James Allen Strategy Reports
Strategy Reports After Each Formula 1 Race
Get the latest news and analysis from each race provided by Formula 1 insider James Allen.
Analysis: Lots of pointers for 2018 from on track decisions in Abu Dhabi 2017
The 2017 season finale was not as high on drama and tension as last year’s edition, with the drivers and constructors’ championships both decided.
But there were some interesting cameos and decisions taken during the race in the duels at the front of the field, in the middle and at the back.
As has become the custom in 2017 – and which Pirelli has taken steps to avoid next year – the hardest of the three tyre compounds (Soft) did not get used in Abu Dhabi.
Instead it was possible to do the race on a single stop strategy from ultra soft to supersoft; or the other way around on a mirror strategy with the supersoft in the opening stint. Last year, in contrast, it was a two-stop strategy. For 2017 two stops was up to 8 seconds slower than a one-stop.
Overtaking is difficult at Yas Marina and although there was little passing at the front of the field, there was plenty of close racing in midfield and at the rear, using the two consecutive DRS zones on the lap.
Strategy-wise the alternative to overtaking was to try the undercut, which means pitting a lap before the car ahead and using the new tyre advantage to take the place when he stops. This weekend the gap required to achieve it was around 1.5 seconds, although in practice there were very few successful attempts as some teams that tried it suffered with a slow pit stop.
The overcut, whereby you stay out longer and build an offset, so you can attack at the end on fresher tyres, is a tactic we have seen many times this season and which has been effective in some places, was not effective here.
Esteban Ocon, for example, was locked in a battle with Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg and built a huge offset of 15 laps, but lost too much time before the stop and was only able to close down the gap in the second stint from 11 seconds down to 6 seconds at the flag.
The tyres were very consistent and had low degradation, it was possible to stop anywhere from Lap 10 to Lap 30. Next year’s range of tyres will prevent this happening, as the tyres move a step softer and the steps between compounds and the range of compounds is improved.
Ferrari wasn’t able to compete with Mercedes in Yas Marina, which left a few people scratching their heads after their competitiveness in Brazil, but a disappointing performance on the ultrasoft tyres and then the need to manage the fuel in the second stint, despite Vettel feeling more competitive on the supersoft, led to a gap to Mercedes at the finish of 19 seconds.
On ultra soft he dropped five seconds in 22 laps, on the supersoft he dropped a further 15 seconds.
Max Verstappen tried the undercut on Kimi Raikkonen, but despite the fastest pit stop of the race, it didn’t come off.
In the midfield there was more going on.
Alonso and Massa had another great battle over ninth place where Alonso attempted the undercut on Lap 21 after following Massa for the opening stint. He would have pulled it off most likely, had the McLaren team not had a slow stop, over one second slower than Massa’s a lap later.
Alonso came out behind Massa but was able to use the warm up slope advantage on the supersoft tyres to attack and pass on Massa’s out lap from the pits.
It was Massa’s final Grand Prix and appropriate that he should spend it sparring with his former Ferrari team mate Alonso. The pair have battled often in 2017 and the point of note is how much better the McLaren Honda package seemed to be in the closing stages of the season, which Toro Rosso can take encouragement from in terms of engine supply next season and McLaren can take encouragement from in chassis terms.
There was also a fascinating battle between the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg and the two Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.
Hulkenberg started ahead on the grid in 7th place, but after light contact at the start, he only retained the position a few turns later by cutting the corner. Perez was furious and felt Hulkenberg should have given the place back but he didn’t and the FIA Stewards gave him a five second time penalty at his pit stop.
He should really have been behind Perez and with the added complication of having to use strategy to get the place back.
Instead he was able to finish ahead in 6th place, which gave the Renault team the points to move ahead of Toro Ross into 6th place in the Constructors’ Championship.
It was also a tactical signal from Renault to Force India, a team it aims to be beating next season with greater resources.
Apart from a certain ruthlessness about the way they played the aftermath of the corner cutting, Renault’s result here also revealed a willingness to take risks. Hulkenberg had been given only six laps in the race on which he could maximise the engine modes, causing damage to the engine. Instead, to enforce their advantage and make it stick despite the five-second penalty, they allowed Hulkenberg double that number of “maximum attack” laps.
Force India were aggressive too; they pulled the trigger on the early stop on Lap 16, looking to undercut Hulkenberg, knowing that he would have to pit to cover the move and then serve his penalty.
He did so, but having hammered his engine in the run-up to this period in anticipation of the stop and on his in-lap, he had sufficient margin, despite the extra five seconds lost at the stop, to retain track position.
Force India tried the pincer mover, with one driver under cutting and the other one overcutting, but Ocon’s huge tyre offset didn’t bring any kind of competitive advantage, unlike other races we have seen this year where that tactic most certainly worked.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History & Tyre Usage Charts – Courtesy Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge
Look at the gulf in pace between the top three teams and the midfield as 2017 comes to an end. That gap will be closely monitored at the start of 2017 to see if the midfield teams like Renault, Force India and McLaren in particular have been able to close the gap.
Analysis: How Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo lit up Brazilian F1 Grand Prix
With the championship already decided there was a certain sense of ‘nothing to lose’ about the decision-making running through the penultimate race of the season in Brazil.
The combination of the tyre choices and the conditions at Interlagos meant that this looked like it could be a race with few strategic variations and limited scope for an undercut tactic at the pit stops.
However with two fast cars out of position after Lewis Hamilton crashed in qualifying and Daniel Ricciardo suffered a ten place grid penalty, the race took on a different complexion.
A Safety Car at the right moment, around Lap 18-20 might have given Hamilton the chance to win the race, but as it turned out the Safety Car was deployed far earlier than that and fourth was the best he could manage.
The two main tyres Pirelli had brought for Interlagos were the supersoft and the soft and Friday’s practice running showed that it would be possible to do the race with just one stop as the degradation was very low, like in the Bridgestone tyre days in the 2000s.
However it also became clear from Friday that the best order for the tyres was soft first, when the cars were heavy on fuel and then supersoft at the end, as the track ramped up in grip. The other way around – the standard format for the Top ten qualifiers – was tricky for the supersofts, which needed management against overheating.
Knowing this and also mindful that he had a ten place penalty to serve, which would mean him starting around P14/15, Ricciardo opted to qualify on the softs and do the mirror strategy to the Top 10, who would all be starting on supersofts. Sadly he wasn’t able to fully capitalise as he had to be careful with running the engine too hard.
Hamilton, had no such concerns in the race. He had crashed on his first flying lap in qualifying and the decision was made to fit a new engine, on which he could run at maximum mode for much of the race and to start from the pit lane.
Clearly starting on the softs was the best strategy for him and he would be able to use the superior power of the engine to overtake cars.
On race day the weather was hotter than in practice; the track was 60 degrees and this meant that the tyres overheated and suffered wear, but still not any meaningful degradation (drop off in lap time performance).
What this meant was that the undercut would be difficult to achieve (pitting before your rival ahead and then using the new tyre pace to jump him when he stops a lap later). To make that really work, you need the degradation to be meaningful between a old tyre and a new, so you can make the move when you are within two seconds of the car in front.
In Interlagos the undercut margin was only around 0.8 to 1 second, which means that you have to be right behind to have any chance.
This in turn put the emphasis on the start and the opening lap as the place to make up positions. And when you have that situation, you have a strong likelihood of a collision and an early Safety Car, which is what we got.
Ferrari wins, Bottas loses
Valtteri Bottas had the pole position, but failed to convert it into a win because he lost the start. But it wasn’t the whole story.
He still had two more chances to get the lead back from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. One was at the restart after the Safety Car, the other was at the pit stops, if he could get close enough for the undercut.
He wasn’t able to challenge at the restart, as Vettel played a cat and mouse game with him before accelerating, like Hamilton had done with him in Baku. So it was all about getting close enough from Lap 26 onwards to have a go at the stops. From this point onwards the softs would be able to make it to the end of the race without too much difficulty.
