MONTE CARLO, Monaco -- To the left of his car, Lewis Hamilton had no more than 2 square metres to make his final preparations ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix. His mechanics had cordoned off the area to provide some breathing space on the heaving grid, but as soon as Hamilton returned from the national anthem ceremony the surrounding crowd inched closer. Dotted around this most valuable patch of real estate, the screens of camera phones flickered as VIPs rattled off tens of frames per second from all angles.
In the middle of the melee Hamilton went through his normal pre-race procedure. The upper half of his overalls was unravelled from around his waist, with the right arm going in first before the left. The red hat all 20 drivers wore on the grid as a tribute to Niki Lauda was replaced by a fireproof balaclava and finally Hamilton's personal tribute to his good friend and team boss, who died six days earlier, a replica of Lauda's 1984 helmet design. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and supermodel Winnie Harlow watched on as the bright red helmet settled down in the cockpit for two hours of the most nail-biting racing Monaco has to offer.
Over the 78 laps that followed, Hamilton's skill, as well as his nerve, was stretched to the limit. The emotions within the bright red helmet would spiral out of control, only to be reined in so that he could finally delivered the tribute to Lauda he wanted more than any other: victory at the Monaco Grand Prix.
As is so often the case in Monaco, the events of the race were directly impacted by the results of Saturday's qualifying session. Just 0.086s had guaranteed Hamilton his car's position on the front of the grid and he not found those milliseconds the story would have revolved around teammate Valtteri Bottas instead. Equally, had Ferrari not bungled Charles Leclerc's qualifying session, forcing him to start 15th on the grid, the turn of events that saw Hamilton secure one of the greatest wins of his career would not have transpired.
It was Leclerc's impatience to recover from his team's mistake that saw him clip the barrier at Rascasse while attempting to pass Nico Hulkenberg and suffer a catastrophic right rear puncture further round the lap. The resulting damage from the flailing rubber littered the track with debris and prompted a Safety Car on lap 11, which in turn led to the round of pit stops where Mercedes made an uncharacteristic and incomprehensible strategy error. Had Leclerc passed Hulkenberg cleanly, Hamilton would have continued on his planned strategy of stopping somewhere between lap 20 and 22, but as onlookers we would have been robbed of the most nail-biting race of the 2019 season so far.
But before we delve into Mercedes' tyre choice and the reasons for it, there are a few basic Monaco strategy principles that need laying down. The first is that the lack of overtaking opportunities around the circuit makes track position key. As long as you are ahead of your rivals on the track, you have a good chance of staying there and you are also in a position to dictate the pace of the cars and therefore the wear levels of the tyres.
As a result, conservative strategies always win out. That's why there was never any debate over whether to make a second pit stop on Sunday, even though simulations said a two-stop was faster. Making a second stop would double the risk of something going wrong in the pits and, more crucially, cede track position to rivals opting for a one-stop. Put simply, there is no point in having a fast car on fresh rubber if it is stuck behind slower cars and unable to get past.
The second basic principle of strategy in Monaco is that a pit stop under a Safety Car will cost you less time to your rivals than a pit stop in racing conditions. At Safety Car speeds, the total loss time from entering the pits to exiting it is around 12 seconds, whereas a stop while at racing speed will cost you 20 seconds or more. A red flag is the golden ticket as that allows you to change tyres in the stoppage without making a pit stop, but even in Monaco red flags are relatively rare.
So with those basic principles in place, let's play through the decisions of Sunday's race and the impact it had, both physically and mentally, for the man with the red helmet in car 44.
Why did Mercedes make the wrong call?
Imagine we're sat alongside head strategist James Vowles and Hamilton's race engineer Peter Bonnington (you may know him by his nickname Bono) on the Mercedes pit wall. The Safety Car has just come out on lap 11 and our second basic principle of Monaco strategy has come into play. It's not an ideal situation as Hamilton and Bottas are running first and second, but if Valtteri just holds back a bit and creates a gap to Hamilton we should be able to stack both drivers in the pits. The call goes out to bring both drivers in.
