With the timing of their final pit-stop, Red Bull made it impossible for Lewis Hamilton to go for the Qatar Grand Prix’s fastest lap.
With this fierce title race on course to go all the way to the final round in Abu Dhabi, every single point counts – and so the bonus point for setting the fastest lap in a race has become more vital than ever.
At the Qatar Grand Prix it was little surprise to see P2 runner Max Verstappen pit for fresh tyres when well clear of third place and chase that extra point, having run comfortably behind title rival Hamilton throughout the race.
But as Mercedes have explained, Red Bull were smart with that decision, ensuring Hamilton would have no time to respond by pitting Verstappen on the penultimate lap.
And so Hamilton could only reduce the gap to Verstappen at the top of the Drivers’ standings to eight points.
Explaining the situation during Mercedes’ Qatar debrief, Andrew Shovlin, the team’s trackside engineering director, said: “Red Bull deliberately timed it so that from their stop, all Max is able to do is an out lap and a flying lap so he can then take that fastest lap which he had actually held anyway from the previous stint.
“With Lewis, if we had pitted after Max had pitted, all we would have been able to do was the out lap and that obviously doesn’t count for fastest lap, so it’s quite normal that you leave it for the penultimate lap because when you do stop, you open up the window for the race leader and if you do it on the penultimate lap, it means they have no opportunity to actually set a proper lap time.”
Strategy is also a vital element come race day when the title battles are so finely poised, but in Qatar for Hamilton it was a case of responding to what Verstappen did behind.
Shovlin explained that when there are titles to think about, plus the fact Hamilton was out of undercut range, to follow a strategy that greatly differed from Verstappen’s would have been a needless risk.
Asked if Hamilton’s pit strategy was solely an answer to Verstappen, Shovlin replied: “Well, yes it was.
“That’s quite normal when you get into a championship battle. If you are controlling a race, you are out front, you’ve built a gap and Lewis was very, very clear of any risk of undercut, the best thing you can do if you want to finish ahead of Max is just copy what he does one or two laps later.
“What you don’t want to do is to be on a completely different part of the track, a completely different strategy because an unfortunate Safety Car or maybe if the tyre degradation doesn’t pan out as you expect, you could end up losing that advantage.
“If you see Max leading any of the remaining races, I think they will be doing a very similar thing.”