Mercedes moved Bottas into position and pulled the trigger on Lap 27, but Bottas came into his pit box a fraction too hot and the team lost 3/10ths of a second adjusting position to remove the wheels.
When the leader Vettel came in a lap later to cover the move, his stop was normal and he came out approximately 3/10ths of a second in front.
Bottas would not have been ahead with a normal stop, but Vettel would certainly have been coming out into a drag race with him down to Turn 4. In the end it was more comfortable than that for Vettel.
Hamilton and Ricciardo light up Interlagos.
Ricciardo did a fine job to race from 14th on the grid to 6th at the flag on his mirror strategy. Although clocked at 338km/h with DRS and a tow on one lap, he did not enjoy the consistently enormous straight line speed advantage that Hamilton had with a new spec engine – sometimes as much as 25km/h faster on the straight than the cars he was passing – so it took longer to make progress. He wasn’t helped by contact on the opening lap, which dropped him down to 17th and last place behind the Safety Car.
The accidents at the start helped Hamilton’s cause, boosting him to 14th place from 20th, but the Safety Car didn’t help him particularly.
That’s because when he was racing he was able to pick off one car every lap – and two per lap in the early stages.
So the five laps behind the Safety Car meant five fewer opportunities to overtake in the early stages and gain ground.
Once he got to the front – after the leaders had pitted – his pace was strong, but once he pitted and came out on new tyres in clear air on Lap 44, as the graph below shows, Hamilton’s thicker trace is clearly dipping down consistently into lap times that are a second faster than the lead cars. (Verstappen’s outlier of a fastest lap was at the end of the race on supersoft tyres)
With low tyre degradation and a clear track ahead as he was leading after the front runners pitted, Mercedes extended Hamilton’s stint by seven laps over the original plan to Lap 44. He mounted an attack on Raikkonen at the end, but had lost 1.5 seconds passing Stroll (see Lap 48 on table above) and with tyres that were worn, he didn’t quite have enough impetus to make a pass for a podium.
Could Perez and Force India have done anything to get Massa and Alonso?
Force India had a disappointing afternoon by their own high standards. Esteban Ocon’s long finishing streak came to an end due to a collision at the start with Romain Grosjean. That gave him his first retirement in F1 after a season and a half!
Sergio Perez started fifth on the grid, but finished ninth after losing out at the start to Massa and Alonso. This tight midfield battle was a case study for the problem with the undercut. As the pit stop window opened on Lap 26, Alonso was one second behind Massa and Perez was one second behind Alonso.
That was close enough to try an undercut but neither McLaren nor Force India tried it. Perez would have benefitted most from it as he was struggling to pass two cars, with Alonso able to get DRS from following Massa ahead.
Massa had the luxury of pitting first on Lap 27 with no undercut attempt, then Alonso pitted and inevitably came out behind him. Perez and Force India, having missed the opportunity, decided to extend the stint and then try to make it up later on fresher tyres. He extended by seven laps, but lost too much time during that period and wasn’t able to get the benefit at the end. They crossed the line together in the same order in which they had raced.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race history and Tyre Usage charts, kindly supplied by Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge
Analysis: Setting off a chain reaction – how to make things happen in F1 races
Mexico is a great event, with huge crowds, but it’s turning out to be a place for strange races, due to the unique circumstances of the altitude, which impacts the way teams prepare and run the cars and constrains overtaking.
Another decisive factor at his stage of the season is the ‘nothing to lose’ mentality and how that collides with teams who still have something to lose. This was one of the triggers behind what happened in Singapore and it happened again at the start in Mexico.
With the championship more or less decided before the race and with most teams at this stage now only racing one or two other competitors, the decision making has a different edge.
Teams like Red Bull with Max Verstappen have nothing to lose from being aggressive, while teams like Renault need to look ahead at how they can gain places and points, rather than look backwards at how they can defend a position.
The drivers championship is now decided and Force India has confirmed its fourth place in the Constructors’ table so we are likely to see most of the cars at the front going for it in the last two races because now they all have nothing to lose.
This was a race where the Virtual Safety Car made a decisive appearance, allowing drivers who had not stopped to get a cheap pit stop and consolidate their positions, reducing the threat from behind, so drivers like Lance Stroll and Kevin Magnussen really benefitted from that.
Mexico is rather like Sochi in that it is a low energy circuit, so the tyres last a long time, even the ultra softs, which went to half distance. At the same time, the track is difficult to overtake on because it is hard to get close to the car in front without temperatures soaring. The Drag Reduction System to aid overtaking has less effect at altitude because the air is thinner and the cars are going faster on the straights for the same reason.
For most teams the clear strategy for the race was one stop with ultrasofts to around Lap 30 and then supersofts. However, the key was staying out of traffic, which could cost 3/10ths of a second per lap due to cooling limitations on the car. So there was an argument for stopping early and using soft tyres if you could run in clear air, rather than run on supersofts in traffic.
Mexico is a track where few cars get to run at their fastest strategy.
Ferrari had the fastest car in Mexico and, like Singapore, this was a race Sebastian Vettel should have won.
He took pole position, but the start was always going to be high risk with almost 900metres drag down to Turn 1, like Sochi, it’s easy for the pole sitter to be slipstreamed and with Max Verstappen having nothing to lose, Vettel came off worse and even damaged his car and Lewis Hamilton’s in secondary contact. They dropped to the back.
Kimi Raikkonen lost ground too, slipping to 6th in the first stint behind Ocon, Hulkenberg and Perez.
Ferrari needed to break this train of cars up for two reasons; to get Raikkonen ahead of these midfield cars and also to create spaces so Vettel’s path through the field would be clearer.
During Lap 18 Raikkonen was told to pit, a very early and aggressive move, then told to do the opposite of what Perez did. Force India, thinking more of defending at this point than moving forward, pitted Perez to cover Ferrari but Raikkonen continued and Perez carried on. This was a problem for Perez because he came out into traffic behind Magnussen, which was avoidable. And it was not until Lap 30 that he managed to pass him.
If they had allowed Raikkonen to stop, for softs, he would probably have had a slow warm up on the tyre and Perez could have pitted a lap later for supersofts to cover him. Force India clearly doubted whether the supersoft would reach the end of the race, but it turned out that they would have done.
But Perez’ move triggered Renault into a reaction with Hulkenberg, at this stage Renault’s only remaining car in the race. If Force India didn’t need to stop on Lap 18 then Renault certainly didn’t need to stop with Hulkenberg on Lap 19 because it put him out into traffic behind Magnussen, instead of travelling quickly in a gap behind Ocon.
And there was a further negative knock on effect of sitting in traffic; it meant that his power unit overheated and ultimately he retired the car on Lap 25.
Hulkenberg’s stop in turn triggered Force India into pitting Ocon from fourth. Arguably, this too wasn’t necessary; with the performance deltas between cars reduced by the anomalies of racing at altitude, Ocon would have been able to hold Raikkonen in all likelihood and then as it turned out, the Virtual Safety Car gave them all a cheap pit stop on Lap 32, so Ocon might have had his first podium.
Raikkonen continued and was able to take advantage of the Virtual Safety Car to make his stop and consolidate his position. The only odd thing about Raikkonen’s race was that he fitted the soft tyre rather than the supersoft. That was because he didn’t have a new set of supersofts. Ferrari had chosen to use it in Q1 and to save a set of ulrasofts for the race.
This was presumably in case of a situation of having a chance to attack at the end of the race on a two stop, but it seemed strange as al the indicators were that a one stop race with ultrasoft then supersoft would be the default.
Last year Marcus Ericsson came close to scoring in Mexico with a bold strategy that saw him pit on Lap 1 and then run to the finish on a single set of tyres.
This strategy relied on the fact that in the midfield, the pace differences between cars were minimized by the traffic and the difficulty of overtaking.
