You probably know the story. Lando Norris had led the majority of the 2021 Russian Grand Prix at Sochi. Having lost the lead from pole, he’d overtaken Carlos Sainz early on and resisted pressure from Lewis Hamilton as the laps began to tick down. It looked as though he as was heading for his first victory. Then it began to spit. Norris handled this well, and even started to pull away from Hamilton. Soon afterwards Hamilton pitted for intermediates, whilst Norris decided to stay out. He duly went off as the rain intensified. After crawling back to the pits for intermediate tyres, he eventually finished crestfallen in 7th place. Meanwhile celebrated his historical 100th win.
So, what went wrong for Norris? Let’s analyse in detail what the situation was, how the different teams interpreted the data and how they responded.
- Summary Of Conditions
- When Did Drivers Pit?
- Should Norris Have Just Pitted On Lap 50?
- Conditions On Lap 50
- Where It Went Wrong: Lap 51
- Other Cars And Data
- Why Didn’t McLaren Tell Norris It Was Going To Rain Harder?
- Norris’ Wet Tyre Pace
- What Did Other Teams Do?
- Comparisons To Other Races
- Further Sources
Summary Of Conditions
Let’s start by summarising the conditions in the last 7 laps of the 2021 Russian Grand Prix from Norris’ perspective. (As the conditions changed quickly, the lap numbers will be slightly different for different drivers):
Lap 46-47: Damp at a few corners, but still very much slick tyres.
Lap 48: Track gets wetter at these corners. Intermediate tyres are now faster, but it’s still possible to lap on slicks.
Lap 49: Track conditions improve slightly. Intermediate tyres are still faster by a couple of seconds.
Lap 50: Conditions steadily worsen again.
Lap 51-53: The track is far too wet for slicks.
Generally you should try to be on the right tyres for the current conditions. However, with the race almost over it was not obvious that they’d be enough laps to make up the difference of a pitstop when moving to intermediate tyres. Due to the significantly worsening conditions of the last 3 laps, those that pitted earlier gained significantly. So, when did drivers pit?
When Did Drivers Pit?
Whilst it is useful to see the lap driver’s pitted, it is a little misleading. For example, Mazepin was actually the forth driver into the pits, because he was a lap down on the field at the time. Norris was also at least half a lap ahead of many cars around this stage, meaning his pit stop was significantly less than a full lap behind the stoppers on lap 50. We can partially correct for this by showing the timing of a pitstop, rather than its lap.
This has a few effects. Firstly, it splits the drivers into two relatively clear camps: those that pitted early and those that stayed out. We can also see that almost every team hedged their bets: The first nine drivers into the pits were all from different teams! This suggests that no-one was convinced that stopping early was definitely the right idea.
Tyres, Pace and Position
So what determined when a driver pitted? There are multiple factors. However, the simplest indicator is the compound of slick tyre the driver was on. When the rain began to fall, there was a fairly even split of driver on the hard and medium tyre compound. On average, those on the hard compound pitted 1.5 laps earlier. Given all the pit stops occurred within 4 laps, this is quite a significant difference.
Hamilton’s stop on lap 49 was one of the latest for those on hard tyres. Note that the compound is probably an indicator of other factors that were more important, such as driver confidence and pace. The medium compound drivers were generally more capable of handling the damp track and maintaining reasonable lap times, meaning they were less likely to pit.
Another factor is that drivers who were out of position (in a negative way) were more likely to pit early. Only Bottas and Verstappen had pitted from medium tyres at the end of lap 49. It’s not a coincidence that they were running in relatively poor positions for the two fastest cars (14th and 6th).
All of this worked against Norris. Leading the race on medium tyres and feeling confident in the conditions, he had little incentive to pit. His pace was also excellent, as he was by far the fastest man on slick tyres. Given this, it seems unlikely that any driver in Norris’ situation would have pitted before lap 50.
Should Norris Have Just Pitted On Lap 50?
All of the early stoppers pitted on lap 47-48.
As the rain fell Norris began to inch out a gap to Hamilton behind. At this point the intermediate tyres were faster, but not by enough to warrant a pitstop. Then on lap 49 Hamilton pitted. After this, McLaren had two options. The first was to pit, knowing they would emerge behind Hamilton. The second was to stay on slicks and hope they could win the race.
