F1 Data Analysis: Nico Rosberg Has Edge on Lewis Hamilton in Mercedes Pit Stops

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2014

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 22:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP makes a pit stop during the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix at Red Bull Ring on June 22, 2014 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Mathias Kniepeiss/Getty Images)
Mathias Kniepeiss/Getty Images

When a Formula One driver recovers from a qualifying position of ninth to finish second the following day, as Lewis Hamilton did in last weekend's Austrian Grand Prix, it cannot be considered anything else but a truly fantastic result.

The 2008 world champion drove admirably, overtaking five cars on the first lap alone to effectively render his poor performance on Saturday irrelevant.

Hamilton's recovery, in fact, was so impressive that he—according to the official F1 website—crossed the finish line a mere 1.9 seconds adrift of the race winner, his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

But there lies Hamilton's problem: The 1.9 seconds which saw him miss out on his first race victory in more than a month was the exact margin by which he lost out to Rosberg in his two pit stops over the course of the race at the Red Bull Ring.

A difference of 1.9 seconds led to Hamilton departing Austria with only 18 points, rather than 25.

A difference of 1.9 seconds led to him facing a 29-point deficit to Rosberg in the drivers' championship, rather than a 15-point gap.

A difference of 1.9 seconds was the difference between a truly fantastic result and a potentially decisive one in Hamilton's favour.

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 22:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP during the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix at Red Bull Ring on June 22, 2014 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Pit stops have slightly lost their importance in recent years as Formula One has embraced devices and gimmicks such as DRS and KERS.

In 2014, however, with Rosberg and Hamilton so closely matched and driving equal cars on track, the men in the garage have rediscovered their sense of purpose and have regained the chance to make the difference, win races and ultimately the championship for their drivers.

But Hamilton, you suspect, has never had complete faith in his mechanics' competence this season.

Hamilton's mid-race rebuke of his Mercedes mechanics over team radio in Monaco for failing to call him into the pits just before the safety car was deployed was the first tell-tale sign of his displeasure, before his admission to Pete Gill of Sky Sports in Austria that it was "frustrating" and "tough" to lose vital seconds in the pit lane after doing such a good job on the circuit.

And the 29-year-old's unhappiness is justified, with a trend appearing in Mercedes' stops.

Of the six pit stops in the three races where Rosberg and Hamilton have been inseparable come the chequered flag—in Bahrain, Spain and Austria—the latter has enjoyed a quicker stop than his teammate on only one occasion.

And the advantage taken from that instance, Hamilton's first stop in Bahrain, was minimised due to the intervention of a late safety car for the crash between Pastor Maldonado and Esteban Gutierrez, which led to Mercedes employing the "double shuffle" technique, making the second pit stop times for both Rosberg and Hamilton meaningless. 

Hamilton's opening stop at the Sakhir International Circuit was, according to the FIA's televised live feed, two-tenths of a second faster than that of Rosberg.

Meanwhile, the smallest advantage Rosberg enjoyed in the pit lane in Spain and Austria was nine-tenths of a second, as per the FIA TV feed, which was achieved during the first round of stops at the Red Bull Ring and highlights just how much the German has benefited from visiting his mechanics in contrast to Hamilton. 

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 09:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP sits in his car in the garage during practice ahead of the Spanish F1 Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 9, 2014 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Even in the Spanish Grand Prix, which Hamilton eventually won by 0.6 seconds according to the official F1 website, the FIA's pit-stop summary recorded the duration of Hamilton's first stop—from the moment he entered the pit lane until the millisecond he deactivated the pit limiter—at 22.951 seconds, while Rosberg's was almost seven-tenths quicker.

And when Hamilton departed the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya's pit lane for the final time in the Spanish race, the duration of the 2008 world champion's stop was found to have lasted 1.281 seconds longer than his teammate's.

Although both drivers were on different strategies in that race, Hamilton's mechanics contributed heavily to transforming what could have been a relatively comfortable race win to what turned out to be a nail-biter, with Hamilton hanging on for dear life by the end of the grand prix.

The failure of the Mercedes mechanics to replicate their performance with both drivers is not, it should be said, down to any inter-team favouritism—but there are some compelling theories over just why Rosberg has been able to find so much time in the pit lane.

There is, for example, the idea that Mercedes have, for much of this season, not been required to push to the absolute limit.

The comfortable advantage that their dominant W05 car has over the rest of the field has provided their mechanics with the luxury of taking their time during pit stops, making sure every wheel nut is fitted and tightened—and tightened some more just to be on the safe side—before sending their driver on his way once more.

This level of caution is understandable given the manufacturer's failure to challenge for world championships since their return to the sport at the beginning of 2010 and their desire to fully capitalise on their superiority while it exists.

That lack of match fitness and sharpness, however, has perhaps prevented the Mercedes mechanics from performing consistently in racing conditions.

The alternative, and far more likely, explanation for their tardiness is the positioning of both cars in the pit box itself.

Hamilton himself was quoted by Pete Gill of Sky Sports in Austria as referring to the angle at which he arrived in the box as a potential reason for his slow stops, and Rosberg has a history of making his mechanics' lives easier.

While leading the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Rosberg—according to F1 Fanatic's team radio transcript—informed Mercedes' Tony Ross:

Move the pit box in front out of the way. And I’m going to come in at an angle. I’m going to position myself at an angle to drive out more easily.

His radio message at Albert Park confirmed Rosberg's reputation as a thinking driver and implied that the German has almost certainly identified pit stops as opportunities to gain the upper hand over his teammate this season.

After all, could you imagine Hamilton weighing up in his mind the benefits of arriving in the pit box at an angle as he motors at 180mph down Silverstone's Hangar Straight? 

Despite the theory that Rosberg is mastering the art of pit stops, there is no way that a driver can gain an advantage in excess of half a second just by positioning his car in a certain way.

The only plausible conclusion one can reach from such a large difference in times is that Hamilton's mechanics, for one reason or another, are letting their driver down.

Although he has got off lightly so far, holding on to take two wins in spite of his team's failure to deliver their side of the bargain, this trend, if it continues, could end up costing Hamilton so much more than a couple of seconds.

And what a shame it would be if a championship battle brimming with close, exciting racing were to be decided in the pit lane.