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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: The human side of F1 race strategy that led Ferrari to lose in Monza

2018-09-04

This was one of the best Grand Prix races for years, with the right mix of super high speeds, close racing, emotion and strategy intrigue which kept the outcome in doubt until the final laps.
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That Mercedes won the race, against the odds, on Ferrari’s home soil is a major blow for the Scuderia that had the best car at Monza and locked out the front row.

To turn that position into a second and a fourth is a major disappointment. Pundits have pointed to their lack of soft tyres in the Pirelli selection for Monza and homework on them, as well as the timing of pit stops as the main reasons, but neither were particularly an issue.

So how did it happen and what part did their strategy play in the defeat?


Ferrari – team orders or not?

There is a very human dimension to the drama at Monza, with Kimi Raikkonen towards the end of his career and potentially to be replaced by Charles Leclerc next season, understandably wanting one last race victory.

Under normal circumstances that would not be a consideration in a tight championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

All season long – in fact for several seasons – Raikkonen has been put to work on sub optimal strategies, pulling Mercedes cars into the pits early or challenging them to compromise their race strategies, to help Vettel’s chances.

The last time he was on pole position, in Monaco last year, Ferrari managed to elegantly move Vettel ahead in the race and Raikkonen had his contract renewed.

Here the circumstances were different; he knew that the wishes of the late chairman Sergio Marchionne were for Leclerc to replace him and that it is only a matter of time before that is communicated.

Raikkonen took an unexpected pole on Saturday as Vettel was fed out late onto the track for the decisive run in Q3 and effectively lost the chance to pick up a slipstream from Hamilton, but gave one to Raikkonen. So the Finn saw his chance for a final win in front of the tifosi and his young family.

If you are serious about trying to win a championship against an adversary like Hamilton, who is in the form of his career, then this shouldn’t be a consideration. There are always ways and means to achieve desired outcomes, but only when controlling the race from a position of strength.

Vettel however didn’t feel that support and was in a difficult spot; he didn’t just have Hamilton behind him to consider at the start, but Raikkonen too and the lead he should have had after qualifying.

The danger from Hamilton was clear; he would be very aggressive at the start as it was his best shot given that the Mercedes had been a couple of tenths slower all weekend.

The mistake Vettel made – or felt forced to make by the circumstances – was in trying to get the lead on the opening lap from Raikkonen, rather than focussing on keeping Hamilton behind and crossing the line 1-2 at the end of the lap to control the race.

Vettel tried to pass his team mate on a suboptimal line into the second chicane and Hamilton saw his chance, forcing his car into the gap and the pair touched, sending Vettel spinning down to 18th place.

This is big picture strategy, the canvas on which the detailed race strategy decisions about tyre degradation and timing of pit stops is later painted. If Raikkonen has a clause in his contract saying that there will be no team orders in the event of a pole position, as suggested, then that is something that could be dealt with later once control of the race had been established. Many a tough negotiation has gone on via team radio down the years.

By risking everything at the start, the whole battle plan fell apart.

So now Ferrari had to focus on making sure Raikkonen won the race. In Vettel’s hands the Ferrari would have eased away from the Mercedes, as in Spa and Silverstone and taken the win.

Raikkonen couldn’t shake Hamilton off and this led to the strategy mistake that cost him the race.

It was not the fact that Ferrari had brought only one additional set of soft tyres – apart from the set each driver had for the race. There was no issue there; they did the right thing working on the supersoft, the more tricky tyre to understand and master in limited Friday practice running due to rain. It was more important to optimise performance on that tyre for qualifying and the optimum first stint of the race.

Nor was the mistake in bringing Raikkonen in first, on Lap 21, to cover off an undercut attempt by Hamilton who was well within range. This was exactly the right move as to do the reverse would have led to an undercut, given how close Hamilton was.

The mistake was the degree and length of time to which Raikkonen was asked to push on the new set of soft tyres after his pit stop. By going hard for five or six laps, he damaged the tyres and that opened up the chance for Hamilton to exploit that weakness later in the race to overtake for the win.

Mercedes told Hamilton to stay out when Raikkonen stopped and to push hard. His lap time was strong, but rather than pit him, they extended his stint a lap at a time as the tyres were holding up. He kept this up to the end of Lap 28. And all the time Hamilton was pushing to the limit on tyres that would soon be obsolete, Raikkonen was being told to push on new tyres he would need to the end of the race.

This was the strategic mistake; Raikkonen build a larger net lead than he would need – especially as Mercedes had Bottas in play up ahead who would inevitably stay out and hold Raikkonen up – and in doing so he caused a rear blister that would ultimately cost performance and the race win.


Bottas comes into play

In the Belgian GP strategy report we alluded to the fact that from this point onwards the second drivers would have a decisive role to play in the outcome of the championship and hinted that Bottas would now be used to help Hamilton. (His contract had just been renewed, so he knew exactly where he stood).

This is what happened in Monza, as Bottas was left out on track a long time on the supersoft tyres. He was fighting with Verstappen for a podium, but he also could play a part in holding Raikkonen as the older Finn caught the younger one after the stop.

Bottas wasn’t exaggerating; he set a personal best lap time during this phase, with a 1m 23.8s on Lap 31, but Raikkonen could have gone much faster. Hamilton was doing 1m 22.1s and Raikkonen could have been on that pace too.

On Lap 33 Bottas began to make some moves in corners that compromised Raikkonen and the lap time dropped to 1m 24.7s as Mercedes caught the Ferrari in a pincer.

Hamilton duly took the lead with just nine laps to go and Ferrari who started the day first and second, ended it second and fourth all as result of strategy, both big picture and detailed.

All photos: Motorsport Images

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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Look at Raikkonen’s push laps around Lap 21-27, this is when the damage was done. Also compare his pace behind Bottas around laps 31-34 to Hamilton’s pace as he catches them.

Analysis: How Belgian F1 Grand Prix could affect the rest of the championship

2018-08-29

This was an unusual Belgian Grand Prix in many respects from a strategy point of view.
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Spa is normally up there as one of the toughest races of the season for tyre degradation and we normally see a lot of strategy moves and position changes as a result.

But this year low degradation tyres meant that only one position changed in the race due to strategy calls; the loss of position by Sainz and Renault. There was very little other movement.

At the front this was also due to the fact that a wet qualifying session and engine penalties had split up the faster cars. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were isolated at the front with the Force India drivers on row two acting as buffers to the Red Bull of Max Verstappen early on.