They did a variant on that strategy this year, pitting one car early (Wehrlein) and the other one late (Ericsson). This put them in the position where they were a pit stop apart in time so rivals like Stoffel Vandoorne couldn’t get them because if he tried to undercut Ericsson he would come out behind Wehrlein and get held up. It was working quite well until the Virtual Safety Car, which neutralizes such strategies. Ericsson’s car later failed in the race anyway, but it was interesting to see a team trying something different at the back of the field.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli
RACE HISTORY AND TYRE USAGE CHARTS
Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – Click to Enlarge
A graphic representation of the Race History in terms of the lap times of each car. It shows the relative pace of the cars and the gaps between them in the race. Upward curve is good pace, downward curve demonstrates slower pace. Sudden drop is a pit stop.
Look at how the Perez/Hulkenberg/Raikkonen/Ocon battle resolves itself with a sequence of stops. Stroll’s race is a good example of riding your luck after a strong start and focusing on track position. He lucked in with the Virtual Safety Car at the right moment when he needed to stop, but you have to be in it to win it!
Perez stops a second time to see if he can catch Stroll on fresh tyres, but the teenager judges it well for another strong result in 6th.
Analysis: How Verstappen shook the tree, why Bottas faced more F1 misery in Austin
Red Bull have come on strongly late in the season after a slow start, as happened last year and they increasingly play a prominent role in race outcomes.
And as they are not involved in the championship fight they can try aggressive disruption strategies on the others to try to force them into doing things they don’t want to do on strategy.
We saw that vividly from Max Verstappen in Austin as he made a surprise second stop on Lap 37 to shake the tree.
Here we will analyse the strategy and why Ferrari and Mercedes reacted as they did.
Pirelli had brought the ultra soft tyres to Austin, a good step more aggressive than previous years, where the range had included the mediums. But with the strategies having been disappointingly binary this year, rather than spread across the three compounds available, the Italian marque was trying to stimulate more variety with its selection.
It worked in Austin and all three compounds were used in the race.
After the practice running, which was mostly held in dry conditions, it looked like a finely balanced decision between a one and two stop race.
Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo had qualified strongly in fourth and had an aggressive armoury of tyres with two new sets of supersofts available for the race, hinting at a flat out two stopper. The Australian did pull that trigger on race day, but an engine failure meant we never got to see the outcome.
Mercedes had done their usual tactic and kept all options open with one new set of supersofts in addition to new softs, while Ferrari had no new sets of supersofts for the race; they had installed a set in FP3, which was next to new, however.
A violent storm on race morning dumped huge amounts of water onto the track and washed away all the rubber that had been laid over the weekend, raising the spectre of two stops being a sensible plan.
The key to the race, then, would be how hot the temperatures might get during the race as to how much degradation that would cause and whether that might tip it towards a two stop race. It was cooler on Sunday than on Saturday and that tipped the balance away from Ferrari, towards Mercedes and played a hand in deciding the race in Hamilton’s favour rather than Vettel’s.
Another factor in the strategy planning was the power of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) this weekend, which was worth 0.7s on the main straight. So if a car could get close enough into the turn before the straight, an overtake was certainly possible.
And we also saw it give the car behind the ability to get close and then attack in the sequence of corners that followed. This became the default for many drivers during the race and led to many overtakes in the final sector of the lap.
Max Verstappen had a stunning race, after taking a grid penalty for replacing his engine for the new specification higher-performing Renault. He was targeting the podium from 16th on the grid and it needed something special from the strategists as well as from the driver.
Verstappen played his part with some excellent overtakes, but the masterstroke from the strategist was to pull Verstappen in on Lap 37 for supersoft tyres. This disrupted the battle ahead with Vettel in second place, leading Bottas and Raikkonen at that time.
Red Bull could make the stop because there was no threat from behind, Ocon was 50 seconds away, so Verstappen could use fresh supersoft tyres on a clear track to hunt down the leading cars that at that stage were already struggling on the soft tyres, with 19 laps to the finish. Vettel and Bottas in particular both looked to be in trouble, Raikkonen’s tyres were in good shape.
Red Bull was agitating, hoping to get Ferrari or Mercedes to cover the stop. But the reality was that once he made it, both Bottas and Raikkonen woujd have lost a place if they stopped on the following lap.
Only Vettel had enough margin to cover the move. He had been talking on the radio about a Plan B anyway, which was a second stop. So it was logical for him to be the only one to cover Verstappen.
As Bottas and Raikkonen were already compromised by the move, the so-called number two drivers were left out to block Verstappen’s progress. For Bottas he was also going to be called on to block Vettel as he came back through.
It made for a hard afternoon for the German to fight his way back through to second place, but he managed it. Given that Verstappen only caught Raikkonen on the last lap you could argue that Vettel’s extra stop was unnecessary, but as he had been complaining about the soft tyres anyway it made sense.
Verstappen made up 18 seconds in 19 laps and caught Raikkonen because the Finn was fuel saving in the closing stages. We saw that with Vettel in Malaysia, towards the end of the race, so Ferrari has had some difficulties since the new version of the engine was introduced in getting the starting fuel level right.
Mercedes had a 9 second margin with Lewis Hamilton and with Bottas as a buffer, they did not feel the need to cover Verstappen and Vettel’s move.
Valtteri Bottas celebrated Mercedes’ fourth consecutive constructors’ championship with the rest of the team, but his dream switch to the strongest team in F1 currently has not been going smoothly lately.
He has used the world ‘struggling’ frequently of late and in Austin he missed out on a podium on a day when his team mate managed to dominate the race.
Bottas qualified third and held that position through the round of pit stops which put the front runners onto soft tyres and ostensibly a one stop race.
By Lap 35 it was clear that Bottas and Vettel were struggling with the tyres and considering switching to a two-stop plan. At this point Verstappen had not stopped.
The consideration they had was that had Mercedes pulled the trigger it would have amounted to an undercut attempt on Vettel, who would have been able to cover it the next lap. So in terms of a chance to move forward it was limited in scope. But what about as a defensive play against cars behind? It was a question of whether they could hold up Raikkinen on the same tyres.
They believed they could, especially with Raikkonen in fuel saving mode, but they were wrong. Raikkonen passed Bottas on Lap 42 and after Vettel came through on fresh tyres and with Verstappen set to pass him as well, Bottas made a late stop.
With a huge gap back to Ocon there was nothing to lose by doing this. But by not following the initial instinct to stop, what would have been a podium ended up a fifth place and more dejection for Bottas.
Sainz and Ocon shine.
Carlos Sainz finished sixth in Austin in 2015, although he was later demoted to seventh for a pit lane speeding penalty. Last year he got his sixth place and this year, on his debut with Renault, so driving an unfamiliar car, he bagged seventh, behind Estaban Ocon; a fantastic result.
In this he was helped by the latest instalment of the Force India driver feud, whereby Sergio Perez was again requesting to be allowed through past his team mate. He was told that Ocon was “managing his pace” to the end of the race on the soft tyres, so it was not the case that Perez was faster. The team was unwilling to swap the cars because they felt it would not change the finishing result and points haul, as in Japan. But unlike the last race, they were wrong, because Sainz cruised up behind Perez and passed him, dropping the Mexican to 8th, where he finished.
Felipe Massa started the race in 10th place, due to other drivers’ grid penalties and was able to start on supersoft tyres and run a long first stint. He pitted on Lap 29 onto ultrasoft tyres, leaving 26 laps to the finish. It was an unusual strategy and it netted him a ninth place after he passed Kvyat at the end of the race. But he was never on the pace of Sainz and the Force India cars ahead.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race History Chart
Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge
Showing the gaps between the cars and the relative pace. An upward line is good pace, a descending line is poor pace.
Look at Bottas’s pace (blue dotted line) in comparison with Hamilton. Had he stopped on Lap 35 or 36 he would not have been passed by Verstappen and would probably have been able to pass Raikkonen for third place in the closing stages to secure a podium.
Insight: How Red Bull forced Mercedes’ hand in tense F1 tactical battle
It is easy for fans to assume that a one-stop race is straightforward for all teams concerned, but in the case of the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix, nothing could be further from the truth.
The teams went into the race with four laps of data on which to base key strategic decisions around 25 lap stints.