In the same moment the next split-second decision is upon us: do we switch to the medium compound tyre or the hard? Unlike Ferrari and Red Bull, which stuck solely to the soft compound throughout practice and qualifying, Mercedes ran the medium compound during second practice. The data the engineers gathered told us that the medium tyre would make the end of the race if it was fitted from around lap 15 or 16 and that it had a slower warm-up time than the soft. From that it was possible to extrapolate that the hard -- which only Renault, Haas and Racing Point had used in practice -- would have an even slower warm-up time and could be difficult to get into its operating window.
There would be roughly another three laps behind the Safety Car after the tyres were fitted, and that would have a two-fold impact on Mercedes' thinking. First off, it would make it even harder to generate temperature in the tyre as the Safety Car goes at only 40 percent racing speed and secondly it would minus three laps of hard racing from the distance we are asking the tyre to cover. If our Thursday practice data tells us 63 laps is possible on the medium, would it really be that much of a stretch for it to do 67 with at least three of those 67 behind the Safety Car?
"What we calculated is that the medium would make it, if we changed through lap 15 or 16, it would make it to the end with the right management," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. "Being in the lead, that was a pretty straight strategy. It didn't even seem like a huge stretch."
Finally, there was also rain in the air. A series of light rain showers were heading straight for the circuit but there was no guarantee they would be strong enough to warrant a switch to intermediate tyres. If the surface of the track became greasy, it would be much easier for the driver to be on a softer compound than a harder one, so another reason to opt for the mediums over the hards.
What's more, imagine if we go for hards and our rivals pick medium. Our drivers will be immediately under pressure while trying to warm their tyres and then if the rain hits, it could be the difference between winning and losing.
Stepping away from the Mercedes pit wall and joining the strategists at Ferrari and Red Bull we don't have any medium tyre practice data available to us. However, the thought of doing 67 laps on the medium compound sounds risky in itself, especially when the hard is available and good for 70 laps according to tyre supplier Pirelli.
"For us it was straightforward to go on the hard, you know that you need to finish the race and it doesn't matter the pace somehow here in Monaco," Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said after the race. "So yeah, [Mercedes decision was] a surprise, but that's it, we don't want to judge what they do, we are focused on ourselves."
And so, when the two Mercedes cars came in they switched to the medium as Max Verstappen in the Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari opted for the hard. Bottas' stint on the medium tyres only lasted a single lap however, as he was driven into the barrier by Verstappen as the two emerged into Monaco's tight pit lane together. It caused a right front puncture on Bottas' car and meant he returned to the pits on lap 12 to take on a set of hards (there were no more medium tyres in his allocation for him to pick).
Verstappen claimed second place on the road but was handed a five-second penalty for the way he squeezed Bottas. And with Vettel and Bottas on his tail for the rest of the race, it meant his only hope of finishing on the podium was to get past Hamilton and sprint five seconds clear.
As events transpired, Mercedes' data had led it down the wrong path and the scene was set for a thriller.
Hamilton raises concerns
Within just 10 laps of running on the medium compound, Hamilton was aware he was on the wrong compound.
"Question, does James [Vowles] think I'm in trouble with these tyres?" he asked over team radio. "I'm driving super slow now and I'm not sure how long they are going to last."
Under team radio protocol, Mercedes usually only lets Bonnington talk to Hamilton, and so came the calm and measured response: "Lewis, what you are doing is great, just keep the management up and it will go our way.
So slow was Hamilton's pace that at one stage Williams driver George Russell was the fastest man on track purely because he wasn't sat behind a driver nursing his tyres. Meanwhile, Hamilton could see the rubber on his left front tyre opening up and by lap 42 he could feel the race slipping through his fingers.
"I think we are on the wrong tyre," he told Bonnington. "I'm definitely in a bad way."
As a clockwise circuit, the front left tyre on Hamilton's car was taking the biggest hit. The rubber on the surface of the tyre was rolling up and crumbling away, a phenomenon known as graining, and with each passing lap he had less and less confidence as he pitched his car into right-hand corners.
"We realised, about 20 laps into the race, that on the left front some graining appeared, he started to complain about the understeer from the graining and it was clear that it would get very, very difficult to make it to the end," Wolff said. "So we had quite some discussions about the tyre lasting another 40 laps, and I was reminded that it was only the equivalent of 20 laps on a normal circuit [due to the short length of the Monaco lap].
