It’s those familiar words on the team radio used for each of his wins this season that Lewis Hamilton’s engineer greeted the driver. But this was no ordinary race. Hamilton was not in first place; he was in the eighth place. Then his engineer added “Champion of the world.” Lewis had just won the 2017 FIA Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. After a hard fight and an unpredictable season, Hamilton and the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team finally won both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships. There are many reasons to celebrate, as the team got its fourth consecutive constructor title, while Lewis entered the very selective club of only four other drivers who have won four F1 Drivers’ Championships. Before we consider what’s ahead for the remainder of this season and for next season, let’s go back to the beginning of the season to see how we got here.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the season. This year, F1 introduced some drastic changes to the regulations, allowing for lower and wider cars, wider tires (by 25 percent), much wider front and back wings, and a higher diffuser (the aerodynamic part at the bottom end of the car that manages a proper flow of air behind the car). The differences are not only visual — the car creates more downforce and grip, allowing for potential massive performance improvements. Before the start of the season, it was expected that the cars would gain three to five seconds per lap. Such level of performance exposes cars and drivers to an unprecedented level of G-force. At the same time, F1 added constraints on the cost and durability of engines. One can imagine the complexity of designing a car to win a championship in those conditions. The performance of the car could be modeled in isolation, but how will the drivers adapt to it? And where will the competition stand regarding its performance? To maximize their odds, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team decided on a car with low downforce that would be extremely performant on fast tracks (the majority of the tracks by a small margin) but not be at an advantage on slower tracks that require downforce (such as Monaco, Singapore). Of course, they expect their drivers to make the most of the qualifications to take the lead on those fast tracks. We now know that this was a winning bet. But the car did not earn its nickname “The Diva” by chance.
Fast forward to the Mexican Grand Prix last weekend. Mexico City is one of those tracks in which the W08 is not supposed to be to its advantage. Mexico City is located at a high altitude: 2,200m (7,218 ft). The level of oxygen is 22 percent lower than at sea level. This rare air impacts many aspects of the car: aerodynamics, engine, and temperature of the various components. This track requires much downforce, which is not one of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport’s car strengths by design. And the power unit needs to work harder to produce the adequate level of performance, which puts durability at risk. To make things even more complicated, the temperature of the components is harder to maintain, endangering both performance and durability. And the one of the longest straights in the circuit requires high engine performance. So how does the team prepare for such a race? They leverage data from previous races in Mexico to project the performance of the car, the ideal setup, and window of operations for optimal sustained performance. This setup was the starting point for the weekend from which both drivers and engineers worked to assess how close it is to reality and then refined for improved performance and reliability. Analytics are essential to consume data quickly to identify the best settings and the conditions (pressure, temperature) at which they ensure proper performance. They also simulated the race millions of times to establish the strategy.
At the start of the weekend, things were going as expected. Hamilton warned that the weekend would be tough but fun, especially with cars with lower downforce. And he was right. The Silver Arrows posted times not too far ahead of the Red Bulls, but Lewis spun in the second free practice session while Valtteri Bottas struggled to keep his tires at the right temperature. Still, they gathered a lot of data during long runs. This data, almost as much as the driving, informed the team on the best setup or at least in which direction to look for it. The challenges of a high downforce track took a toll on the team’s fight for the pole position. Hamilton could not improve on his best time, and Bottas’ first fast lap was impacted by Max Verstappen reluctance to let him through. The Silver Arrows still took the second row in third and fourth position, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel on pole. While these positions did not endanger Lewis’ odds for the Drivers’ title, it was not the goal he had set himself. What this front row did guarantee was an explosive start.
And boy, did it deliver. Many people looking at the result of the race will not understand the drama and the fights that took place. The positions do not do the level of driving that took place justice. The team carefully established the strategy, leveraging millions of simulations combined with data gathered over the weekend to understand what the turning points of the race would be regarding overtakes and pit stops.
But nothing went according to plan. The four front drivers had an excellent start, with Max Verstappen aggressively overtaking Sebastian Vettel in the second turn. Hamilton, sensing the opportunity, completely changed his line to take the exterior in turn three; he was already past Vettel and about to attack Verstappen when Vettel went wide and slashed Hamilton’s rear right tire with his front wing. At the end of turn three, the two contenders for the Drivers’ title impacted: Vettel, heading to the pits to replace his front wing, while Hamilton limped back to the pits, losing precious time, to get his tire replaced. It’s in these situations that strategy plays a huge role. They need to understand how to make the most of these situations and how to leverage the fact the team is forced to have an exotic strategy with a very early (lap two!) pit stop. Their simulation, their analysis of the current pace, and their strategy of competitors needed to be combined to make quick decisions. Vettel started to quickly go back through the ranks in the hopes of beating the odds to secure the Drivers’ Championship. Hamilton did the same, but from way back, even being lapped by Verstappen and his own teammate, Bottas. But the nature of these champions is that they never, ever let go. Hamilton kept on fighting, especially during an epic battle with Fernando Alonso that shows the best driving F1 has to offer. It was exceptional to see these two world champions fight. The race ended with Verstappen coming in first after a quick and flawless race, during which he even joked about not having a penalty as he did in Austin. Bottas finished a strong second, proving that Hamilton could have finished at least on the podium if he had been given the opportunity. For once, the celebration was as much off the podium as it was on with the Mexican audience gave a huge ovation to the new 2017 FIA Formula One World Drivers’ Champion, Lewis Hamilton.
So now that Lewis and the team have both won their championships, what’s next? Well, first of all, two amazing races to finish out the season. With the pressure of the championship off their shoulders, you can expect drivers to be determined to have fun. And these races are taking place in no ordinary places. The first race is in Brazil, home to some of F1’s immortal glories and home to millions of fans. It will be amazing to see the performance of the new cars on the track at Interlagos. Then the F1 teams head to Abu Dhabi for a unique race at dusk as a prelude to the winter break. A winter break during which the teams are going to finish the design of their 2018 cars. That design and test work will be an ideal topic for a next blog post.
Until then, read more about how Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport increases it off and on-track performance with TIBCO.