Suzuka is a track to be aggressive on, it often brings results and Red Bull has benefitted from that many times down the years.
We saw Red Bull taking lots of risks to try to win the race with Max Verstappen and he almost succeeded, forcing Mercedes into a sub-optimal strategy with Lewis Hamilton. But the Englishman managed to hold on, just, to win the race.
Further back we will look at how two midfield teams imposed team orders, refusing drivers’ requests to switch the cars, how Valtteri Bottas’ role as a rear gunner for Hamilton cost him a podium and whether the fast-starting Sebastian Vettel could have won the race if he had not suffered power loss due to a spark plug failure.
With very limited dry running before the race, teams had little data to work on for race strategy planning. The soft and supersoft tyres would be the main sets and Vettel opined that the lack of data didn’t matter too much as they know the tyres well by now. But memories of Silverstone where Vettel’s blistered front tyre failed due to going on too long were still vivid in people’s minds.
The expectation was that this would be a one-stop race, but there was quite a set of unknowns and the Plan B of a switch to two stops was ready to be deployed.
The uncertainty about what to do creates a dilemma for teams; because the tyres are a bit too resilient to be ideal this year (last year one stoppers used medium and hard tyres!) teams default to the minimum stop solution, in this case one stop.
But it leads to two things: lots of risk taking at the start, as it’s one of few opportunities to make up places and also it leads to a ‘group mentality’, which means making copycat moves.
Underlying these one-stop races this year is a great tension; what to do if a rival attacks with an early stop on Lap 16? Do you cover it or copy the move?
Two stop strategies create gaps in the traffic, while one-stop races create doubt, especially for the drivers. This is why you often hear Lewis Hamilton questioning a strategy decision; he’s picking up on that mood of uncertainty. What swung it towards one stop this year was the Virtual Safety Car periods, which gave the tyres a breather.
Last year in Suzuka everyone finished and there were no VSCs. But this year with faster cars it was clear that the track punished mistakes, which is as it should be in F1.
So against that backdrop of tension and doubt, a team like Red Bull, with nothing to lose in the drivers’ championship can afford to take big risks.
Verstappen won in Malaysia by making an aggressive overtaking move for the lead on Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton respects Verstappen, you can tell. And he respected him even more after that, even though he was dealing with a de-rate problem on his engine at the time.
So when the Dutchman forced his way past team mate Daniel Ricciardo at the start at Suzuka on Sunday, he was in the fight for the win and Red Bull was on a war footing.
On the first set of supersoft tyres, he had similar pace to Hamilton, but lost the front tyres as the stint evolved and struggled to keep the gap. But team boss Christian Horner had predicted that Verstappen would have a say in the final part of the race on the soft tyres and so it proved.
Red Bull took a huge risk on the timing of Verstappen’s stop; Raikkonen had started the race on soft tyres and was coming through the field as cars on supersofts peeled into the pits. Verstappen was pulled in on Lap 21, in order to provoke Mercedes into stopping Hamilton to cover.
Verstappen exited the pits only just ahead of Raikkonen. This forced Verstappen to push the tyres on the outlap, which may have cost him later in the race.
Hamilton had to stop the following lap, leaving 31 laps to go to the flag. His supersofts still had life in them; in a race where he was not under pressure he would have gone on to Lap 26, which would have given a more even balance to the stints.
Mercedes were under pressure, but had another piece to play in the chess game; Valtteri Bottas was on a similar strategy to Raikkonen having taken a five-place grid penalty. He was left out for a couple of laps once Hamilton had passed him on Lap 28, to hold Verstappen, in order to create a breathing space for Hamilton.
The judgement now was how long to leave Bottas out in order for his new supersoft tyres to be in perfect shape for attacking Ricciardo at the end for the podium. The problem for Bottas is that he lost two seconds of race time in the process of letting Hamilton through and spent two extra laps in the 1m35s compared to the 1m 33s he was able to do on supersofts after his stop.
The consequence was that he didn’t have quite enough time on the supersoft tyre set to catch Ricciardo.
Raikkonen was a distant 5th and didn’t seem to have the underlying pace in the car that we have seen of late from Ferrari. It wasn’t fuel and it wasn’t that the engine was turned down particularly after the recent reliability issues.
In Malaysia one could say with some certainty that had Raikkonen or Vettel had a clean weekend they could have won the race. In Suzuka that is less clear-cut, judging by the pace deficit Raikkonen had to Hamilton coming through the field.
Both Force India and Haas F1 teams imposed team orders on their drivers, refusing requests from the supposedly senior driver in each team to be allowed through. Both teams got away with it because of other drivers’ outcomes, so there was no controversy, but it is worth examining.
Force India had warned their drivers that they would not tolerate any more collisions; Esteban Ocon had a better qualifying and a better start than his teammate and was a contender in the early stages. Perez caught him and requested to be allowed to pass. The team refused to allow it, but in this case the result would not have changed if they had done so. And so Perez was able to accept the decision.
At Haas it was more finely balanced. There was a queue of cars behind eighth placed Felipe Massa, who was struggling on his tyres. The danger man for Haas was Nico Hulkenberg, who had run an extremely long first stint on softs and who stopped on Lap 38 for supersofts. He would be catching quickly and had Massa’s position in his sights.
Romain Grosjean was on tyres that were four laps fresher than team mate Kevin Magnussen’s and he wanted to be allowed through to attack Massa.
The team declined to swap. Fortunately for them Hulkenberg had to retire soon afterwards with his DRS wing stuck open and both Magnussen and Grosjean cleared Massa for a decent afternoon’s work for Haas in 8th and 9th places.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History and Tyre usage charts – courtesy Williams Martini Racing
Intended to show the relative performance of the cars and the gasp between them. Upward curve is positive. Lap time and gaps down the vertical axis, lap number on the horizontal.
Look at the pace of Raikkonen in the second stint compared to Bottas on the same strategy or Hamilton who is managing his tyres.
Look also at how close Verstappen comes to getting stuck behind Raikkonen on Lap 22, which would have blown his challenge for the win.
After the final VSC Hamilton’s pace declines steeply as his tyres are on the limit, but he holds on.
Why Vettel’s challenge faded and how Mercedes showed their hand on Bottas F1 role
The Malaysian Grand Prix went out in style with an entertaining race featuring a win for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and championship contender Sebastian Vettel charging through the field from the back of the grid after a power unit problem in qualifying.
Strategy wise, this was a one stop race, but there were some very interesting game plays at work in a competitive midfield. Even more interestingly, Mercedes showed its hand on how Valtteri Bottas will be deployed as a number two driver to help Lewis Hamilton’s quest for the drivers’ crown.
He was used in that role here in Malaysia to block Vettel at the cost of his own finishing position, as we shall see.
Ferrari had the pace to win the race, but neither Vettel nor Raikkonen could capitalise as the Finn failed to start, also due to power unit issues.
The Sepang track was resurfaced for last year’s race and was smoother than for this year’s race, which affected calculations on tyre performance and also fuel consumption for the race. Friday practice did not give good information as the session had to be stopped due to an incident, so the long runs were truncated and inconclusive.
From the evidence available pre-race, the long run pace of Vettel and Raikkonen was closely matched, with the Red Bulls a step behind and Mercedes clearly struggling with overheating the supersoft tyres.
On softs Mercedes were a bit stronger, but still slow. Vettel was again the pace setter but Verstappen matched him in the Red Bull. So the indicators were there for a strong weekend for Verstappen.
Vettel had a very strong race from the back of the grid. He started on the soft tyres, which was what everyone expected. Most strategists had modelled his race and had him finishing fourth, catching Ricciardo at the end. Whether he would be able to pass him was a moot point. His supersoft tyres against Ricciardo’s softs would give him around 0.8s advantage and the Ferrari had a few tenths in it as well.
As the race transpired, Vettel had some luck; the midfield runners cleared out of his way as he caught them by pitting to cover each other, giving him a clear pathway through. He did catch Ricciardo and had one major lunge at trying to pass.