This opened up a sizable gap and meant that the leading pair could duel without interference or tactics from the team strategists employing second drivers, trying undercuts and so on; the first time this has happened this season.

Valtteri Bottas started at the back while Kimi Raikkonen was out of position due to a strategic error in qualifying, which meant that he was not out on track at the end of the wet session when the conditions improved and lap times came down. So he started sixth. To make matters worse, he was then taken out by Ricciardo at the start with a puncture and car damage.

So the leaders had a clear run.

Late race Safety Cars also traditionally shake up the order at Spa; this year that didn’t happen and so this race had the distinction of being the first in the hybrid era (since 2014) where cars finishing in points-paying positions were lapped.

Spa often comes down to tactics on rear wing level versus straight line speed and to the all-important burst on the opening lap and after a Safety Car restart down to Les Combes chicane. We’ve seen the Belgian Grand Prix decided on this dynamic many times and this was another such occasion.

The Ferrari had less wing than the Mercedes, but perversely more grip out of the La Source hairpin and more sustained power delivery on the straights. That was enough to give Vettel the lead on the opening lap.

And when there was a Safety Car restart after a pile up on the opening lap, Hamilton had a sub optimal entry into the Bus Stop chicane, which compromised his chances of getting close enough to get a slipstream ‘tow’ from Vettel into the headwind that was blowing down the straight down to Les Combes. So Vettel had the upper hand.

The only time Hamilton came close was by stopping a lap earlier for tyres and closing the gap as Vettel responded a lap later. With over three seconds lead, Vettel was not under threat of an undercut, but some readers might wonder why Ferrari waited for Mercedes to stop first before pitting. After all it brought Hamilton to one second behind and put a lot of pressure on Ferrari’s pit crew to execute the stop perfectly.

The reason is because if they had done it the other way around, Vettel would have been vulnerable to a Safety Car deployment. Had that happened just after he stopped, when Hamilton had stayed out, the Mercedes driver would be able to stop under the Safety Car, losing less race time and would have taken the lead.

The decision is based on risk and probabilities and the risk of that is considered higher than of Ferrari’s pit crew making a mistake.


Tough weekend for the number two drivers

Raikkonen and Bottas both had difficult race weekends. Bottas finished fourth, but started in 17th place due to engine penalties and, knowing that would be the case before qualifying, chose to start the race on soft tyres. An early forced pit stop for front wing damage after the opening corner melee was not as damaging as it might have been because he was able to make the stop under the Safety Car and to fit a new set of supersoft tyres at that stage.

This was an interesting decision as the thinking that had put him onto the soft tyres for the start – the desire to run a longer opening stint than the cars ahead and gain track position – was still valid.

But Mercedes felt that having the softer tyres for the restart would be more valuable to get faster tyre warm up and pick up places. Vandoorne also pitted under the early Safety Car for medium tyres, but this proved not to be a fast race tyre. It is essentially last year’s soft compound tyre and although the teams know a lot about that tyre, it is a slow tyre compared to the supersoft.


Big decisions on Strategy going forward

So how might the Belgian Grand Prix affect the way the rest of this season’s championship is run?

The title contenders are clearly now Vettel and Hamilton.

It will be interesting to see how much longer Mercedes leaves it before deciding to co-opt Bottas into a supporting role to Hamilton in the quest for the drivers’ championship. The objective for race strategy at Mercedes has always been to seek the race win and the best combined race result for the points in the Constructor’s table.

But you can deploy the number two driver in sub optimal strategies, which don’t help his final result, but which to can force the opponent into compromising his strategy.

With the Ferrari looking like a superior car, the role of Raikkonen and Bottas in the outcome of the races will now be critical to the chances of their lead driver team mates.

Raikkonen has long been deployed on sub-optimal strategies to affect Mercedes’ decision making and help Vettel and we’ve seen a lot of that this season already.

But Bottas has been allowed to run his own race up to now and will no doubt want to continue to do so.

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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Analysis: Why clear air was the only way to go in Hungarian F1 GP

2018-07-31

There’s nothing quite like a wet qualifying session to make things interesting for a Grand Prix and in Budapest we had just such a scenario.
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It means everyone has a free choice of tyres at the start; it opens up the strategic possibilities from the start, rather than only the cars starting outside the Top 10 having some fun with tyre choices.

In Hungary the rain caught out title contender Sebastian Vettel, as it had the week earlier in Germany and swung it towards his rival Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes driver started on pole thanks to the rain in qualifying with Vettel down in fourth.

And what we saw in the hot and dry race on Sunday was dictated by clear air strategy – with these Pirelli tyres, those high temperatures and the specifics of the track layout – the imperative was to run in clear air and not in traffic. (Look at the Race History Chart below for a graphic illustration of it.)

This is the dominant factor in Budapest and it is why Hamilton, Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen all had great races and why Sainz lost places to the McLaren cars by being overcut.

It’s also why Vettel struggled through to second place as a best case outcome. He just couldn’t make it happen for himself to get a run in clear air.

He almost managed it, but an overlong first stint and a slow pit stop brought him out behind Valtteri Bottas.

Without that he would have certainly been able to use the clear air to catch Hamilton in the second stint. Whether he would have been able to pass him is highly debatable given the struggle he had passing Bottas who was on much older tyres. But it would have made for an exciting duel.


What was the effect of Ferrari’s split strategy?

As mentioned above the start of the race was fascinating as both Vettel and Sainz were outliers, they chose to start on the more durable soft tyre rather than the ultrasoft tyre that the others were running.

For Vettel it was a reasonable decision; the team put the better placed car of Raikkonen on the ultrasoft tyres with a mission to mix it with the front row Mercedes on the long run down to Turn 1. With Gasly and Sainz on row three of the grid behind him, Vettel could afford the small risk of less grip off the line from starting on softs, but would do his best to get any benefit from Raikkonen disrupting the Mercedes cars.

If all else failed and he was third in the opening stint – he would then be able to extend the first stint and use the clear air running later to catch and attack Hamilton at the end. A Safety Car could intervene, as has happened quite a bit recently.

The main risk with this strategy is the amount of time it takes to cut through lapped traffic, if the drivers in question don’t observe the blue flags. That certainly cost Vettel precious time here and his stint was probably a couple of laps too long.

This all increased the pressure on the pit crew for his stop; it had to be perfect somewhere close to two seconds, in order to come out ahead of Bottas, who had been pulled into making an early stop by Raikkonen committing to a two stop strategy early. Interestingly Ferrari have tried this with Raikkonen on Bottas a few times this year, including Germany where the Mercedes team didn’t bite. Here they did and it opened the road up for Vettel.

