Mercedes are blaming a software glitch for botching up Lewis Hamilton’s lead during the Australian Grand Prix and handing a most unexpected victory to Ferrari whose Sebastian Vettel capitalised on the mistake to take home the big trophy from the season’s first race.
Hamilton followed up his supreme pole-winning lap a day earlier with a strong start and run down to Turn 1, asserted himself in the lead and then powered away increasing the gap steadily to around three seconds when the virtual safety car was deployed.
At that point, the race had been in the bag but Ferrari got the maths spot on and reacted fast, by the time the dust had settled he had catapulted the silver number 44 to take the lead, where he remained until the end of the race.
As reality dawned, Hamilton’s exchanges with his engineer were peppered with frustration:
- “What just happened guys?” says Hamilton
- “Why didn’t you tell me Vettel was in the pits?”
- “Did I do anything wrong? Should I have gone faster?”
Then later when pursuing Vettel at race speed his patience wore out while waiting for word to attack the Ferrari:
- “Can I push yet?”
- “Let me know what you want.
- “I’m going for it!”
Mercedes (as well as the billions watching live and on TV) were left scratching their heads, but the confusion was shortlived as the culprit was rapidly found according to Toto Wolff, “Lewis did nothing wrong. It was down to a software bug or an algorithm that was simply wrong.”
The team chief referring to software that the F1 world champion team has been using with good effect for the past four seasons, but this time out in the heat of the race, glitched out at a very inopportune moment for the team and in the end cost them victory.
Wolff elaborated, “We were trying to build enough of a gap to [Kimi] Raikkonen to avoid the undercut and we were trying to have enough gap to the Haas to have the Safety Car gap.”
“Everything was under control. We took a bit of a risk of putting Lewis on a soft [tyre] to go to the end, but it was the only choice to avoid Kimi jumping us. The pace was good.”
“Then we calculated the VSC gap which was needed [if one was activated]. Our computer said 15 seconds was the necessary time in order to jump us.”
“The drivers oscillate within one second in the delta. Then suddenly the cameras showed us the pit exit. Sebastian came out in front of us. The software or system we have been using for five years just gave us the wrong number.”
“Lewis knew that he needed to make it to the end on the tyres and drove to the target and without that [glitch] we probably would have had the gap. The only thing we could have done was try to push more after his pit stop and try to create a bigger gap.”
“But knowing that the tyre needed to go another 40 laps or so it was very important not to stretch that too much and he was going quicker than Sebastian anyway. So the gap grew.”
“And we knew that the gap was good enough that even under VSC we would still maintain the lead. If we knew it would have been three or four seconds more we would have pushed a bit more with the tyres with the risk at the end of the race – but we would have done it.”
Wolff refused to blame the VSC and live safety car system for the blunder, “I think, like always in motor racing, with the VSC or normal Safety Car, sometimes you are lucky and sometimes it bites you. Today we were bitten. It’s very hard to take because we had the pace and for whatever reason – we need to find out – we lost the win.”
“You know it’s these moments that make you stronger,” he added philosophically. “We got punched in the face today and we got punched in the face yesterday [with Valtteri Bottas’s crash], against everyone saying that we would run away easily with 20 victories or whatever. I always said that wouldn’t be the case – it is very close at the top and I guess that’s the message that everyone will want to hear,” concluded Wolff.
It was Vettel’s fourth triumph at Albert Park in five years that Hamilton has been unable to convert pole position at the venue on Saturday to victory on Sunday.