But by that stage he had two things against him.
The first was that his stop lap was not ideal, due to Mercedes tactic of leaving Bottas out to block him. As Vettel caught the Finn for 4th place around lap 22, we were getting close to the pit stop window for the leaders who had started on supersofts. Ideally Vettel would want to stay out on his softs for a few laps more to pit into clear air and attack on the new supersofts at the end. This strategy works very well sometimes if there is a late Safety Car as it bunches up the field and the driver on the supersofts can attack the others at the restart.
Had there been a late Safety Car Vettel could have won the race.
Instead he had Bottas to contend with. Mercedes used Bottas to keep Hamilton out of reach; they pitted Hamilton on Lap 26 and got him out safely ahead.
Now if they were racing normally for position against Vettel they would have pitted the Finn and used the new soft tyre pace to hold position once Vettel stopped. Vettel would then have been forced to pass him on supersofts, which he probably would have done anyway as Bottas was 8/10ths off the pace.
But the reality was that, with the constructors’ title in the bag more or less, Mercedes’ focus is now on the Drivers’ Championship.
And so they left Bottas out there as long as it took before Vettel stopped on Lap 27 and undercut him. The undercut was inevitable, but what this tactic did was oblige Vettel to stop a few laps earlier than the optimum, giving him a longer than ideal final stint on the supersofts.
The other problem Vettel had when he caught Ricciardo is that he was running out of fuel. The teams have means of tracking what their competitors are doing and the other teams report that Vettel was having to lift and coast for up to 60 metres into some corners.
Ferrari had gone aggressive on the fuel load, but perhaps there was a slight miscalculation on the grip level and therefore the fuel consumption. Team radio messages also reveal the team asking Vettel to give them more fuel back via the lift-and-coast technique.
He also had some obstruction from Fernando Alonso which cost him time.
So he wasn’t able to mount the challenge on Ricciardo he had hoped for and finished fourth.
It was another terrific battle for positions in the midfield, with very strong work from Sergio Perez and his Force India team to turn a strong start – from 9th on the grid up to 6th on Lap 1 – into a 6th place finish. The same was true of Stoffel Vandoorne and McLaren who started seventh and finished seventh, having run as high as fifth in the opening laps, before Perez passed him.
Esteban Ocon started sixth but made contact with Felipe Massa in the opening corners and got a puncture. He was forced to pit on Lap two and from then on he was up against it. If you have a tangle in a multi-stop race there are things you can do to recover, but in a one stop race you are in trouble, unless you luck into a Safety Car.
It was impressive that he made a set of soft tyres last for 54 laps to the finish, but he should have been with Perez and Vandoorne.
Hulkenberg stopped on Lap 9, which was very early and he duly ran out of tyres before the end, needing to stop again, dropping from 11th to 16th.
There was a strange moment at Williams where Massa was pitted first, rather than Stroll who was ahead of him. This was because Massa was under greater threat from behind, but the net effect was to undercut Stroll on the fresh tyres, when the Canadian pitted a lap later.
As this had not been done for any underhand or political reasons, the team rectified its error and asked Massa to give the place back, which he duly did. The pair finished 8th and 9th.
How did that undercut happen? Track evolution dominates the early part of a Grand Prix and the teams are frantically modelling it for their decision-making around pitstops and tyre choice. It can be hard to see the undercut value sometimes and it’s a mixture of experience, data and even a bit of luck. Williams got it wrong this time.
Spare a thought for the Sauber engineering team after their network went down taking all the timing with it. They were having to work with stopwatches, TV pictures and a lap chart – the old fashioned way!
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY & TYRE USAGE GRAPH, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge
Look at the tell-tale droop on Vettel’s race trace (solid red) which shows how he had to back off at the end due to lack of fuel. Also note the period in the mid 20s when Vettel is held by Bottas allowing Hamilton to pit and retain position. Compare the way Hulkenberg’s tyres drop off a cliff after a very long second stint, compared with Ocon, who manages to keep them going to the end to salvage a point.
Singapore GP analysis: The secret of balancing risk and reward in F1
The tenth anniversary event at the Singapore Grand Prix brought its first wet race and created a whole new set of unknowns into a what is traditionally viewed as the most difficult race of the season for the race strategists.
With a 100% likelihood of a Safety Car in dry conditions, Singapore is always about managing the risk/reward profile when making decisions that will affect the race result. But this year with rain pouring down before the start of the race and the Race Control committing to a standing start (rather than a rolling start) the risk of an accident at Turn 1 increased significantly.
Here we will examine the risk/reward decisions taken by some teams and drivers, look at what went right for some and wrong for others, such as the Perez vs. Bottas Vs. Sainz battle, which was decided on strategy.
And we will explain what tactic Mercedes was trying to use in the final third of the race, which Lewis Hamilton was uncomfortable with carrying out.
And of course the risk/reward profile also applies to driving tactics, with Sebastian Vettel getting his risk profile all wrong by trying to block against Max Verstappen, who was not in the title fight with him and who therefore had nothing to lose in trying to win the hole-shot at the start.
Likewise Kimi Raikkonen’s risk/reward profile was also wrong as he made a fast start, but ultimately his responsibility was to work for Ferrari to achieve maximum championship points for his teammate Vettel against Lewis Hamilton. The outcome was the opposite.
On the grid, as the rain fell, the main decision was whether to start on the wet or the intermediate tyre. The front runners all went for the intermediate, because it is more likely to be able to run through to the point at which you can switch to slicks, which the wet is less able to do. So there is no point to risk adding in another 26 second stop from wet to intermediates into your race.
Also the faster cars have higher downforce, so can generate heat in the intermediate tyre, whereas a Sauber, for example, couldn’t and that makes it more likely that they will crash.
So the risk/reward profile for the cars further back showed that it was safer to get a clean first lap on wets and see what the attrition rate is like further forward with accidents. A safety car – or several – is highly likely and that would give a chance to switch to intermediate tyres for the cost of around 15 seconds at Safety Car speeds (rather than 26 seconds).
So that is why the grid was split 50-50 wets and Inters.
For the midfield it was a more nuanced decision, but it favoured the intermediate; one of the most interesting races was between Carlos Sainz who started on Intermediates and Sergio Perez, who started on full wets.
On a day such as this, teams like Renault and Force India can score a podium, if the decisions fall right.
Sergio Perez had a shot at it. He battled with Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg, who had a good shot at a podium after a great start, but later retired.
Valtteri Bottas scored the final podium position however, because of the decision of Force India to start both cars on wet tyres. Starting 12th on the grid, Perez was in fourth place, ahead of Bottas after the chaos of the start and had he done the race that Sainz did, running the intermediate until the ideal crossover point for slicks on Lap 27, Perez could well have finished on the podium.
Starting on wets and needing to pit for intermediates at the second Safety Sar on Lap 12 also cost track position to Sainz, which Perez was unable to recover. Analysis of the laps around the stops to switch to slicks (L27/28) showed that there was nothing Perez could have done differently there to gain that place back.
It was one of those days when everything fell into place for Sainz and the strategy was pitch perfect. But he would have been racing for positions behind Perez and Bottas if Force India had gone with the Intermediate decision at the start.
As their championship battle is with Williams, they had been thinking on the grid of covering the Williams cars that were starting behind them. But when the start gave them a shot at a podium, they were on the wrong tyre to capitalise.
It’s all about risk and reward profiles.
Another interesting cameo in this race was the way the Safety Car was used. Not only was it deployed in every instance, rather than a Virtual Safety Car, but also the lapped cars were not given the chance to un-lap themselves before the final restart, which is unusual.
Although Lewis Hamilton questioned why the VSC was not used in the final instance, when Marcus Ericson spun, he later retracted it, as the deployment of marshals onto the track in a combination of wet and dark conditions without light reflective clothing was too great a risk.
The last one wasn’t helpful to Hamilton as it allowed Ricciardo to close up to him, when the track was now in slick tyre conditions. The Red Bull had been notably faster in Friday practice in the dry and the Safety Car allowed Ricciardo a chance to challenge at the restart for the lead, which Hamilton would have struggled to take back off him.
