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McLaren's mistake in Russian GP not only its weather forecast

When McLaren returns to its Formula 1 factory this week, it will begin a deep investigation on the chain of events that derailed its Russian Grand Prix victory hopes.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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And while team boss Andreas Seidl joked on Sunday night about there being a 'Hindsight WhatsApp group', which could conclude it should have pitted Lando Norris straightaway for inters in the closing stages, the analysis will go much deeper than that.

Digging into the crucial minutes of what turned an odds-on brilliant win for Norris into heartbreak, it is clear that, like most things in F1, this was not just a case of Norris or a single person on the pitwall getting things wrong.

PLUS: How Mercedes made the “blind faith” call that won Hamilton his 100 milestone at Sochi

There were multiple decisions made and influences at play which meant McLaren left Norris out too long on slicks when the track conditions had gone far too much into the wet.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The weather forecast

One conclusion that would be easy to jump to would be that McLaren made its tyre call based on duff weather information.

If McLaren's weather system was telling the team one thing, and teams like Red Bull and Mercedes were being told something else, then it would be an obvious area of weakness.

However, unlike decades ago when teams had weather information from their own independent suppliers, for a while now they have all used a centralised service.

Since 2017 that job has been taken by Meteo France, which provides the same data and information to teams, FOM and the FIA.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was clear that his team made its call to pit Lewis Hamilton for inters based on exactly the same weather information as other teams.

"It's Meteo France, the official FIA weather channel," he said. "It is what everybody has available."

So it wasn't that McLaren's weather forecast was wrong.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Bad timing

One of the critical aspects of the way the weather came in at the end of the Sochi race was the timing and the uncertainty about how rain was affecting track grip.

Had the rain arrived at the midpoint of the race, with a high likelihood of the track being wet for a while, then the decision to come in for inters would be obvious.

But with three or four laps to go, then it becomes much more of a critical matter, because a 25-second pitstop can shuffle you well down the order if the tyre choice is not immediately spot on.

In McLaren's case, it knew that, with Hamilton having pitted and leaving Norris with a comfortable cushion out front, inters could be almost 10 seconds per lap quicker and it still would not be worth pitting.

Indeed, immediately after Hamilton came in, there was a phase where it seemed that inters were actually the wrong choice as things appeared to be improving.

Here are how Norris's lap times compared with Hamilton during these critical laps:

Lap Norris lap time Hamilton lap time
46 1m39.120s 1m38.942s
47 1m42.783s 1m42.612s
48 1m54.639s 1m55.730s
49 1m52.785s 1m56.879s (Pits)
50 1m57.502s 2m06.316s (Inters)
51 3m11.081s (Pits) 1m53.532s (Inters)
52 2m16.377s (Inters) 1m52.659s (Inters)
53 1m52.417s (Inters) 1m51.465s (Inters)

As can be seen, on lap 49, the lap where Hamilton pitted, things had improved and Norris had started to go quicker again.

Verstappen pitted on lap 48. His out-lap (49) was 2m07.650, and the following lap (50), he put in a 1m52.546 – which showed that was the point of crossover.

If the conditions had stayed consistent then Norris staying out made total sense, as the time lost pitting at that point was more than the time lost staying on slicks.

But when the rain got worse, the slick pace completely fell away. And, by the time Norris knew he had to come in, it was too late.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M pit stop

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M pit stop

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Driver/team communication

It is in those crossover points of track condition, especially in the final laps of the race, where what the weather radar is telling you is not particularly useful as it is far too general.

At these moments, the critical aspect is the finer detail of how the rain is falling on particular corners and how that is affecting track grip.

There have been times in the past when teams have dispatched personnel to sit at corners and advise via radio when the bad weather arrives and how heavy it is.

When the rain first blows in, and its intensity on the track surface is uncertain, a team cannot decide alone that now is the time to pit – unless it is absolutely obvious from the forecast that a huge downpour is arriving.

At Red Bull, where Verstappen's call to pit on lap 48 proved spot on, it explained that when the rain is marginal like it was in Sochi, then there is increased reliance on feedback from the drivers.

As team boss Christian Horner said: "I think with the crossover, the call is always with the driver.

