British GP: Mercedes' fake pit stop: breaking the rules or fun tactic?
"You guys think you can fool us, ha, ha, ha."
Williams development driver Susie Wolff sent these mocking words to her husband (and Mercedes motorsport boss) Toto Wolff during Sunday's British Grand Prix.
The playful text message was fired off after Mercedes' failed attempt to sell Williams 'a dummy' early in the race, gathering their mechanics in the pit lane for a pit stop that would never happen, in the hope Williams would panic and call their drivers in to do the same.
It was an attempt to unsettle Williams, but was it wily tactics or rank bad sportsmanship?
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Arguably the most exciting race of the season got off to a stunning start as Williams driver Felipe Massa accelerated past pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and the sister Mercedes of Nico Rosberg to take an early lead.
A few laps later there was another twist when, after the appearance of the safety car, Hamilton found himself behind the second Williams of Valtteri Bottas after a failed attempt to pass Massa at the restart.
Mercedes, clearly rattled, needed to regain the initiative so they tried to catch out their rivals.
On lap 14, Mercedes mechanics rushed out to prepare for a pit stop, with the intention of scaring Williams into calling their drivers in earlier than planned in response.
Williams, though, did not blink.
"It was a bit of a game that didn't work," conceded Wolff.
"We know Williams has difficulty making the tyres last and we knew that taking an early pit stop might trigger them into a pit stop that would cause them problems.
"At least it was a bit of entertainment."
The fact that Williams did not take the bait ultimately mattered little as Hamilton fought back to secure a superb victory, while Massa and Bottas both struggled in the rain that fell later in the race, coming home fourth and fifth.
"You have to try and out-think them"
"It was a dummy run, trying to force Williams," BBC pundit David Coulthard said in the race commentary. "I think Williams chief technical officer Pat Symonds acknowledged there is a regulation. I don't quite know, I'd need to check.
"From a safety point of view you are not supposed to have mechanics out there just in case other cars are around.
"They are not systematically allowed to keep dummying to try and force the hand of others."
Symonds was bemused by Mercedes' antics.
"You have to try and out-think them," he said. "I think coming out in the pit lane is against the rules if it is not a genuine call. We didn't fall for that one."
How social media reacted
What does the rulebook say?
Formula 1's sporting regulations are a little vague on this subject, so it may be a stretch to say Mercedes broke a hard-and-fast rule.
Here's the rule in question:
- 23.11 Team personnel are only allowed in the pit lane immediately before they are required to work on a car and must withdraw as soon as the work is complete.
Is it possible to hang a penalty on this, especially as it's so hard to prove intent? It certainly appears to be a grey area and one open to interpretation by the race stewards.
It would seem Mercedes gambled and got lucky.
But surely this sort of thing has always gone on?
Of course it has. It's all in the game.
Two teams battling for victory in one of the most pressured environments in world sport? You'd be more surprised if these guys didn't push the boundaries of what's legal every now and then.
Ferrari and McLaren routinely engaged in such tactics during their epic battles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to take just one example.
It was a part of the game then, it is part of the game now.
Formula 1 would be a duller place without such moments, would it not?