It was for this reason that Mercedes didn’t pit Hamilton for new Intermediates at the Lap 12 Safety Car. Ricciardo would have done the opposite and taken the track position that Hamilton would not have been able to take back.
However more interesting was the avoidance of lost time for the lapped cars un-lapping themselves. This can be a long process in Singapore; a couple of years ago the whole process took 8 laps for a relatively simple incident. And with the lower race pace caused by the rain and the three Safety Cars, the race wasn’t going to go the distance anyway; the 2 hour limit was going to be invoked.
So the unlapping process didn’t happen on the final restart this time.
Hamilton was able to get on with his programme with minimal fuss at the end. However as he streaked away around Lap 41/42 Mercedes were fearful of a Safety Car giving Ricciardo a final chance to beat him.
They radioed him and asked him to slow down, because they were worried about the gap back from Ricciardo to Bottas in third place. Hamilton pulling away allowed Ricciardo to do the same and once the gap reached 14 or 15 seconds then Ricciardo would have a safety car pit window, in other words he would be able to pit for a new set of slicks and attack Hamilton in the final laps.
So they asked Hamilton to slow down to close that window; he didn’t initially understand the request but he did then manage the situation as requested.
You can see from this detail of the race history graph what Mercedes were concerned about. Look at how the gap starts to open quickly around Lap 42 and 43 (the blue trace takes a notch upwards). If Ricciardo had gone with him, there could have been trouble. In fact the Red Bull didn’t have the pace to do that. But Hamilton backs off in any case and manages the pace to the end.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Kindly supplied by Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge
Look at the period around Lap 27-29, Red Bull were waiting until Ricciardo had a 26 second gap back to Hulkenberg to be able to pit for slicks. Mercedes as leaders have no reason to be the first to move in this situation so will always do the same as Ricciardo +1 lap.
Analysis: When F1 strategy turns into gamesmanship. Mercedes vs Ferrari needle in Italian Grand Prix
The Italian Grand Prix is never the most interesting race of the season from a strategy point of view, being a certain one stop race. But in terms of strategic gamesmanship between Mercedes and Ferrari it was utterly fascinating.
It was clear from Friday practice that Mercedes had the faster package for Monza, which was not unexpected. But Ferrari didn’t get on top of the set up of the car on Friday and couldn’t fix it on Saturday because it rained.
After performing poorly in the wet qualifying, Ferrari found itself not only behind both Mercedes, but also two cars from Mercedes’ customer teams Williams and Force India.
Here we will analyse what went on from that point, which so unsettled Ferrari and how the tactic behind it may have as much to do with the next race in Singapore as with Monza.
We will also look at how Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull picked a counter strategy right out of Sergio Perez’ Monza playbook to secure a magnificent fourth place, beating the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
But curiously Perez didn’t ‘do a Perez’ on this occasion.
Monza has traditionally been a one-stop race, as the relative pace of the cars out on track at 350km/h compared to those travelling at 80km/h in the pit lane, makes it less attractive to do more stops.
This year once again Pirelli brought the supersoft tyre in addition to the soft and mediums. As so often this season with these harder tyres, the teams used only the two softer compounds in the race.
Both were good for 30 laps in the race and there wasn’t a significant pace deficit from the supersoft to the soft. The stop laps were fairly clear however the degradation was lower on race day than on Friday, as expected, so there was room to play with.
The race was unusual in several ways; as it rained in qualifying the teams had a free choice of starting tyre, rather than the usual constraints on the Top 10 runners of using their qualifying set. Most opted for supersoft, for better grip off the line. And it was also a race without a single yellow flag, which happens extremely rarely.
The grid had the two works Mercedes in the top four split by the customer Mercedes engined Williams of Stroll and Force India of Ocon. The Ferraris lined up fifth and sixth with Raikkonen ahead of Vettel.
Further back Verstappen and Ricciardo, with engine penalties, opted to start on the soft tyre; the early phase of the race, when they were being held up by slower cars, was the best time to use the slower tyre, then benefit from the faster tyre later in clear air. If you do this, the rule is don’t have a collision which requires an early stop as the supersoft won’t make the finish and you have to stop again (as the rules say two tyre compounds must be used in a dry race)
This is what happened to Verstappen after contact with Massa and it wrecked his race.
Alonso and Grosjean, starting at the back used the same counter strategy as Red Bull. This was unusual for Alonso, who likes to start on the same tyre as the front-runners, however lowly his grid slot.
One of the standout drives of the day was Daniel Ricciardo, who came within four seconds of a podium finish after starting the race in 16th place, due to an engine penalty. He used the same counter-strategy he had employed in 2015 to go from P15 to P8 and which Sergio Perez had used to great effect for Sauber in 2012, where he rose from P12 on the grid to P2.
The idea is to start on the harder tyre, run a longer first stint and then attack on the softer tyre at the end. It works very well at Monza because it is possible to overtake.
Ricciardo’s target was the Ferraris. The Red Bull had looked a match for Ferrari on race pace in Friday practice. But he had many cars to clear and time would be lost relative to the Ferraris, unless they were held up by Ocon and Stroll.
Vettel cleared them, but Raikkonen struggled and this sowed the seeds of his undoing.
Force India and Williams are in a battle of their own for fourth in the constructor’s championship and so were focussed on each other strategically in this race. When Ocon passed Stroll at the start, the teenager stayed with him and Raikkonen trailed the pair.
The thing to do in a situation like Ferrari were in is to let them undercut each other and stay out past that point, using the superior Ferrari pace, then clear them at your own stop.
That did not happen in this case because Raikkonen was calling for new tyres insistently, before Ferrari pitted him on Lap 15. The problem with that move is the undercut only works when the new tyres in your garage are significantly faster than the ones on your car. In this situation, at the end of Lap 14 with low degradation, this was not the case.
Raikkonen got Stroll, because the Canadian had a slow stop, but Ocon was easily able to cover off both and retain position.
All of this played into the hands of Ricciardo and Red Bull. He ran a long first stint, and then picked Raikkonen off when his new supersofts were superior to Raikkonen’s used softs.
He almost caught Vettel for third place at the end, but the Ferrari driver held him off.
So let’s go one step back and consider the role of the two outliers in this race situation. The race history graph (below) is quite telling this week; the Force India and Williams cars enjoyed a larger performance margin over the other midfield runners than normal and more than they had in Canada, another low downforce circuit. So why was that?
Well one theory has to do with the way Mercedes may have chosen to run the engines in Ocon and Stroll’s cars on Sunday (as well as in the works cars)
Finding themselves in a position where they had Stroll and Ocon as a buffer between themselves and Ferrari, there was a further opportunity; not only to maximise the points gained over their rivals, but also to embarrass them on home soil, which would inevitably have consequences.
These hybrid F1 engines have various modes in which they can be run and it relates to the ‘damage’ that the supplier will allow the drivers to do to the engine by running at the maximum regime. You normally run the maximum for the start of the race and after a Safety Car but apart from that you turn it down to try to minimise the damage and hence increase the reliability and longevity of the engines.
Force India and Williams are usually strong cars in straight line speed anyway, it’s a speciality. However close analysis of the data on end of the straight speeds at Monza on Sunday indicates that Mercedes allowed Hamilton and Bottas as well as their two customers Ocon and Stroll, to have more damage on the engine for longer in this race than normal.
For example, through the speed trap into Turn 1 the Mercedes engined cars were doing between 328-330km/h without a tow (with a tow it was up to 350km/h). Interestingly there is not much distinction between the works cars using the series 4 engine and the customers using series 3 here. This went on for much of the race.
Meanwhile the Ferrari was doing 316-318km/h consistently, a deficit of around 10km/h every lap on the straight.
Vettel finished 36 seconds behind the winner Hamilton after 53 laps and the customers spoiled Raikkonen’s day. On the podium Hamilton even said, “Mercedes power is better than Ferrari power” just to rub it in.
