INSIGHT: F1's contenders are weighing the risks of playing safe

Red Bull Content Pool

INSIGHT: F1's contenders are weighing the risks of playing safe

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: F1's contenders are weighing the risks of playing safe


Do. Not. Lose.

It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Not losing is a good thing. But in Formula 1, losing is a strange concept. You can do everything perfectly, but if you’re Haas this season, that probably results in P19 and P20.

But the message to both Mercedes and Red Bull as we enter the closing stages of the year has clearly become ‘do not lose’, rather than ‘go and win’. Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez finished second and third in a Turkish Grand Prix that Valtteri Bottas pretty much dominated, and while the fact that it wasn’t Lewis Hamilton taking maximum points made defeat easier for Red Bull to stomach, the team was well and truly beaten on Sunday.

And yet it was happy.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Christian Horner replied when asked if he’d take that result. “You have to take the points we did in both drivers’ and constructors’ (championships). The engineering team did a great job Friday night when we were a bit out the window on Friday. Arguably this has been Mercedes’ strongest circuit that we’ve seen so far this season, so to have two cars on the podium (and) retake the lead in the drivers’ championship is a positive day for us.”

If there was anyone who would perhaps have voiced their concern over the performance levels in Turkey, it would have been Verstappen. That he was unable to match Bottas means he would certainly have been unable to chase down Hamilton but for the latter’s grid penalty, but it wasn’t a trend that worried him.

In fact, we saw the most conservative Verstappen of the season; the Dutchman admitting he gave up the fight long before the end of the race.

“After the stop with, like, 20 laps to go, I just decided to bring it home,” Verstappen said. “I didn’t have the pace to fight Valtteri, so there was also no need to try to be within two, three tenths, to try and just follow him.”

And that tells you all you need to know about the mindset as we head into the final six rounds of the season. Verstappen is one of the most aggressive drivers on the grid, and he’s shown deep into this battle that he will still fight as hard as ever rather than let the championship picture dictate his approach – until last weekend.

Verstappen delivered an uncharacteristicly conservative podium drive in the Turkish Grand Prix, proving the focus is on just netting championship points. Charles Coates/Motorsport Images

But it’s actually Mercedes that give the more clear example of that outlook. The spell when Hamilton looked like he might go to the end of the race without stopping was a genuine risk, as Toto Wolff said. I remember tweeting as it was unfolding that Mercedes was not willing to risk a power unit failure so took a 10 place grid penalty in Turkey, but it was seemingly open to gambling on the endurance of the Pirelli intermediates…

A few laps later, and the sensible decision was taken. That doesn’t mean Hamilton couldn’t have finished third in that race, but it was unlikely without his stop. And the potential outcome if it went wrong was just not tolerable when it would have such a big say on the outcome of the championship.

“The whole season swings back and forth,” Wolff said. “We make mistakes together, we win together. We have had much bigger swings in the past with lost opportunities. And this one was a very, very close call, and we decided one thing and it went wrong.

“In the end we lost eight points to Red Bull with the grid penalty, whereas Red Bull last week were happy with a seven-point loss. So it’s going to be very tight until the end. DNFs are going to make a big difference and that was the consideration, and not three or four or five-point swings.”

Hamilton and Verstappen have finished first and second – in either order – on eight occasions so far this year, or half of the 16 races. It might well have been nine times but for the Spa debacle, but they regularly follow each other home.

On only four occasions has one outscored the other by double figures in points — both finished in Monaco, Austria and Hungary, while Silverstone doesn’t need revisiting — and that has ensured there are just six points between them with six rounds to go.

But we’re now into the cagey stages of the boxing match, where each knows they might be able to land a knockout blow but are less likely to throw a punch for fear of being on the receiving end of one.

Red Bull and Mercedes kindly provided us with consecutive races where they took power unit penalties, and therefore an easy comparison over the two rounds. Verstappen ‘lost’ seven points compared to Hamilton in Russia — where they were again one-two — and Hamilton ‘lost’ eight to Verstappen in Turkey.

Hamilton left Istanbul frustrated with a fifth-place result despite being in contention for a podium at one point. Charles Coates/Motorsport Images

Pretty much as you were, and that’s an outcome both are happy with right now. Mercedes had a chance to turn that net deficit of one point over the two races into a gain of three if Hamilton had been able to hold on in third, but the potential of it all going spectacularly wrong meant that bet was eventually cashed in for lesser returns.

“If you look at Esteban (Ocon), he got overtaken by Lance (Stroll) about five or six laps from the end and finished 17 seconds behind them, and that’s how quickly you fall off,” Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said of the risks associated with not stopping. “That’s what was in our minds. It’s not just, ‘can we keep going at this pace’.

“Esteban lost a further two seconds in that short run to the finish, and that’s where it goes wrong. We’ll go through it and we’ll double check, but we’re fairly certain that he would have lost those two places, if not been at risk of more.

“Lewis is always looking at what’s ahead of him, what’s the most he can get. He’s deeply invested in this championship, and we wouldn’t really expect anything other than frustration at a P5 where at one point we thought we might be able to hang on. But we’ll go through that. We’ve had a debrief with him, and now he understands the reasons.

“I think it’s just the kind of frustration from him (because) at times in that race he thought he was going to be on the podium, and that didn’t come true. I think there’s a bit of disappointment in that, but if we look at how we operated, it was sensible. And in a championship battle there’s a point where you’ve got to stop taking risks and cut your losses.

“Although those decisions are difficult to do, you’ve got to be strong and you’ve got to take them.”

Cut your losses – but do not lose.