But now with everything hanging on the pitstop, the execution wasn’t perfect and he lost 2.5 seconds, enough to come out behind Bottas. Ferrari’s first stop of the day with Raikkonen had been slow too, costing Raikkonen around three seconds and a position to Magnussen.

Bottas did a wonderful job of blocking Vettel from start to almost finish, something team boss Toto Wolff described as a perfect ‘wing man’ role for team leader Hamilton. That description could certainly be applied to Raikkonen, who has performed the role for Vettel and Alonso before him since his return to Ferrari. But it’s not how Bottas sees himself.

Either way the execution by Bottas was almost perfect – aside from an overly dogged defence when the cause was already lost, tapping Vettel’s rear wheel but without puncturing it, fortunately for the German. It broke Bottas’ front wing, however and led to a more costly collision with Ricciardo at the end.

Raikkonen scored a fifth consecutive podium, despite a compromised strategy, a sign of how fast the Ferrari is. When he was running in clear air on softs and Vettel was stuck behind Bottas on ultras, Raikkonen’s relative pace showed that this was a winnable race for Ferrari.

But track position, plus Mercedes’ tactics, as much as any race strategy, won the day.

Getting it right in midfield

In Sainz’ case starting on soft tyres from fifth on the grid was a mistake as he lost two places on the opening lap and effectively undid the good he’d done with his exceptional fifth place qualifying performance in the wet.

Contrast that with Gasly, who started sixth on ultra soft and as the quick cars ahead drove away, he ran his race in clear air, while the cars behind all lost a second or more per lap relative to their potential pace, in traffic.

The pair’s skills in the wet qualifying had put them alongside each other on the third row of the grid, ahead of even wet weather specialist Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman cleared them both at the start, but retired soon after with engine problems. Gasly was able to clear Sainz and run at his pace, while Sainz also fell behind Magnussen.

He pitted on Lap 25 but found himself being overcut by Alonso and Vandoorne, who went 15 laps further on their soft tyres in the opening stint. He finished ninth from fifth on the grid.

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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Look at how much more pace the cars running in clear air have compared to those in traffic. Hamilton, Gasly and Magnussen have clean races, for example.

Analysis: How Fine margins swung balance Lewis Hamilton’s way in tight F1 duel

2018-07-24

F1 is a sport where fine margins make the difference and some Grands Prix really highlight that. The German Grand Prix was one of them.
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It was the tiniest of rear wheel lock ups for Sebastian Vettel on a damp track that caused him to crash out of the lead. It was a split second last minute decision by Lewis Hamilton to stay out when he’d been called into the pit lane entry that won him the race and it was a finely balanced call to fit ultra soft tyres on Hamilton’s car as a rain shower approached that set him up for the win.


How a 2 v 1 for Ferrari turned into a Mercedes 1-2 at the chequered flag

Ferrari enjoyed a 2 vs 1 situation at the front with Valtteri Bottas alone at the front against Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton started down in 14th place.

After hitting hydraulic problems in qualifying it meant that, starting outside the top ten, Hamilton had the option to start on soft tyres wait and see what happened with the rain and then use new ultrasofts to the finish of the race.

The first noteworthy decision in the race was Lap 14, when Ferrari tried to use Raikkonen to pull Bottas into an early pit stop, which would not be the optimum in a dry race and would give Vettel more breathing space.

But Mercedes didn’t bite as they were trying to get the ultrasofts to last to the point where the rain might mean a switch to intermediates. They were also confident that Hamilton would enter the picture later in the race, if the threatened rain came – and even if it didn’t, as there was a real question mark over managing the distance on a one stop strategy starting on ultra soft tyres; blistering was a real issue on a hot, dry track.

There was another reason why Ferrari pulled Raikkonen in Lap 14, to cover Hamilton, who was advancing through the field and this move brought their man out in front of him. But as Raikkonen had a fast car on fresher tyres, he inevitably pulled away from Hamilton early in his second stint.

He managed to get within Bottas’ pit window and by not holding Hamilton up, it meant that he too was progressing quickly.

But in a dry condition, it was highly unlikely that even Raikkonen with his fantastic tyre management skills would have managed to reach the finish without stopping again. He was committed to a two stop strategy.

And that is the third reason why Ferrari pitted early; because no-one was really sure about anything: whether it would rain and if so how much, or whether in a hot, dry race with tyre blistering one stop or two would be the optimum strategy.

So by splitting strategies Ferrari thought they would put themselves in the best possible situation for winning.


Team games
Having played a team game with Raikkonen on the first stop, Ferrari then took a different approach when Vettel stopped on Lap 25. He came out behind Raikkonen, but on 11 lap fresher tyres and a different strategy.

This presented something of a conflict; with rain expected neither driver wanted to be the one running second on the road as it would mean having to wait in a queue at the pitstop for service on wet tyres, losing time and track positions.

It also meant for Vettel that he would lose the impact of the new tyres in getting a gap to the Mercedes cars and by sitting in the slipstream behind Raikkonen he took more life out of them, as we have seen many times before. “This is getting silly, ” he told the team on the radio. “Don’t you see the tyre temperatures. What are you waiting for?”

It’s worth recalling that as recently as the French GP, Vettel, on worn tyres, was instructed to let Raikkonen through on fresher tyres in the closing stages and the Finn caught and passed Ricciardo in the final laps of the race for a podium finish. It’s a team game.

This situation lasted until Lap 39 when Ferrari, under pressure from Vettel asked Raikkonen in the clear terms that he had requested, to let Vettel through.

Having started the sequence of pit stops by putting pressure on the one car Mercedes challenge at the front, Ferrari now found the tables turned on them as the now two car Mercedes challenge were able to pile the pressure on them.

By starting on soft tyres, Hamilton had much more flexibility on his strategy because he could run longer to the point where the weather situation became slightly clearer. And as he reported that there was maybe a lap or two left in his tyres, Mercedes had the information that there would be a short, intense shower, which would hit Turn 6 and probably not spread much further down the track.

This gave the team the idea that they should stick with the original plan which was to pit Hamilton for ultrasoft tyres, as they would have done in a fully dry race. The ultrasoft would have better traction on a slippery track than the worn soft tyres being used by the Ferraris, Verstappen and Bottas in the event that it was just a short shower.

Sauber, McLaren and Red Bull both went for intermediates when the shower hit, but it turned out to be the wrong call and Leclerc, Alonso and Verstappen were soon in to switch back to slick tyres, having overheated the intermediate tyres.