Afterwards, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne called it ‘embarrassing’.
There is an old insiders’ saying, “In F1 you are either giving pain or taking it.”
It is tempting to read this race as follows: Mercedes knew that they were going to win Monza anyway, but the race presented an opportunity to inflict some pain on Ferrari at their home Grand Prix, when the red team is always on edge anyway. And by maximising all their assets to try to unsettle Ferrari, it might have a knock on effect on their preparations for the next race, one that Ferrari is expected to win, in Singapore.
Back at Maranello, Ferrari has to be really strong now to quickly forget Monza and be sure to bring their A game to Singapore. Vettel was right after the race to focus on the positives, rather than to let rip on the negatives, as the chairman Sergio Marchionne did.
Vettel knew that Monza was not going to be Ferrari’s weekend before he arrived in the paddock on Thursday, but he doesn’t want to let the team lose focus before Singapore; a race they now quite simply must win.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge
Showing the gaps in seconds between cars and therefore the performance difference. An upward curve indicates good relative pace, downward curve the opposite. Sharp drop indicates a pit stop.
Look at the pace of Ocon and Stroll in the first stint compared to the rest of the midfield runners (eg Toro Rosso, Renault) with whom they are normally closely matched. It is greater than normal. This is partly due to the unusual situation of the Mercedes engine being run at a high regime.
Look at the difference in stop lap between Raikkonen (L15) and Vettel (L31) Raikkonen could have waited for Stroll to attempt an undercut on Ocon and then pitted later to overcut them both.
Also note the progress of Ricciardo once he managed to get some clear air. He didn’t panic when his tyres were getting hot in traffic but drove through it and got his rewards at the end of the race with fourth place.
Analysis: Decisions that decide F1 pole and race results and trigger a team mate feud
On the face of it, for the second year in a row the Belgian Grand Prix was finely balanced when a Safety Car intervened and neutralized the strategies.
However this time it put Mercedes in a tricky position as they had deliberately chosen to prioritize qualifying on Saturday and so did not have a new set of ultra soft tyres saved for their drivers in the race. The tactic worked for Lewis Hamilton to take pole and win the race ahead of Sebastian Vettel, but it failed for Bottas in his challenge for a podium.
Ferrari missed the pole position, but were in a strong position when the late Safety Car allowed Vettel to put on a set of ultrasoft tyres that on paper were at least a second a lap faster than the softs Lewis Hamilton was forced to use.
We’ll examine the decisions that led to this situation and what would have happened without a Safety Car. We will look at how Red Bull Racing got away with a very risky tyre selection for the weekend, netting a podium for Daniel Ricciardo.
We will also examine the chaos at Force India, where the drivers hit each other twice, look at how Sergio Perez got ahead of Esteban Ocon in the pit stops despite a five second time penalty and look at what part the team strategy decision-making played in creating that tension.
Pirelli’s Mario Isola persuaded the company to bring a softer selection of tyres to Spa than originally planned, to try to reintroduce some variables to the strategy. It paid off well, with some teams making risky selections, such as Williams and Red Bull that had only one set of soft tyres for the whole weekend. As it turned out the soft tyre was the best race tyre, but Red Bull was committed to a two-stop race leading with super soft tyres and got away with it, thanks to the late race Safety Car.
This played into their hands, allowing Ricciardo to attack Valtteri Bottas at the restart on ultrasoft tyres to the Finn’s softs and he could pass him for the final podium position.
His task was also helped by Kimi Raikkonen making a mistake early in the race and not slowing for yellow warning flags. He was given a ten second penalty that dropped him out of contention for a podium. It was Raikkonen’s second important mistake of the weekend; he also made one in qualifying, as we shall see.
This race was more interesting in some ways for what it might have become had the Safety Car not come out, than for what it was. Hamilton was able to hold off Vettel despite being on the slower tyre at the restart.
But we have to go back a couple of steps to examine the thinking that led to this position.
Mercedes view on Saturday was that pole position was the biggest priority; it was therefore more important for the drivers to have extra performance runs in qualifying to find the limit for the decisive final runs in Q3. So both Hamilton and Bottas were given a second run on new ultra soft tyres in Q2. This allowed Hamilton to find the limit especially in Turn 10 (Pouhon corner) for example, where he was almost flat in his final lap and that made the difference for pole.
Ferrari didn’t do this, wanting to save a set of ultra softs for possible use late in the race if there were to be a need to switch to two stops, or a late Safety Car. They balanced the risk of that against the risk of the drivers not quite having their eye in for the final qualifying runs.
In fact some oil on the track from Palmer’s Renault affected the first Q3 runs so there was only the final run to make it count. Raikkonen had a chance for pole but made a mistake. He made up for it somewhat by offering Vettel a tow in the final sector. But pole had been lost to Mercedes, which meant that Hamilton controlled the race.
Fast forward to around Lap 27 of the Grand Prix and Hamilton is leading but cannot shake off Vettel. The Ferrari was faster at the end of the opening stint on ultrasoft tyres and the new aerodynamic updates on the red car are working well. Mercedes are under real pressure on a track where they expected to dominate.
The debate on the pit wall of both teams is now whether to stop again. Mercedes’ are aware that Ferrari has that set of ultra soft tyres available, to try an undercut, which they do not have. However they do have Valtteri Bottas in play in Vettel’s pit window, meaning that if Ferrari moves first and tries to undercut them, it will be Bottas’ job to hold him up for two laps if possible, which would have been quite an ask, while Hamilton stops for softs.
Alternatively Mercedes could move first and pit Hamilton onto new soft tyres. There had been some blistering on the rear tyres and with memories fresh of what happened to Ferrari in Silverstone when they ignored that, there is a strong case for stopping Hamilton. The teams’ strategy models said that if they switch to a two stop at this stage, Ferrari would probably win the race. Then the Safety Car intervened.
The blistering problem eased temporarily in the laps immediately before the Safety Car, so no move was made. In fact inspection of the soft tyres after the race suggests that Hamilton would have been in trouble to reach the end without the Safety Car intervening.
So he was both unlucky and lucky, in a sense, that it did.
The most interesting story of the Spa weekend was the further spat between Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon at Force India. This time it became toxic as twice Perez edged Ocon into the wall on the run down to Eau Rouge.
The first one at the start he took full responsibility for. The second, which triggered the fateful Safety Car late in the race, was highly speculative on Ocon’s part, but still required Perez to make a decision to risk contact and a loss of team points. The team has come down hard saying that they will no longer be allowed to race, but was the team partly responsible for creating the situation in the first place, with Ocon angry that he found himself behind Perez after the controversial second stops?
Ocon had track position advantage over Perez after their first lap contact. Both cars survived and made their first stops onto supersoft tyres, so both were committed to a two-stop race.
However Perez was given a five second time penalty for a matter unconnected to the start. As they approached the second round of stops, therefore, Ocon is clearly the lead car and Perez has no real threat from behind as Grosjean is 6 seconds behind, also on a two stopper.
Normally the leading car has the pit stop priority unless there is some kind of outside threat to the tail car.
With 20 laps to go Force India pitted Perez first. He served his five-second penalty and rejoined. His out lap on new tyres was very fast and at this point the team should have made the call to pit Ocon on the next lap. He went around again and in the course of those two laps lost five seconds to Perez.
When Ocon pitted he rejoined just ahead, but on warmer tyres Perez passed him into Turn 5 at the end of the Kemmel Straight.
Either Force India had their tyre model and undercut profiles wrong – which would be strange having seen after the first stops that Ocon pulled three seconds on Perez by stopping two laps earlier – or they must have known what would happen.
Either way there was now a situation where the driver who has been ‘wronged’ at the start by his team mate but got away with it and is on course to beat him to the flag, loses track position to his teammate. And there is a fair bit of history between them from Canada and Baku.
Clearly angry, Ocon tried for force the issue, when it might have been prudent to try the pass with DRS on the straight after Eau Rouge, but Perez made a decision to come across on him.