"So, I calmed down a bit! But everybody knew that it's going to be a huge stretch. I believe that probably 20 laps to the end, he had like 0% rubber left on the tyre. He had understeer in the low speeds, you could see it around Loews, the car wouldn't turn."
Meanwhile, Verstappen was filling both mirrors and looking increasingly aggressive under braking for the Loews hairpin. Hamilton's rear tyres were still in relatively good shape, so as long as picked his battles he could still get a good exit from some of the most crucial corners.
"Obviously I could see him," Hamilton said after the race. "He literally covered the whole of my mirrors. I was able to get out of the last corner and pull a bit of a gap. I was super slow through Turn 1 but Turn 3 my right-side tyres were OK and once you got downforce on they would work but then once I got to Turn 4 [Casino], 5 [Mirabeau], 6 [Loews], 7 [Mirabeau Bas], 8 [Portier], I had nothing."
Hamilton had a number of tools at his disposal to combat the problem and tease his car through the slower-speed corners, but this required trial and error via a number of switch changes on his steering wheel around the lap. However, as long as he kept Verstappen at bay at Loews and got good exits from Portier for the run through the tunnel, he might just hold on to victory. What played out was a 100mph chess match as the two drivers positioned their cars into each corner in an attempt to outwit one another.
"I was moving the brake balance rearwards, engine braking, opening up diffs, trying to get this car turned," he explained. "I could see him [Verstappen] barrelling a lot of speed in. Obviously the harder tyre was a lot more resilient. I could see it opened up on his car and I was like, 'OK, hopefully he's going to run out of tyres at some stage, as I am, but he didn't'.
"I kept thinking Turn 6 [Loews] is probably where he's going to try to dive up the inside, because I was just waiting to get the car turned. So I was just trying to cover that whole area, tip-toeing and positioning myself so I could get a good exit out of [Portier].
"It was really strategy-wise one of the most strategic drives that I think I have ever had to do in terms of finding that balance around the track to try and keep that gap. I'm sure we touched multiple times and I definitely touched the barrier a lot of time throughout the laps but luckily kept the car in one piece."
But what Hamilton's post-race quotes fail to convey is the level of stress building inside the cockpit. Hamilton knew he was on the wrong tyres, the team knew he was on the wrong tyres, even the VIPs sitting on yacht sipping their eighth glass of champagne knew he was on the wrong tyres. There was nothing anyone could do about it, but Hamilton felt the need to vent.
"We're going to lose this race Bono," Hamilton said on lap 56. "I can't look after these tyres anymore, they're dead!" Bonnington was no longer managing the engineering parameters of the car and was instead managing the stress levels of his driver. Again, he remained unflustered and focused only on the positives, and a great deal of Sunday's victory should be attributed to his management of his driver.
Bonnington: "Thinking about it, if we can manage to do the same pace as the cars up front, and you keep Verstappen behind, we shouldn't have to pass any of them ..."
Hamilton: "I can't keep the car behind, Bono, can you not see that!?"
Bonnington: "Yep, no problem Lewis, I hear you loud and clear. Verstappen's been there all race."
An inspired drive
There was no way out of the tyre situation, but that didn't lower the stress levels. For the final 20 laps Hamilton stopped complaining about his front left and switched his focus to calling for blue flags to get lapped cars out of his way. Backmarker after backmarker appeared in front of him, but under F1 regulations the lapping car has to be less than 1.2s behind to trigger the blue flags. With his tyres making him one of the slowest drivers on the circuit through the slow second sector, Hamilton was struggling to get in range.
It was at this stage that he called on some extra inspiration.
"I really, really tried my best to stay focused and not crack under pressure, because Max was doing a great job behind on a much better tyre.
"But ultimately, this week has been such a hard week, emotionally, for us as a team and me personally, I just really, really wanted to do the job -- I really wanted to deliver on the word of Niki, and I was imagining him taking the hat off in support. When I was driving I was like, 'what would Niki do?' so I just kept going."
It was the kind of driver that adds to Hamilton's stature as one of the greatest drivers this sport has ever seen. He could have been derailed at so many points over the weekend, from being a tenth of a second slower in qualifying to failing to catch one of the wild moments he experienced in the last 20 laps, but somehow he held it all together and judged the race to perfection.
"That result means a lot," Wolff said afterwards. "It was a world champions' drive for a world champion that isn't among us anymore."