SPIELBERG, Austria- Team chief Toto Wolff defended strategist James Vowles Monday as the Mercedes team licked their wounds and regrouped after Sunday’s double retirement at the Austrian Grand Prix.
Just days ahead of the British Grand Prix, home race for defending four-time champion Lewis Hamilton and the team, Wolff praised Vowles for his “guts” in admitting his mistake after Mercedes’ worst result since re-entering Formula One in 2010.
Only the debacle of the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix where Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided on the opening lap, ironically gifting victory to Sunday’s winner Max Verstappen of Red Bull, could compare.
“We don’t need to make changes,” said Wolff, admitting it was another wake-up call. “The most important thing is to understand why an error happens and go back into the situation and analyse it.
“I don’t think that we would make an error twice. It’s just that the situation is very complex. We are fighting, six cars, and it’s just a tough situation.
“For me, James is one of the best ever and it needs guts to come out and, in order to save the best possible result, say in front of millions of people ‘that was my mistake, now you can still do this with the car you have’.”
Vowles admitted his decision not to pit Hamilton for new tyres under the Virtual Safety Car was an error and would have cost him a race victory, if he had not been forced to retire for the first time in 34 races due to fuel pressure problems.
Hamilton was leading comfortably, but was the only front-runner not to be called in when team-mate Valtteri Bottas retired with hydraulics problems. That missed opportunity meant that when he did pit, he dropped to fourth.
Taking to team radio, Vowles told the understandably disgruntled Hamilton: “It was my mistake. I’ve thrown away the win.”
It was the third time this season that Mercedes had discarded a race lead with a strategic error, having done the same in Australia and China.
“For Lewis, leading the race comfortably and coming out in P4, it was a moment where he was really suffering,” added Wolff. “We thought that it wasn’t all over. We wanted to recover the maximum points that we could…
“James coming on the radio is the mind-set that we have. We are able to say that we’ve done a mistake in order to close the matter.
“And, also, to give him (Hamilton) peace of mind that there’s complete acknowledgement within the team that it has gone wrong and it was our mistake — in order to make him park the thought.”
Wolff said the admission of error helped Hamilton and the team to avoid falling into a spiral of recrimination, adding that the driver had been commendably positive later in the team de-brief.
“He said we had ‘the fastest car in the race’ and ‘the best reliability’,” said Wolff. “He said also that we are ‘the best team I’ve driven for.’”
After four consecutive years as constructors’ champions, it may be that Mercedes lack the hunger to maintain their standards as rivals Ferrari and Red Bull close the gap.
“We don’t have excuses,” said chief engineer Andrew Shovlin.
“We weren’t reliable enough. We didn’t make the right strategy call. Our starts weren’t good enough. And we didn’t manage the tyres as well as we could have done…”
As Hamilton heads home, for a race he has dominated and won for the last four years, the team needs an urgent ‘re-set’ to recover the bullet-proof reliability and craft he has demanded.
If they fail, Hamilton, in the last year of his current contract, may re-consider his future.