaching the race we had no concerns about the flexibility [of my strategy] because we thought a one-stop would be a lot slower than a two-stop," Bottas said. "Our theoretical quickest way to the flag was medium, medium, hard, but that was way off because in reality it was just medium, hard. It was all to do with the pre-race analysis and again we have a good learning from this weekend and that is going to help us going forward."
For Mercedes, the idea of letting the drivers adopt different strategies goes back to the core ethos of allowing their drivers to race one another. In the same way Hamilton and Bottas were allowed to go wheel to wheel through the opening four laps of the race, they were also allowed to gain an advantage in the way they used their tyres. But Wolff said some consideration would be given to ensuring one driver is not given an accidental advantage over the other in the future.
"It's a fair argument," he said. "The discussion we had with them in the morning was that if you were to put them on the same tyre, on the same strategy, basically Turn 1 or lap 1 would lock in the result, and we felt that picking up on their suggestion would provide an interesting race. It still overlapped on many instances, we knew they would be racing each other, but then maybe with a different strategy, so that's what we tried.
"I think in hindsight, the argument has value, and I think we need to look at it, are we favouring somebody unconsciously, which we wouldn't want to do. So for sure it created more experience and more data for us to judge whether it is something we would want to do in the future."
It was a shame the race didn't play out without the Safety Car at Silverstone. Not only did it ensure Hamilton came out ahead of Bottas after his pit stop, the reduced speed helped him protect his tyres against wear that may have become a factor at the end of a faster-paced race. Bottas was left with nothing to fight back with and a masterful drive by Hamilton was made to look lucky.
But when both drivers strip back the events of Sunday at Silverstone over the coming week, there will be little doubt that Hamilton was the worthy winner.