The rain fell in two instalments, the second more challenging than the first. The lap times drifted off, but notably Hamilton on new ultrasofts had been able to take two seconds a lap out of Vettel and Raikkonen on their worn softs.

Vettel’s accident, when it came, looked innocuous enough and it would be a stretch to suggest that he crashed because of the pressure that was being applied by Hamilton as the tables turned in the adverse conditions, as it would be to suggest that the situation had been compounded by the time – and the additional tyre damage – that sitting behind Raikkonen had caused.

But it would be accurate to say that once Hamilton had jumped onto ultrasofts on a damp track and eaten into his lead at two seconds per lap, Vettel was in a position where he could not stop again without losing the race.

And possibly, as in Singapore last year, he was aware that when the conditions change with rain, Hamilton’s threat becomes greater and that requires a response.

Mercedes was far from serene in this phase of the race as they lost time with Bottas’ second stop, due to not having the right tyres to fit and while he was sitting there, they had a miscommunication with Hamilton that ended up being reviewed by the stewards as he backed out of the pit entry at the last minute. This was all around staying out relative to Raikkonen, who pitted a lap later which put him behind Bottas.

Hamilton’s last minute jink to the left won him the race, as he would have lost time behind Bottas, even under a Safety Car and his team mate with fresher tyres and track position, would have won the race.

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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Analysis: A champion’s performance by F1 team and driver. Can they keep it going?

2018-07-10

F1 is relentless.
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A week after Mercedes made a very public mistake in not pitting Lewis Hamilton under a Virtual Safety Car, there was a big decision to be made in the closing stages of the British Grand Prix; whether to stop under a Safety Car or stay out on worn tyres and defend the track positions gained.

For Ferrari and Red Bull there was no discussion, they must stop. Mercedes decided to stay out. The race leader Sebastian Vettel fell behind Valtteri Bottas as a consequence, but passed him anyway on fresh tyres to win the race. Is it a similar scenario to Austria or something else?

Battle royal between Mercedes and Ferrari at Silverstone

This was one of the most memorable British Grands Prix for years, particularly because of the late race Safety Car that bunched the field up and put some of the players onto fresh tyres for an attacking finish.

Mercedes and Ferrari were closely matched on pace in both qualifying and race conditions. Ferrari had an aerodynamic upgrade on the floor and diffuser which really worked for them, especially on a track where last year they struggled.

This year, with Britain enjoying a heatwave, the temperatures were much higher than anyone could have expected when Pirelli selected the tyre compounds. Track temperatures on race day were up above 50 degrees, which is more like Bahrain than Northampton.

This made the race strategy planning quite a challenge. On paper after Friday’s practice sessions, the fastest way was to do a one stop strategy, pitting around Lap 20 from soft to mediums. Without a Safety Car, that is what the majority would have done.

The outlier was Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull, who had been racing Kimi Raikkonen because the Finn lost track position at the start after colliding with Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull switched Ricciardo onto a two stop strategy, when Raikkonen was behind him, believing that the Finn, who had stopped early on Lap 13, would have to stop again, which he probably would have had to do. They avoided the undercut by Ferrari.

Raikkonen’s early stop, combined with the added ten seconds time penalty for causing the collision, meant that he had dropped into traffic and taken some time to clear the Force India, Renault and Sauber midfield cars to close up to Ricciardo.

Unfortunately for Ricciardo a Safety Car was deployed soon after his stop, when Marcus Ericsson crashed heavily. So whereas he had taken his stop at full racing speeds, the others were able to get a cheap pit stop under the Safety Car (10 seconds of race time instead of 22).

It was clear immediately from pictures of Ericsson’s high speed accident that a Safety Car would be deployed. But it took a few seconds for the order to go out.

At the point when the SC was finally deployed. Ferrari had Vettel in the lead and Raikkonen in fourth, Red Bull had Verstappen third and Ricciardo sixth. Mercedes had Bottas in second place and Hamilton fifth.

For Ferrari with Raikkonen on 20 lap old mediums it was a no brainer to stop. Likewise for Vettel on 13 lap old mediums, he had too much to lose by staying out. In that scenario, Bottas and Hamilton would have stopped for new softs and at the restart Vettel would have struggled to hold them behind.

Conversely for Mercedes by staying out, Bottas would get the lead and Hamilton would move up to second. Mercedes had stopped both cars late, clearly looking at a comfortable one stop. Bottas’ tyres were 12 laps old and Hamilton’s just eight laps old. There were 19 laps to the finish of which probably only 15 or 16 would be at racing speeds.

The lap times of both had been strong prior to the Safety Car, in fact Bottas had been gently reeling in Vettel, the Mercedes displaying its historic tendency to be faster on the harder compounds of rubber (although Ferrari has improved a lot in this area).

By stopping Bottas, he would have come out behind Vettel, but on used softs rather than new ones. Unlike the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers, neither Mercedes driver had a new set of soft tyres available.

It’s unusual for Mercedes to miss a detail like that, but in reality they would probably have done the same thing even if those tyres were available. Certainly with Hamilton; with Bottas in hindsight a switch to softs could have netted a podium rather than a fourth.

So it was a long shot for Bottas to win the race, defending against Vettel on new soft tyres.

For Hamilton the gamble was more weighted in his favour. He had been at the back of the field after the Lap 1 collision with Raikkonen and his recovery drive had brought him back up towards the front. By leaving him out until Lap 25, Mercedes put him back out on track into the large gap between Raikkonen and Hulkenberg so he was able to drive in clear air at his maximum pace. But he was still over ten seconds adrift of Raikkonen.

The Safety Car brought him back into contention and by staying out as others pitted, he jumped up to third place. Behind him were Verstappen and Raikkonen on fresh soft tyres. Hamilton questioned this, but Mercedes’ calculations had showed that fifteen laps on relatively fresh mediums, with the Red Bull likely to hold Raikkonen for a while, Hamilton would not be passed from behind.

As it transpired, a second Safety Car was deployed soon after when Grosjean and Sainz collided, leaving just 10 laps of racing after the second restart.

This played into Mercedes’ hands on one side, but on the other they still had the handicap of the medium tyres taking longer to warm up at the restart compared to the softs.

But the gamble also accepted that Hamilton wasn’t going to win the race either. He would finish third, or second if Bottas had problems with the tyres. They were only four laps older than Hamilton’s, but once he was passed by Vettel with a brilliant move into Brooklands, Bottas dropped back and was passed by both Hamilton and Raikkonen. Verstappen retired.