One thing to keep in mind is how secure 2nd place looked at the time to McLaren. When the rain started falling the Norris/Hamilton pair were 37s clear of 3rd place. Three laps later this gap had doubled to almost 80s. This meant he would only lose 2nd place if he lost around 50 seconds in a single lap. Whilst Norris had been sliding around and had run wide a few times, but had shown excellent car control and pace up to this point. Given this, the team logically concluded that they were unlikely to finish below 2nd regardless of what they did on lap 50. However, only by staying out did they have a good chance of winning the race.
Conditions On Lap 50
Based on this, it made sense to try to stay out as long as the conditions didn’t suddenly deteriorate. We can study the conditions by comparing Norris’ lap times with Bottas and Verstappen (who pitted for inters on lap 47 and 48 respectively).
Norris’ laptime on lap 50 was almost 20s slower than his dry pace. However, the pace compared to Verstappen and Bottas (on intermediates) was nowhere near as extreme as this.
At the end of lap 50 Hamilton was 15s behind with 3 laps remaining. We can see that Bottas was around 2s faster than Norris on this lap, with Verstappen around 5s faster. Hamilton had yet to complete a full lap on inters, but his pace was at least as fast as Verstappen’s. If the conditions stabilised or improved for the next few minutes (which was possible) Norris would still have a chance of winning. If the conditions worsened, he could almost certainly still pit and maintain 2nd place as long as he could make it to the pits without major drama.
This of course assumes that he wouldn’t crash out on dry tyres. However, almost half the grid were still on slicks at this point. This means that if a crash occurred, it would statistically be far more likely to be someone other than Norris. Any safety cars or red flags would also have probably worked in Norris’ favour, providing further incentive not to pit.
Where It Went Wrong: Lap 51
Unfortunately Norris ended up losing a colossal amount of time on lap 51. After a very gradual build up, and even a hint of petering out, the rain properly came. This caused two problems. The first is that the track was suddenly damp in places it previously wasn’t. This lowered Norris’ pace, but was not a major roadblock to finishing second due to the significant gap he’d built up. However, the second issue is that the damp areas were now properly wet.
Let’s compare photos of Norris on lap 50 with lap 51.
Approach to turn 5:
Whilst you should generally be cautious in comparing wetness based on images, the difference here is night and day. Across lap 50 Norris was very gingerly applying the throttle. Despite this, he went off at turn 5 and skidded out of the pitlane entrance before carefully (and illegally) entering it again. His average pace on this lap was 105km/h (66mph), making his previous 20s a lap loss of pace look almost irrelevant.
This disastrous lap clearly cost Norris a podium spot. So, was there any indication that heavier rain was arriving?
Other Cars And Data
Norris got his first major indication that lap 51 would be unsuitable for slicks about 5 seconds after he passed the pit entry, when the end of the lap was significantly damp for the first time. But why didn’t McLaren have data on how much the other cars were struggling?
The issue is that Norris was so far ahead of the other slick runners that they were all in front of him on the circuit. The wettest part of the track was sector 2, and Norris was already on lap 51 before any of them completed it on lap 50. Ricciardo was also in front of Norris on the circuit. Meanwhile, the lap times from intermediate users behind Norris were relatively stable, as they were able to handle the conditions reasonably well.
The first clue from other slick runners came when Pérez, Alonso and Leclerc completed sector 1 on lap 50. Their times were all a little over 2s slower than the previous lap. This was not disastrous by itself, but a further indication that the conditions were starting to sour.
Vettel Hits The Rain
Vettel was the next slick runner on track after this. His Aston Martin team had been cautiously suggesting to him that inters might be the way to go. However, he (like Hamilton before him) had suggested that the conditions were getting better and that it was manageable on slicks. Then he got half-way through sector 1.
“Now there’s more rain…S**t!”
Vettel’s radio message says it all. His sector 1 time was nine seconds slower than the previous lap, despite no major issues or spins. This was the point at which Norris had just passed the start/finish straight. Meanwhile, Alonso, Pérez and LeClerc were all tiptoeing around sector 2, which was now positively soaking. After 5 minutes of stable conditions, the track got much wetter in the space of around 20s.