There comes a point in relationships between teammates that you can never come back from. It would appear that Perez and Ocon have now passed that point, which means that one of them is likely to move on at the end of the season. As Renault is keen to have a French driver, Force India is reliant on Perez’ sponsors and Mercedes is keen to place Pascal Wehrlein, it would seem that the circumstances are there for Ocon to be the one who leaves.
Those considerations were already in place before Sunday’s race, but now there is likely to be more movement.
Likewise a big decision needs to be taken at Mercedes. With Ferrari clearly on a rich run of form with technical updates on its car; two huge development packages were brought either side of the summer break – Mercedes doesn’t have any tracks where it can consider it has an advantage, while it is sure to have a disadvantage at some high downforce tracks like Singapore.
With Bottas dropping back to 31 points off the championship lead after Spa, the time is surely approaching for Mercedes to ask him to play a supporting role, which will include a ‘spoiler’ role on strategy during races.
The compensation is likely to be that he is given an extension to his Mercedes contract, probably for one more year.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge
Indicating the relative pace of the cars, the gaps between them. An upward curve shows good pace, sudden drops indicate pit stops.
The pace of Red Bull (purple line) is clearly not as strong relative to Ferrari and Mercedes as they had hoped, especially considering in the second stint Ricciardo is on supersofts, while the leaders are on the slower soft tyre.
Note how costly Raikkonen’s ten second penalty was to his race effort. Luckily the Safety Car brings him back to have a chance to pass Bottas. Also you can see at the end of Stint 1 that Vettel’s pace is still strong, Hamilton’s begins to dip before his stop.
Analysis: “Dodge things that lose you time” The behind the scenes move in Hungary F1 GP
Ferrari came to Hungary needing a strong win after the huge setback of Silverstone and they got it, thanks to some determined team play and some clear-sighted tactics.
Mercedes, on the back foot after qualifying, considered various opportunities to attack but were hamstrung by radio problems and Lewis Hamilton with a poor start getting stuck behind Max Verstappen for the opening stint.
The strategists’ mantra at Budapest is ‘dodge things that lose you time’, such as blue flags, slower traffic and poor starts that leave you behind a slower car.
Once he got free he had more pace than his team mate Valtteri Bottas and was allowed through to try to pass Kimi Raikkonen, but in Budapest this year the tyre degradation was so low, it was hard to get sufficient tyre performance offset to make an overtake. Vettel had a steering imbalance and his pace dropped, but luckily for Ferrari, in Raikkonen they had a driver willing to play the rear gunner role and the win was secured.
Was there a way Mercedes could have attacked Ferrari by splitting strategies and putting one car on a two stop and the other on a one? We will examine that and also how McLaren made Fernando Alonso work hard for his result.
Budapest is like Bahrain, in that the difference is significant between Friday practice, where F1 teams do their homework, and the race on Sunday. This is because the track ‘ramps up’ or improves, so much over three days.
After Friday practice some teams were talking about a potential two stop race, but by following the mantra of past seasons that the degradation halves from Friday to Sunday and the experience of these 2017 Pirelli tyres, one stop was on most people’s minds.
Ferrari having had painful experience of two tyre failures in the closing stages of the British Grand Prix, could be forgiven for thinking in terms of two stops and their pace in the opening stint certainly suggested that they were capable of it.
But the cornering loads on the tyres are far lower here and anyway Sebastian Vettel’s curious steering imbalance came into play. At the same time as that was playing out, the tyre degradation numbers revealed themselves to be low in the first stint.
So the second stint for Ferrari was one of consolidation. They set a low pace and used Raikkonen to protect Vettel. Raikkonen made some comments about having the pace to win, but that was never on the cards as Vettel is the lead driver going for the title and in any case he would have potentially been vulnerable to losing more points to Bottas and Hamilton if he’d been exposed to them.
You needed a pace advantage of at least 1.5 seconds at the weekend to make an overtake and even then, that could be countered by skillful defending. Hungaroring is a technical track where the driver can make quite a difference, so skillful drivers in slower cars were able to resist faster ones.
Ferrari held the cards. It was up to the others to find a way to disrupt.
Could Mercedes have split the strategies to attack Ferrari?
Once the pattern was set in the opening stint with Vettel and Raikkonen one and two for Ferrari with Bottas third and Hamilton stuck in fifth behind Verstappen, Mercedes needed a Plan B.
The obvious one would be to attack with Bottas on a very aggressive two stop and draw Ferrari into that game, knowing that Hamilton on a one stop would clear Verstappen once he made his stop and could then be brought into play.
The key man here was Carlos Sainz, as Bottas would have needed to clear him out of his pit window in order to stop, otherwise Bottas would have been coming out of the pits into Sainz’ battle with Alonso and would have lost a lot of time. You needed a 21 second gap on Sunday to pit freely; Bottas was only clear of Sainz after 22 racing laps.
In many races on many tracks the switch would have been an option, but not last weekend, where the tyre degradation numbers just didn’t support it. With hindsight, once it became clear later in the race that Vettel had a problem with his steering and had to stay off the kerbs, which constrained him to lapping around 1.5 to 2 seconds off the optimum, then the two-stop attack plan might have been an option and had they committed to it early there could possibly have been some pay back. But the risk outweighed the reward at the time.
But Mercedes couldn’t go there anyway because they had communications issues with IT and radio not working properly and so the opportunity wasn’t there to pull the strings. Mercedes lost too much time getting their house in order to be able to try anything.
Despite Ferrari managing their pace, Bottas made no progress in trying to pass Raikkonen. So Mercedes allowed Hamilton through to try, on the understanding that he would give the place back if unsuccessful.
At the end of the season, will Mercedes rue the three points that Hamilton gave back to Bottas, arguably one of the biggest strategy calls of the season?
It’s a tight championship and it certainly has swung greatly between Mercedes and Ferrari over the last two races in Silverstone and Budapest.
On balance it looks like there are more tracks that favour Mercedes in the second half of the season and they clearly back themselves to get the job done. But the stark lesson of this weekend is that if you have a clear number one driver you have greater scope for amassing points than when you have to balance the needs of two. Mercedes have got away with their policy the last three years because they had a big car advantage.
With such a tight championship, it will be some achievement if they win this year while balancing the needs of two drivers rather than prioritizing one. That moment will come, no doubt, but it was judged that this race was too early.
Midfield congestion- Alonso and Sainz pit together
Another by-product of the lack of variability in strategy options due to the tyres not degrading, was that the midfield became a game of follow-my leader and everyone just waited for everyone else. There were no aggressive undercuts and a couple of attempts at an overcut didn’t pay off.
This led to a fascinating moment on Lap 35, when McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz pitted together in their ferocious duel for sixth place. Normally you do the opposite of the car ahead.
So why did that happen?
Alonso was behind Sainz at this point and had a growing threat from behind from Sergio Perez in the Force India. The Mexican was almost in undercut range, meaning he could pit first and use the new tyre performance to jump Alonso at his stop.
But Alonso had also been in undercut range of Sainz, however McLaren didn’t try anything unexpected. The longest stint anyone in a midfield or front running car tried on soft tyres was 40 laps. To undercut Sainz around Lap 30 would have meant a stint of that length. But it remained a game of follow my leader.
It was quite easy for Toro Rosso; they could see the rising threat from Perez to Alonso and therefore knew that Alonso would pit the next lap, so they came in ahead of him to cover. It meant that Alonso had to do the hardest thing, which was to overtake on track. He managed it, as he is something of a Hungaroring specialist.
It was a brilliant drive by Alonso to finish sixth, also a strong affirmation of the qualities of the McLaren chassis, which have been debated this season.
Alonso deserved his spell in a deckchair on summer break after that race!
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – CLick to enlarge
Again shows the gulf in performance between the top three teams and the midfield.
Also note how much Ferrari backed off the pace after the pit stop. Compare Verstappen’s trace in his second stint (nice upward curve) with Vettel’s progressive downward curve, showing he was really managing the pace.
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