It was a great win for Ferrari of the kind that they need to roll out consistently to take this championship. The execution was perfect on every front; effective chassis updates, perfect strategy and driver. The whole thing came together and Vettel leads the championship by eight points.

They – and Vettel himself particularly – have left too many points on the table this season. But at Silverstone they looked like a team that can win the world championship.

The question mark is repeatability.

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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Look at the gap that Mercedes was able to put Hamilton back out into after his late stop, leaving him clear air. But he wouldn’t have caught the front runners without the Safety Car. Look also at the damage the early stop did to Raikkonen, coming out into traffic.

Dealing with disruption: Behind the scenes of the decision making in Austrian F1 GP

2018-07-03

Disruption is everywhere in the modern world, few can escape it.
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It has always been true of Formula 1, where technological innovation plays such a vital part in success.

But we also find disruption in the race strategies. A race that seemed under control can be turned on its head by a Safety Car or a Virtual Safety Car and the challenge is disrupted.

F1 team race strategists have experienced most scenarios and it all comes down to calculation and appetite for risk. Teams that are used to winning, like Mercedes in the current formula, have a low appetite for risk. Whereas challenger teams like Red Bull love to take risks, especially when they don’t clearly have a fast enough car to win under normal circumstances.

A Virtual Safety Car disrupted the Austrian GP, five of the teams decided to leave a car out: Mercedes, Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso and Haas. Half the field got it right and half got it wrong.

Virtual Safety Car catches out Mercedes –

The Virtual Safety Car was introduced after the accident of Jules Bianchi at Suzuka in 2014 and has played an influential role in the outcome of a number of races since.

Whereas the Safety Car bunches the field up and race strategists know that it will be out on track for several laps, so they can plan, a Virtual Safety Car is a more fleeting thing.

The strategists have to second guess not only how long the Race Director is going to keep the VSC active for, but also whether the incident in question is severe enough to warrant a switch to a full Safety Car. We have seen a number of those in the last few years. Another famous occasion for Mercedes was Monaco 2015 when they lost track of time intervals as a Virtual Safety Car became a Safety Car and Lewis Hamilton lost the lead to his team mate in the pits.

But the challenge with the VSC is that there is no way of knowing when it will end. There is no warning from Race Control, as there is with a full Safety Car. And the worst thing you can do is find yourself coming into the pit lane just as a VSC ends. As you will lose time and many track positions.

In the case of Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix, Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes suffered a sudden loss of hydraulic pressure on Lap 14 and pulled off the race track. This brought out the VSC while the marshals cleared the car. Some strategists took the view that the VSC would be short lived, others dived on the opportunity of a cheaper pit stop, saving around 9 to 10 seconds compared to a stop at racing speeds.

There was plenty of time to react as the leader Hamilton was only approaching Turn 6 at the moment when the VSC was deployed, even more time for Verstappen, Raikkonen, Ricciardo and Vettel who were trailing in his wake, Verstappen was five seconds behind the Mercedes.

In situations like this the gamble is how long the VSC will be out, but there was a clarification from Race Director Charlie Whiting that the VSC would always be out for at least one lap.

This took away the chance that a shorter deployment could create a lottery which massively advantaged one or two teams who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The thinking of the strategists is often to do the opposite of the car they are racing against. In this case, if Hamilton had pitted, Red Bull might have split strategies, leaving Verstappen out to gain the track position and pitting Ricciardo. Ferrari had a fast enough car to race for the win, but having lost out in qualifying with Vettel and at the start with Raikkonen, they were focussed on beating Red Bull.

The VSC came at a horrible moment in the race; it was too early to pit as the race was set to be a one stopper with the original target stop lap being between laps 20-28 to switch to soft tyres, for the Mercedes and Red Bulls using supersoft tyres for the first stint.

The limitation was tyre graining and especially the left rear, as the track’s predominantly right-hand turns give lateral stress to that particular tyre. It was much hotter than during practice, which made it more of a tyre management exercise than anticipated.

For the Sauber team that had started Marcus Ericsson on soft tyres, it guaranteed that they would score points as the soft tyre was the only tyre you could stay out on with confidence that you could push after the race went live again. When strategists with cars down the back of the field go for a reverse strategy (starting on hardest tyres) it is precisely for this scenario that they are gambling.

Fernando Alonso finished a remarkable eighth having started from the pit lane. How much further up would he have been had he started on the soft tyres on a reverse strategy, given what played out?

On the Mercedes pit wall, there was discussion on what to do. The final decision in that team lies with James Vowles, who does the strategy for both cars. Over the last five years he has had to think in stereo on many occasions, but now there was only Hamilton’s race to consider.

But in this case, the clock ran down for Mercedes and they missed the opportunity. Hamilton started a new lap and the four cars behind him all stopped. Other teams did the same thing, but the Mercedes example was the most high profile.

The calculation was whether Hamilton could pull out over eight seconds on Verstappen on worn supersoft tyres, against the new softs on Verstappen’s car.

Red Bull and Ferrari were fully committed to stopping; so much so that they pitted both cars, which cost the tail car in each case – Vettel and Ricciardo – three additional seconds of race time. To do that they had to prepare two sets of tyres in double quick time, which Mercedes would be aware of as they deliberated.

Hamilton didn’t have the pace on fading tyres to pull the gap and dropped to fourth at his stop on Lap 25. Ferrari missed a trick in not keeping Vettel safe to Hamilton, in other words getting him to speed up to maintain a pit stop gap to the Mercedes, which would have put Hamilton fifth after his stop.

They made up for it with another tactic which was to back Hamilton up into Vettel once the Mercedes caught Raikkonen, who had been overtaken by Ricciardo early in the second stint.

The higher temperatures on race day meant that the tyres were graining and the winning tactic was to look after them rather than to push, as Ricciardo did in his attack on Raikkonen. He was forced to make an extra pit stop.

It is surprising that this happened in many ways, as there was clear indication from the damage sustained by the tyres from the first stint that it was vital to look after the second set to make the finish and that would have been communicated to the drivers. Verstappen certainly heeded it and it won him the race. But Ricciardo was in a racy mood.

In clear air at the front Verstappen was able to manage his tyres, as did the Ferraris, which had the best performance on the tyres at the weekend.

Vettel took the championship lead by one point, but it could have been more. If Ferrari had switched the cars around, Vettel would have gained another three points. And if he had not blocked Sainz unnecessarily in qualifying, picking up a three-place grid penalty, he would have started in third place on ultrasoft tyres – ahead of Verstappen – and with Mercedes’ double technical retirement, he’d have scooped 25 points to Hamilton’s zero.

