Just how did Mercedes botch their risky ‘double stack’ in the Sakhir Grand Prix?

After 61 laps of racing in the Sakhir Grand Prix, it was all going so swimmingly well for Mercedes debutant George Russell, the Englishman having overtaken established teammate Valtteri Bottas off the line whilst maintaining a comfortable gap.

He was driving like a seasoned champion, having only learned days earlier that he would be filling in for the COVID-afflicted Lewis Hamilton. Bottas had no answers to his pace, and there seemed nothing that could possibly prevent a fairy-tale victory for the popular driver.

Even a Safety Car situation, bunching up the field, would not have bothered Russell in this form, on this day. Unless things went badly wrong, of course. And that, sadly, is exactly what happened. Ironically, it was Russell’s own stand-in replacement at Williams Racing, Jack Aitken, who got it wrong out of the final corner, clipping the barrier and losing his front wing.

At first, a Virtual Safety Car was signalled, and several cars dived into the pits to switch from hard to medium tyres, as is the norm in such a situation. With Russell still leading Bottas, it was a late call to bring them both into the pits. It turned out to be a risky one.

The pit crew seemed alarmingly unprepared and, in the confusion, the front two medium tyres bolted on to Russell’s car were meant for Bottas. As Russell left the pits, the mechanics then fitted mediums to Bottas’ car before realising their error. It meant they then had to be taken off and the old hard tyres re-fitted again.

It ruined the Finn’s race, with old, cold, hard tyres now giving him no grip. Russell also had to re-pit, this time softs dished out to give him a chance of carving his way back. But how could this have happened?

“One of the tyre crews didn’t hear the call,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports at the time.  “We had a radio failure in the garage and when the car came in they didn’t know that we had to change the tyres, or the wrong tyres, and this is why we exited with the wrong set of tyres.”

Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director added that this was a disaster waiting to happen, and one that could have happened at any time in the past.

“As the safety car came out, we were calling for the crew to be ready, and for the tyres for each car to come into the pitlane,” said Shovlin.  “At the time that message was going out, another radio message for a very brief period prevented one of the key messages getting through to one set of tyre collectors. It’s something that’s been lurking in there and could have caught us out at any time over the past few seasons.

“The ensuing problems were all a function of this single issue and certainly not the fault of anyone in our pit-crew who have done a great job all year.”

Amazingly, despite the nature of the blunder, Russell still had a very realistic chance of victory. Having brilliantly overtaken Bottas yet again followed by Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon, Russell found himself again the fastest man on the track before lightning struck twice, a slow puncture detected for presumably running over debris.

It was a double dose of bad luck for Russell, but should Mercedes have pitted their cars at all? The question is a tough one to answer. It is the standard thing to do in such a situation and they certainly had the gap to pull it off. With hindsight, the answer is clearly no, Russell in command and his hard tyres still in a very manageable state.

That the initial signal was for a Virtual Safety Car, it was certainly the wrong decision to pit, as Russell held a commanding advantage, and would have maintained that gap. That it was changed to a Safety Car meant the field again bunched up, but Russell still had the buffer of Bottas between the rest.

“It was safety stop,” added Wolff. “We were fine on the hard [tyre], we could have stayed out, but we had the gap and then you do these things. You can question that, but I think it’s absolutely the right call.”

Despite Mercedes’ perceived invincibility, this is not the first time the pit crew has messed things up and Lewis Hamilton can testify to that. During the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix, Hamilton was called into the pits under the Safety Car with a 19 second lead over teammate Nico Rosberg and the race in the bag. But the team made an error in their calculations, and Hamilton fed back out behind both Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. Around Monaco’s tight confines, there is no way back in that situation.

Amazingly, a similar situation unfolded in 2019 but in reverse, Mercedes putting Hamilton on a medium compound tyre with 67 laps as rival pitted for hards under the Safety Car following Charles Leclerc’s crash. It led to an almighty struggle for Hamilton to keep Max Verstappen behind him in a defensive masterclass and one of his finest drives.

Such incidents have led to Hamilton now often overruling instructions from his pit lane and making his own tactical calls, such is the right of a multiple world champion. Of course, given his first opportunity at Mercedes, Russell was never going to overrule and it probably never even crossed his mind. It was just a case of very, very bad luck!

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.