The first third of the epic Hungarian Grand Prix was pure chaos: tricky conditions, an ever-evolving track, and a slew of safety cars gave even the most hardened strategist a rather painful headache. Most teams opted for a set of the soft compound option tyres when they were forced into the pits as the track dried during the first safety car, but McLaren and Williams both tried something different - and wrecked their chances of success in the process.
It wasn't trying something different that ruined the British teams' races, however. If anything, they should be commended for showing a bit of bravery. After all, the surest way to make big gains on strategy is to go against the grain and run counter to your rivals. But both outfits forgot the golden rule: split your strategies.
During the first safety car period, McLaren kept both of their drivers on intermediate tyres, convinced that more rain was coming. Kevin Magnussen remained on his worn inters, while Jenson Button stopped for some fresh ones, thus putting their cars at the front with wet-weather tyres. Of course, no more rain came, sending both drivers to the back after having to pit under racing conditions.
Williams, on the other hand, did follow the initial trend and fitted soft tyres. However, both drivers then took the harder prime tyres for their third stint, while most rivals stuck with the quicker softs. The thinking behind this call was solid: send the cars out on the slower but more durable rubber, then whatever they lose in lap time will be made up in track position and not having to pit again. However, seemingly known to everyone but Williams, the prime tyres were lasting just as long as the options, so all they achieved was being off the pace for the stint.
Most gutting for Williams will be the fact that it could have paid off if they'd kept the faith with the harder tyres. Lewis Hamilton used that strategy to come home third, and knocking the 25s off it takes to pit would have put Felipe Massa into the heart of the podium fight and Valtteri Bottas in fifth.
Ultimately, Williams’ strategy gamble hurt them less. Bottas was robbed of his chance to turn third on the grid into another podium finish and came home eighth, but Massa was able to sneak into fifth. Button, though, was the only McLaren driver to recover, coming home for a sole point in 10th place.
The decision from the pit wall to dedicate both cars to the same gamble is a timely reminder about the importance of splitting strategies. It is a high-risk roll of the dice, and of course it can bring handsome rewards. It can put drivers into an incredible position – Marcus Winkelhock leading the 2007 German Grand Prix, anyone? – but at the same time it can backfire massively. If you have two cars then by all means gamble with one of them, but keep one on an orthodox strategy. That way you can have room for huge gains while at the same time protecting yourself incase the gamble was the wrong one.
Unfortunately, McLaren and Williams forgot this. By putting all their eggs in one basket, both teams robbed themselves of a chance of higher glory.