It’s easy to say in hindsight, but one of the secrets of Michael Schumacher’s success at Ferrari was never giving anything away to the opposition, especially through unforced errors, of which we have seen a number from Vettel this year.

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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Here you can clearly see the drivers tyre managing. Look at Ricciardo in the second stint, he pushes to attack Raikkonen but pays the price with a drop off in performance, needing an extra stop before retiring.

Insight: The decisions behind the key talking points of the F1 French Grand Prix

2018-06-26

Going to a new circuit, or one that hasn’t been used during the F1 racing life of most of the competitors, presents multiple challenges and the return of F1 to Paul Ricard was a good example, with strategists and engineers on the limit working out the tiny details that can add up to a lot of race time and positions won or lost.
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For example, the fuel consumption. If you carry one lap more of fuel than you need for the whole race on this track, that adds up three seconds of race time lost.

In a tight battle that can be a place lost. With no data from previous races to fall back on, the top teams rely on their sophisticated simulators, but even these calculations can be thrown by an enigmatic Mistral wind and there are dozens more considerations that can add up to a lot of time. Tyre life was another, with estimates of 20 laps for the ultrasoft, 30 for the super and over 40 for the soft.

Strategy was central to the key moment of the race; Sebastian Vettel, starting on ultrasoft tyres against the supersofts on the front row Mercedes, was desperate to capitalise on the extra grip to jump the Silver Arrows at the start, his best chance of getting control of the race.

He tried to insist on a move on Valtteri Bottas for second place into Turn 1. He hit the Finn, both dropped to the back and gifted Lewis Hamilton one of the easiest of his 65 Grands Prix wins.

In the melee behind, as cars dived left and right to avoid the two spinning title contenders, Max Verstappen was able to run wide and come out clearly in second place while Carlos Sainz in third set himself up for a strong result, as did Magnussen and Leclerc in fifth and sixth respectively.

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari’s sole remaining front runner, dropped to seventh and was on a recovery drive from there. Team strategy brought him a podium.

Impressive, but Leclerc doesn’t take the max on a day of chances in the midfield

Charles Leclerc scored points for Sauber for the fourth race out of five, something the team did not manage in 2016 and 2017 combined. The impressive rookie, who seems destined for a Ferrari drive sooner rather than later, had qualified eighth, ahead of Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault and both Force Indias, which would normally be fighting for top ten slots.

But he wasn’t able to take out as much as he would have liked from race day, after a mistake cost him the chance to deploy his Plan A strategy.

The Haas cars, also starting behind him, were half a second a lap faster than the Sauber in raw pace, so the outlook for the race was that he would do well to finish 11th, as he also had to contend with two team cars from Force India being able to work a pincer on strategy. You can keep one quick car behind you on a track like Paul Ricard, but not two.

After profiting from the startline chaos, which also eliminated Ocon’s Force India, Leclerc’s strategy path was made clearer. He was able to look forwards rather than backwards and the tactic was to try to undercut Magnussen at the pit stop.

But as he approached the decisive moment, he made a mistake and ran off track, which allowed Hulkenberg to pass him. Hulkenberg was playing the long game on a reverse strategy, having started on the hardest of the three compounds, so now the Sauber strategy had to change to extending the stint as much as possible.

This was because Leclerc no longer had a safe gap behind to Alonso and the Williams cars, which were particularly hard to overtake. So Leclerc went to Lap 31 and then pitted for supersofts, to maximise the pace and go for it.

He cleared Hartley when Ericsson pitted and forced Toro Rosso to cover the stop and from then it was a run to the finish to stay ahead of Grosjean, whose wretched run continued with more incidents and penalties.

Leclerc’s tenth place was hard fought and, against the pace of the cars around him, again very impressive.

But he would have been even higher up without the mistake before the pit stops.

Red Bull choose to cover rather than attack

We have grown used to seeing Red Bull being one of the most aggressive teams when it comes to race strategy. But in France they played a more passive game, with Max Verstappen’s strategy being more focussed on closing out second place and covering off Ferrari, rather than trying to find a way to attack the leader Hamilton.

This is fair enough; the Mercedes was the fastest car on this track and Ferrari had lost its chance of victory with mistakes from Raikkonen in qualifying and Vettel at the start of the race.

As we have said many times, only perfect execution will bring the title to Ferrari this season and they’ve left something on the table on several occasions, such as this one. Vettel slipped from a one-point championship lead over Hamilton to a 14 point deficit in their duel to be only the sport’s second five-time world champion.

As for Red Bull, Verstappen’s strategy was dictated by Vettel’s progress. He was brought in early on Lap 25 to go onto a set of softs to reach the finish, emerging just ahead of Vettel.

This allowed Raikkonen to extend his stint on ultrasoft tyres and with Daniel Ricciardo unable to extract the maximum from his car’s performance due to some debris in the front wing, Raikkonen’s extended stint in clear air set him up for a chance to beat the second Red Bull to the podium.

Red Bull avoided the ultra soft tyre in the race, but having managed a long opening stint on it remarkably to Lap 34, Raikkonen was able to attack on supersofts for the second part of the race.

Vettel, on worn tyres, was instructed to let Raikkonen through and he caught and passed Ricciardo in the final laps of the race for a podium finish.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History & Tyre usage charts

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Look at Leclerc’s race, see how Hulkenberg gets passed and obliges him to extend the stint.

Analysis: How Ferrari missed the chance to inflict more F1 misery on Lewis Hamilton

2018-06-12

The Canadian Grand Prix has always been a track where the unexpected can happen, where there are options for race strategy and the DRS wing is very effective for overtaking.
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However, this year that was not in evidence as drivers struggled to get close to each other to pass – with aerodynamics and overheating tyres the cause – and once again did the race almost uniformly with a one stop strategy.

But it is an open championship; interestingly, the last three Grands Prix have all been dominated by the winner, but in each case, it has been a different driver and team combination; Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in Spain, Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull in Monaco and now Sebastian Vettel in Canada for Ferrari.

Here is our customary in-depth analysis of how – and why – the big decisions got taken, with input and data from some of the decision makers.


Background

Montreal has traditionally been a track where the decision between one stop and two is finely balanced. The danger with doing one stop in Montreal was always that, although you are in front of a two stopper when he comes out from his second stop, he’s on fresh tyres and with the DRS wing he will find it easy to pass you down the long straights.

However, with a 71% chance of a safety car, which would swing the race to the one stoppers, it can be worth a gamble for midfield runners looking to make up places.

