Mika Hakkinen says Lando Norris, not McLaren, was in the best place to judge on strategy when rain began to fall in the Russian Grand Prix.
Norris was trying to fend off Lewis Hamilton and close out a first F1 victory as the dark clouds gathered and conditions changed in the closing stages at Sochi.
On a circuit becoming slippery in parts but seemingly dry in others, the front two were struggling for grip on slicks and Norris, when asked to judge whether intermediate tyres were required, opted to stay out.
Mercedes, in contrast, took the decision away from Hamilton and called him into the pits – a decision that secured his 100th career victory as he chased down and passed Norris, who was struggling to keep control of his car.
When Norris realised his error and did stop for intermediates, it was far too late to salvage even a podium finish and he ended up classified seventh.
Formula 1’s managing director of motorsports, Ross Brawn, and driver-turned-pundit Jolyon Palmer have both suggested McLaren as a team should have taken more responsibility for the decision-making, as Mercedes did with Hamilton.
But Hakkinen, a two-time former World Champion, still feels the driver is ideally positioned to make the call because he is the one actually experiencing how it feels out on the track.
“No-one should blame him [Norris] for making the decision to try and keep his lead when the rain started to fall,” said Hakkinen in his column for Unibet.
“It’s easy to criticise, but when you are trying to score your first win in F1 you often face difficult decisions. In this case, the decision to stop felt harder than the decision to carry on and try to take the win.
“Lando has great car control, particularly in the wet, so it came down to how confident he felt and how much risk he was prepared to take.
“No matter what the team is thinking, the driver is the one who knows how much grip he has in the car. You feel it through your hands on the steering wheel, your feet on the pedals and the seat of your pants in the car.
“As the grip falls away, only you know which parts of the track are still dry enough and Lando felt he might be able to get the car to the finish – especially when Hamilton made his pit stop for intermediate tyres.
“But the moment the rain became heavy, Lando had no chance. It’s like trying to walk on ice on normal shoes!
“It was a brave gamble and to see how disappointed he, Daniel [Ricciardo] and the McLaren team were to finish fourth and seventh shows just how high their ambitions are at this stage in the season.”
Heartbreak for McLaren in Russia
Heartbreak for McLaren at the Russian Grand Prix
McLaren could have achieved their second win of the season at the Russian Grand Prix.