"They can feel the level of grip or what they can cope with. They can see more when the weather is on top of us to the point that you need an inter. That's how we operate. That crossover is down to the driver to call."

Seidl said that in that phase of the race, there were intense conversations going on between the pitwall and Norris to gauge the situation and try to work out what best to do, and together they got it wrong.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Lead car curse

Being in the lead of the race, with everything to lose, it was obviously a much harder call to pit than running second with a comfortable gap behind.

As the front car, Norris didn't have the option to match what Hamilton was doing, nor do the opposite in a bid to respond.

Furthermore, with Hamilton having a 40-second gap back to third placed Sergio Perez behind, he was not going to lose a position by pitting – so the only downside was if the rain stopped completely and the track quickly dried out.

Mercedes’ decision at this point to bring Hamilton in was also made easier by the team having seen how Valtteri Bottas was performing, with the Finn having had nothing to lose by pitting early.

From McLaren’s perspective, it did not have any information from its second car as Daniel Ricciardo was in a good points-scoring position.

As Seidl said: "Following his radio, Lewis also wanted to stay out. And for him obviously he had the chance to do the opposite of what we're doing. That's simply the situation you're in if you're leading."

The difficulty of jumping first as the lead car is something that was highlighted on the way to the grid in Hungary, when pole man Lewis Hamilton was the only one to stay out on the formation lap – as it seemed such an illogical thing to sacrifice the front spot for a tyre change.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, makes a stop

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, makes a stop

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Crystal clear call

The most intense focus of McLaren will be on the information it had on lap 50, which was probably the last point at which it could have pitted and still won the race.

It needs to understand why the information it had did not trigger the team to pull the pin on a switch to inters, either through the weather radar, television pictures of what was happening out on track or the sector times of other cars who had stopped.

And also, whether Norris' decision to stay out was based on him being told accurately what was predicted with the rain.

Norris himself said afterwards that his call to stay out was based on him being informed the rain was not going to get worse.

"I decided to stay out because the team said it was only meant to be drizzling like that and that's as hard as the rain was going to get," he said.

"For whatever reason we didn't know or see or anticipate that it was not just going to be a drizzle, it was going to be a lot of rain and that's where we went wrong at the end of the day."

For Seidl, all aspects of its decision making process needs to be looked at.

"As always in these tricky situations it's a communication between the driver and the pitwall using all the information we have available terms of weather forecast, what other cars are doing, trying to brief Lando and at the same time get feedback from Lando how the track conditions are," he said.

"That's how the decision had to be made on what to do, to pit or not. Lando, with the information he got from us and how he was feeling on track, he felt good staying out there on the slicks.

"And in the end we didn't overrule him as a team. So that's something we need to look into; to see what we could have done better because, of course, in hindsight it was the wrong decision we made as a team."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, makes a pit stop

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, makes a pit stop

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

While Mercedes was more forceful and ordered Hamilton in, despite him wanting to stay out on slicks, McLaren's point of no return came when it stood back and let Norris continue because he was happy to.

What it needs to get to the bottom of is if there was information out there that could have been better used to improve it decision-making process to push it across the line and make that call to Norris to tell him to pit.

Seidl added: "If we would have been crystal clear from the team side and convinced that it was 100% the right decision to stop, he would have stopped.

"In the end it was a close call. Of course it's easy to say afterwards it was the wrong one because that's how it played out, but I think it was quite close to decide what is the right thing. And that's why I say it's a team decision together with Lando.

"The only thing we need to analyse is if there would have been any information available which should have led us to make a clear call. But in the end, with the information we had available at the time, with the weather forecast, with the feedback from Lando, in the end, we took this decision together."

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Improving the team

While McLaren will be gutted for a while about what happened, Seidl is experienced and wise enough to know that its Russian GP disappointment will bring benefits down the road in ensuring there is no repeat in the future.

And, for a team that is on what he calls a journey to the front of the grid, the days when you get it wrong are sometimes more valuable than those like Monza where it goes perfect.

"Part of this journey is also that you have to accept that it doesn't always go onwards and upwards," said Seidl.

"It's a normal part of the sport. And you have days like today, which was a big disappointment.

"But it's also an opportunity to stay humble, to stay both feet on the ground, to keep respect for all your competitors as well, and to simply keep learning."

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