With this generation of cars, the FIA recognised the problem of getting close to pass and added a third DRS zone for this race, going into the hairpin. But that did not make any difference and overtaking was scarce in the race. This dictated race strategy.

If Canada can be affected this way then it is surely time to make changes, as has now been done for 2019.

It was interesting to reflect on Friday night about the direction teams appeared to be going. Mercedes continue to dislike the new hypersoft tyre and didn’t use it during Friday’s Free practice 2 session, preferring to concentrate on the ultrasoft and supersoft tyres.

This was a mistake as the drivers didn’t have a chance to get the feel for the tyres ahead of qualifying, just a short run in FP3. And as the race turned out to be all about track position, it was costly.

Ferrari tried it but clearly felt that the ultrasoft was a better race tyre, offering more strategic freedom with a longer first stint in the race.

In contrast Force India showed their intent by working primarily on the hypersoft and supersoft tyres.

In the end Red Bull were the outliers among the top three teams, the only ones to use the hypersoft tyre for qualifying two and the race start. The thinking was that they were gentler on the tyres than the Ferrari or Mercedes car and also that the extra grip off the line would be advantageous in picking up places.

With overtaking so difficult and track position therefore at a premium, a place gained at the start could be very precious.

Vertstappen made a vigorous attack on Bottas for second into Turn 1, but the Finn resisted, and it set him up to finish there. Meanwhile Ricciardo in the sister car did manage to pass Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and gain a crucial place to fifth.

He would later get into fourth ahead of Hamilton, when the Briton was obliged to make an early pit stop due to overheating.


Changes in order: the overcut works again

Having resisted Verstappen at the start, Bottas was able to stay ahead as the hypersofts inevitably faded after ten laps or so. But he couldn’t do anything about Vettel, who pulled away steadily, despite losing the margin gained at the start when the race was neutralised with a Safety Car for a spectacular accident involving Stroll and Hartley.

Hamilton pitted on Lap 16 to move onto supersofts. Ricciardo had been in undercut range of him and the gap was being monitored back to Leclerc in the Sauber. Hamilton was battling with an overheating engine due to a body part acting wrongly, so his race was compromised first by having to run a different mode, by having to pit earlier than ideal to make adjustments at his stop. He just cleared Leclerc.

Red Bull reacted and brought Ricciardo in a lap later and with a faster stop he was able to overcut the Mercedes and gain another position to fourth. Red Bull had also covered off any threat from Hamilton to Verstappen by anticipating his stop, seeing the Mercedes mechanics running out into pit lane and came in on the same lap. This was a reasonable stint length for the tyres they were on, but only half the stint length Hamilton would have been expecting.

The only ray of sunshine for Hamilton was that Ferrari didn’t capitalise on the chance to beat him with Raikkonen. Hamilton was already set to lose his championship lead to Vettel with the order as it was. Moving him another place behind Vettel would have been valuable to Ferrari.

Although the Mercedes was relatively faster on the supersoft tyres, Hamilton wasn’t able to get the gap down to a safe level to be ahead when the Finn pitted. He was behind Ricciardo and not able to run at his own pace.

Ferrari kept Raikkonen out, attempting to do an overcut of both Red Bulls and Hamilton to get the podium, taking advantage of the clear air ahead. They were greedy but didn’t have the pace to manage it. But by trying and running longer, he didn’t close out the earlier chance to pit and gain track position on Hamilton and add an extra two points to Vettel’s championship lead. The peak of his lead was on Lap 30, there were only a few tenths in it, but the gap was there and as Raikkonen didn’t appear to be making enough ground to jump three cars, it might have made sense.


Midfield battle – advantage Renault

This was a good race for the Renault team that showed itself to be clearly the best of the rest behind the top three teams, albeit at some margin. In the race the cars of Hulkenberg and Sainz comfortably overcame the Force Indias but they were still lapped, despite using the same upgraded engine as the Red Bull team.

Hulkenberg lost a place to Ocon at the start but gained it back in the pits with an overcut, which owed a lot to a problem with the Force India rear jack. Sainz also go ahead.

Perez was forced to try a two-stop strategy, pitting on Lap 9 but he wasn’t able to make use of it in the second stint as he was held up by Gasly with Leclerc just ahead. In previous years that wouldn’t have been an issue at Montreal but it was a clear illustration of just how tough overtaking was this year, despite three DRS zones.

Meanwhile Leclerc and Alonso had a great battle early on which the younger man initially won, but Alonso managed to pass him with an undercut in the pit stops only to retire the car.

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 provided by Williams Martini Racing

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Note the period around Lap 24-27 when Raikkonen is trying to build a gap to the Red Bulls and Hamilton to overcut them. In clear air he doesn’t have Vettel’s pace and also fails to take advantage of the opportunity to take an extra two points off Vettel’s title rival Hamilton by stopping when he still had a safe margin to him.

Analysis: The ifs, buts and maybes that held back Vettel and Hamilton in Monaco F1

2018-05-29

Normally when the leader of a Grand Prix has a problem on the power unit that costs him 160hp, over two seconds a lap of pure performance, the pursuing drivers will find a way past.
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Had Daniel Ricciardo’s problem occurred anywhere other than Monaco, they would have done. And had it occurred before the only round of pit stops in the race, then he might have been vulnerable to a strategy move, like an undercut, from Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton.

But Ricciardo had made his only stop of the afternoon before his MGU-K failed. Although he had to play with the controls of the car, shifting the brake bias forward, for example, to help the rear brakes, his car’s gentler treatment of the softest tyres in the Pirelli range was superior to Ferrari and Mercedes.

And that proved to be enough to keep him in position on this most difficult of tracks on which to overtake.

Because it’s Monaco track position is everything, as Lewis Hamilton learned to his cost in 2015 when he tried to make the extra stop under a Safety Car and lost the race.

That’s why both he and Vettel were reluctant to try something at the end of the race, a dramatic second stop and final attack phase. Despite toiling with the tyres they had, track position was considered king.


Pre-race considerations

The debut of Pirelli’s hypersoft tyre made for some very fast lap times in qualifying, with Ricciardo’s pole time of 70 seconds the fastest ever lap of the Principality.

But the teams were aware from practice that the problem in the race was front tyre graining and that would be the limitation for the race.

Monaco is always a one stop race, to prioritise track position, but this year it was rather like races on the Pirelli tyres of four or five years ago, where the key was to manage the tyres to a stage where it was safe to stop and be able to reach the finish on the second set. The worst thing would be to have to stop earlier than ideal and then also take the punishment of having too long a second stint.