For Norris the timing was disastrous. If the heavy rain had come 30s earlier, he would have surely pitted based and finished an easy P2. If it had came 30s later, he’d have pitted the next lap and escaped the worst of it as Alonso and Pérez did. Instead it arrived just as he was about to pass the pit entry, leaving him a treacherous path back to the pits at a snail’s pace.
Why Didn’t McLaren Tell Norris It Was Going To Rain Harder?
The short answer is that the team did know that more rain was due. But no-one could predict exactly when the conditions would flip and by how much. The rapid change was unexpected and caught out many teams.
Mercedes called in Hamilton on lap 48 and again on lap 49. Hamilton resisted the call at first but the team seemed insistent that more rain was coming. McLaren were criticised for their indecisive approach, asking Norris his thoughts on intermediate tyres without ever calling their driving in. Given that all teams use the same weather equipment, why weren’t McLaren able to give Norris a decisive instruction?
McLaren’s Radio Comms
A clue to this question can be seen by looking at the other teams. In most (but not all) cases, it was the driver making the call based on their handling of the conditions. McLaren’s questioning was therefore consistent with what others were doing. The evidence from every team except Mercedes is that the race was at a crossroads, and none of them were sure which way the race would end up. Remember that Ricciardo had already pitted for intermediates at this point, so even McLaren were hedging their bets.
A second criticism is of Norris’ responses. At one point he even told his engineer to “shut up!”. Doesn’t that show immaturity and petulance? Perhaps, but the fact is that it’s up to the team to decide what communication is appropriate. There are many examples of drivers being rude to their team on the radio, particularly in high pressure situations. Judging Norris on his tone and manner is fairly irrelevant unless it has a direct response on the race results.
How Did Mercedes Make The Right Call?
Mercedes were the only team that wanted both their cars to pit early. It’s true that the radar indicated more rain was coming in the next few minutes. However, weather prediction is not an exact science, because there are so many variables. In addition, small changes in the exact location the rain hits, the timing of the rain and the intensity of it can cause significant differences on the stopwatch.
So how did Mercedes outsmart not just McLaren, but every other team? As every team uses the same radar equipment, so the most likely answer is that they didn’t. Their decision was a mixture of intuition and circumstances. Bottas pitted early because he was out of the points and lapping slowly, and so the team decided to gamble on more rain. Hamilton was on the harder tyre, lapping slower than Norris and had a free pitstop behind. They couldn’t possibly be 100% sure that pitting would be a net gain. However, they correctly assessed that it was their best chance of winning the race, with no significant disadvantages for either driver.
Other Factors Mercedes Considered
When delving into the post race comments, there are a few revealing quoted that emerge. The first is that Hamilton decided not to pit on lap 48 because Norris had briefly gone off the track just ahead of him. This suggests that one of Hamilton’s drivers for agreeing to pit was Norris beginning to pull away him on lap 49.
The second is that Mercedes were at least as focused on Verstappen as they were on Norris. Mercedes chief trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin said after the race that “It was certainly key that we shadow what he [Verstappen] was doing even if it meant that we might leave the door open for Lando to take a win.”
With all of this in mind the decisions of both McLaren and Mercedes are pretty logical. It was not really a case of Mercedes reading the conditions better or McLaren ignoring the radar. The most important factors were much more subtle. Hamilton had a gap to pit into and was losing ground to Norris. The team also wanted to respond to Verstappen with one eye on the championship. Norris meanwhile had (relatively) strong pace on slicks and would lose the lead if he pitted.
However, what Mercedes and Hamilton should be credited for is their excellent communication. The team made a decision based on the circumstances, and Hamilton complied. In this case, the current track conditions Hamilton felt were less important than the data and probabilities Mercedes had worked out.
Norris’ Wet Tyre Pace
Norris’ pace on dry tyres was the best of anybody. When he switched to intermediates, he was still the fastest driver on the track. His last lap even included a late overtake on Räikkönen for 7th (he emerged from the pits in 8th). Whilst this shows some strong mentality from Norris, it is of course bittersweet. It also means that had he pitted on lap 50, he may still have ben able to challenge Hamilton for victory, despite being behind him.
