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Formula 1

‘That one’s on us’ – did Mercedes throw away Hamilton’s win?

by Matt Beer
6 min read

Mercedes came agonisingly close to French Grand Prix victory, and strategist James Vowles’ “that one’s on us” apology to the defeated Lewis Hamilton on the slowing-down lap suggested the team feels it let it slip through its fingers.

Could Formula 1’s champion team have held Max Verstappen and Red Bull off by being sharper on strategy?

Or was it an achievement to be get as close as it did given Red Bull’s pace at Paul Ricard?

Here are our writers’ thoughts.

Mercedes should’ve acted quicker – but Red Bull had the pace

Mark Hughes

French GP podium F1

Yes, this was definitely an opportunity lost.

At the point in the second stint when two-stopping was coming onto the radar and Hamilton was urging the team to do the undercut, that’s when the move should’ve been made.

Instead it was Red Bull which pulled the plug first – but based on the confidence it could make that time back. It was the move it couldn’t consider when in the same situation at Barcelona, because there it knew the car didn’t have the performance to pull it back.

Here, Red Bull was dynamite and Mercedes didn’t anticipate that.

Let’s not undersell Verstappen’s final stint

Scott Mitchell

Max Verstappen wins French Grand Prix 2021 Paul Ricard

Hamilton and Mercedes undoubtedly see that as a race they should have won and Vowles’ admission of error on the team’s part supports the view that Hamilton didn’t deserve to lose this race.

However, it shouldn’t detract from the quality of that Verstappen drive.

Yes, he could have cost himself the race with his Turn 1 error, and the unexpectedly powerful undercut was clearly a huge part in fixing that problem.

Jun 20 : French Grand Prix review

But he also executed it well and was confident enough to commit to the pass on Hamilton as he exited the pits.

It’s the final stint that matters most though. Verstappen judged it to perfection. It looked like he might have taken away a fraction too much from his mediums in the first part of the charge but he had saved enough for when it counted.

Basically, a lesser driver in pursuit would have been enough for Hamilton to win anyway.

Mercedes could’ve won but needn’t kick itself

Edd Straw

French Grand Prix start 2021

This was certainly a race that Hamilton and Mercedes could have won, although to say that the strategy cost the race suggests there could ever be certainty that a different course would have yielded a win.

The sliding doors moment was likely the decision to attack Verstappen with a Valtteri Bottas undercut at the first stop rather than bringing Hamilton in first, which created the landscape for the way the rest of the race panned out.

Verstappen was able to bank a little time before making that aggressive early second stop, diving into the pits 3.6s clear – a small but useful advantage to hold that will have played a part in Red Bull’s timing.

In retrospect, Mercedes certainly could have pre-empted that and stopped first and, all things being equal, that would have protected track position in the end.

But given the struggles with the fronts when on mediums in the first stint, perhaps it’s understandable that Mercedes didn’t want to go that aggressive.

Mercedes could have won, but this was a close battle where small differences swung it in Red Bull’s favour. An opportunity missed, perhaps. But one thrown away from a position of certain victory? No.

Red Bull nearly let this one slip

Gary Anderson

Max Verstappen wins French Grand Prix 2021 Paul Ricard

From the very first pitstops, it was clear that the undercut was the way to go. This means that fresh tyres, even just for that one lap, were faster.

As for the leaders, at the first stops Hamilton was leading and Verstappen was running second. Verstappen pitted first, Hamilton stopped on the next lap and they swapped positions, so again this showed the undercut was the way to go.

For Verstappen’s second stop, he again went for what could or perhaps should have been the undercut and Hamilton took the lead.

Mercedes didn’t respond and tried to brave it out to the end. Neither of its drivers were very impressed with that strategy but nevertheless once you commit you have to ride the storm and see it through. Lewis certainly did that and it almost worked.

If I had any criticism, it would be that Red Bull pulled Verstappen in for his second stop too early. At the end of lap 32, he pitted when the gap between Verstappen and Hamilton was opening up. This left him with 21 laps to do on the medium tyres and they knew that if it all worked out it would still be the last few laps of the race when the two would meet up again. And by that time his tyres would be well past their sell-by date.

A couple of extra laps on the hards would have made his job on the mediums just that little bit easier at the end of the race. Nevertheless, well done to all at Red Bull and a good drive from Hamilton.

Mercedes now knows Red Bull’s tougher than it thought

Matt Beer

Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen F1 French GP

We thought we knew how a race like this goes – when the undercut’s so powerful, it’s the hunter that’s able to dive in first and put the hunted in an impossible bind.

Except this time Red Bull had the boldness to effectively throw away the race lead with a gamble that could’ve gone badly wrong and had huge championship implications if Verstappen hadn’t got back from fourth (well, call it third effectively as Sergio Perez was never going to be rude when caught) to the first place he’d relinquished.

You could accuse Mercedes of having been a little sluggish with its decisions, but barely. This was Red Bull overachieving with strategic aggression and bravado in race execution, not Mercedes shooting itself in the foot.

A sign the tide is turning

Valentin Khorounzhiy

Max Verstappen Red Bull F1 French GP

Ultimately, this was a race that came down to a penultimate-lap pass between two racers on two different strategies, so it might be foolish to make any far-reaching conclusions.

And yet, there was something unusual about it. Hamilton and Mercedes do lose races – plenty of them – but my impression is they don’t really lose head-to-head races like this one.

Verstappen’s first-lap error could’ve proven decisive. It didn’t. Verstappen’s extra stop could’ve proven decisive. It didn’t. It very much looked at one point like it might, but the balance worked out in Red Bull’s favour.

You get the feeling that in other hybrid-era seasons, either of those glimpses of opportunity would’ve been enough for Mercedes to bring it home. And indeed, it already won a couple of races like this this very season.

Perhaps it’s pure probability that such a defeat would come sooner or later. Or perhaps the tide is changing.

Perez made a critical difference

Rob Hansford

Sergio Perez Max Verstappen

It wasn’t necessarily that Mercedes threw it away, it was that Red Bull finally had a second car in the mix.

Yes, Mercedes could have predicted the undercut, but it would have then found itself stuck behind Perez and you can bet he would have worked hard to hold Hamilton up enough to let Verstappen get the leap in any event.

Yes, Mercedes could have been the one to pull the trigger early on a two-stop but again, it would have found itself in the same situation, so credit has to be given to Perez for Red Bull winning this particular game of chess.

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