What Did Other Teams Do?
Let’s look at some of the questionable strategy decisions of other teams that may have slipped under the radar:
Alpine were the only team to leave both drivers out on slicks until lap 50. This was a bad call, but mostly forgivable. Alonso still finished in 6th, which can be attributed to his good pace on the medium tyres and good fortune in being half-way through the way lap when the rain fell heavily (unlike Norris). Teammate Ocon was further back on hard tyres and thus suffered more.
LeClerc Braves It Out
Leclerc was right with Alonso on lap 50, but inexplicably did not take the opportunity to pit when the rain came on lap 50. This is despite losing more than 15s to Verstappen (on inters) in the first 2 sectors, with conditions clearly deteriorating and 3 laps still to go. Leclerc actually told Ferrari they should pit when he was in sector 2. So why did Ferrari keep him out for another lap?
The team (incorrectly!) responded by saying that he should stay out if he thought he could keep it on the track. However, just as he approached the pitlane they changed their minds and told him to pit. However Leclerc had taken their words to heart, and countered that he thought he could keep it on the track. This was technically correct but a horrible decision. His extra lap was 8 seconds slower than Norris’ (and in even worse conditions). He ultimately finished 15th, a poor outcome given he was level with Alonso (who finished 6th) just 3 laps earlier. Another consequence of him staying out is that he was actually lapped, meaning his outlap on intermediate tyres was actually the final lap of the race.
Tsunoda Switches To Soft Tyres
Finally, we have AlphaTauri. Whilst they pitted Tsunoda early when the rain arrived, he was inexplicably changed from hard to soft (i.e. dry!) tyres. For the life of me I cannot see any justification for this. Soft tyres should of course be faster and give the driver more confidence, but he’d need to be 4s a lap quicker just to break even. It feels like a decision made by an NPC in a video game with questionable programming.
Either the track was dry enough for slicks, in which case the benefit is minimal (compared to a pitstop time) or the track required inters, in which case he’s on the wrong tyre anyway. Perhaps there is some scenario where this works, but it seems like an absurd experiment. Stranger still is there’s seemingly no discussion with Tsunoda before the call is made, other than asking him to pit.
Comparisons To Other Races
The conditions in Sochi were quite specific. However, there are a couple of examples of rain falling in the last few laps, with the decision to pit for intermediate tyres being on a knife edge.
The first is the 2000 German Grand Prix. In this race the leading McLarens of Häkkinen and Coulthard pitted for intermediate tyres, whilst Barrichello’s Ferrari stayed out to take the lead. As in Sochi, only some parts of the track were wet. However in Germany the decision to stay on slicks turned out to be correct. This gave Barrichello his first ever F1 win, from an unlikely 18th on the grid.
The second example is the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix. Räikkönen had led almost the entire race, but Hamilton’s McLaren began to close as it started to drizzle. In this race, pitting for intermediate tyres was the way to go. The three leaders all stayed out, but had enough of a gap to those behind that it didn’t matter, as long as they stayed on track. Agonisingly, Räikkönen crashed out of the race with one an a bit laps to go. He later revealed he was planning to pit, which would have been a race winning move.
-No team fully understood what the rain would do. The majority of teams hedged their bets by pitting one car early and leaving one out.
-The biggest indicator of whether a driver pitted early or not was what type of tyre they had on (hard vs mediums).
-Norris was a victim of his own success. McLaren didn’t pit him before lap 50 because his pace was still not too bad and he had a large gap to 3rd place.
-However, it very suddenly started raining much heavier. After almost 10 minutes of being damp, half the circuit became soaking wet in the space of around 20s. This occurred just as Norris was approaching the pit entry.
-McLaren didn’t supply Norris with much information and Norris was very harsh on the radio to them. However, the general nature of the discussion wasn’t dissimilar to many other teams at the time.
-AlphaTauri and Ferrari had much more questionable decisions than McLaren. Tsunoda was pitted for soft tyres instead of intermediates, whilst LeClerc did not pit even when it was clear how heavy the rain was.