The race at the front

Hamilton was the first to make his stop, on Lap 12, from third place. This led to a reaction from Ferrari and then Red Bull a few laps later, to avoid the undercut. There wasn’t much threat of it; the ultrasoft tyres did not warmup quickly and thus were not particularly fast when new.

The intriguing aspect of Hamilton’s early move was that he did not have enough of a gap to clear Esteban Ocon in the Force India. So, he would have to pass him on the track.

To maximise his chances, Mercedes fitted the ultrasoft tyres, expecting performance. As it turned out Ocon made it very easy for Hamilton to come through. He was not in the same race as him, but we’ve seen much slower cars hold up potential race winners in Monaco when the battle is for position.

Ocon is a Mercedes junior driver and understands how the team operates; that it is all about trying to win the race and score maximum possible points with both cars. No doubt hoping one day soon to be one of the Silver Arrows drivers benefitting from that approach, he moved aside.

Had Mercedes been counting on that attitude from Ocon, they would have fitted a set of supersofts on Hamilton’s car, as they did five laps later with Bottas, who was some way off Hamilton’s pace all weekend. He was somewhat obliged to go this route as he didn’t have a new set of ultrasofts.

Bottas had been out of contention until the supersofts started to perform, which prompted others to look at that approach, as the ultrasofts were not performing. Sauber did the same thing with Ericsson. Some teams split the strategies, to hedge their bets, with one car on each tyre.

With Ricciardo in trouble, there was the question of whether Vettel would pit again and try to attack for the win and whether Hamilton would pit again to try to find more pace.

The gap was there for Vettel potentially to do it at the Virtual Safety Car with five laps to go, Vettel had 11 seconds margin over Hamilton, which would have been just enough, but it would have been extraordinarily brave. Especially as the leaders just missed the initial opportunity; the VSC was deployed just after they passed the pit entry.

So, with the risk that the track could go green at any point, and mindful of how Hamilton was caught out in 2015, discretion was the better part of valour.


Gasly and Ocon shine in midfield battle

If the finishing order of the top five was the same as on the grid, behind them as always, was a good battle in midfield.

At the end of the first stint Ocon, Alonso, Sainz, Perez and Gasly were all still in grid order, but Gasly managed to overcut his way up the order, managing to get 37 laps out of a set of the hypersoft tyres. On paper this was nigh on impossible, but Toro Rosso had a flexible strategy, reacting to the moves of others and when Renault pulled the trigger with Sainz on an early stop, the decision was made to do the opposite.

Gasly pulled it off with aplomb, in another drive that has got him recognised after his breakthrough fourth place in Bahrain.

Once the track came clear after the cars ahead pitted – Perez losing eight places with a stuck wheel at his stop – Gasly was able to find pace and ran in sixth place before his stop. He rejoined behind Alonso, but the Spaniard hit trouble with 35 laps to go and retired, leaving Gasly in seventh place behind Ocon, where he finished.

He was also helped by his team mate: Toro Rosso clearly instructed Hartley to back up the cars behind him. If we consider the Race History Trace (below) Hartley (brown dotted line) starts backing up after Lap 26 and only stops after Verstappen pits. He helps both Gasly and Verstappen with that tactic..

Sainz had been compromised by that early stop; the team had been concerned about Force India trying the undercut with Perez. So, he lost track position to Gasly. He was further compromised by being on the ultrasoft tyres, so later in the race he found it hard to hold Verstappen on fresh tyres behind him, the Dutchman having made a late stop having started on the ultrasofts from the back of the grid.

Sainz also had to let his team mate Hulkenberg through; the German had also started on the ultrasofts from 11th on the grid and so he represented Renault’s best chance of racing Gasly for seventh place.


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

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Look at the phenomenal pace of Verstappen following his Lap 47 stop, after he clears the Renaults. On new hypersofts, his performance curve upwards is the steepest of any driver on the day, underlining what a missed opportunity this was for the Dutchman to win the Monaco GP, due to an unforced error in practice.

Mercedes Spanish GP domination: An outlier or the start of a trend?

2018-05-15

We said at the start of this 2018 F1 season that with the car that they have, Ferrari could win the championship only if they execute perfectly.
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Some strategy calls have gone well, others like Bahrain they have got away with because of the driver, others have gone wrong and so has the driver, like Baku.

But in Spain they were on the defensive; on race pace, strategy, tyre usage and engine reliability, they were fighting a rearguard action and Mercedes enjoyed the most dominant winning margin of the season.

Was this the start of a trend, after a shaky Mercedes start to the season, or an outlier of a race due to Pirelli changing the tyres for this race (and two later ones in France and UK)?

Pre-race considerations

It is never desirable to change something fundamental, like tyres, during a racing season. For one thing it always gives rise to conspiracy theories that the change was motivated by the team who subsequently wins the race to the detriment of the team that loses.

F1 fans have fresh memories of Mercedes struggling to master the tyres in 2013 until they did a controversial test and from that point onwards started winning races.

The idea of Pirelli bringing a tyre with thinner gauge arose after teams experienced blistering at the winter tests in February and early March. All the leading teams were part of that request to Pirelli. Knowing that they had time from a logistical point of view, the company obliged with tyres for Spain, France and Silverstone, where the problem was mostly expected to arise.

Up to that point in 2018, the supersoft had been a tyre that Ferrari had worked better than Mercedes in the opening rounds of the championship. But now it wasn’t to anyone’s liking and we had the highly unusual spectacle in the Q2 session, which decides the starting race tyre, of all but one car going for it on the soft compound instead.

Only Fernando Alonso went through Q2 on supersoft and therefore started the race on it. When only one car in the whole field, as it subsequently turned out, starts on the ‘qualifying’ tyre, then something is wrong.

Interestingly Sauber was the only team to ignore the supersoft completely in Friday practice and to focus on optimising a soft-medium strategy. It worked for Charles Leclerc, who got another solid points finish in a race with Alonso.

Leclerc was ahead and knew Alonso couldn’t overcut as he couldn’t extend on his supersoft tyres, but knowing they could never pit Leclerc before the safe moment for one stop to be able to reach the end on mediums.

For the midfield, the battle was in doing a better job of calculating how early your car could get to the end on Medium tyres.

Doing the opposite
Track position is king, goes the saying and at some tracks you give it up only if you absolutely have to. On fast open tracks with good overtaking possibilities, it’s all about doing your fastest race, not worrying too much about being held up by slower cars after a pit stop.

In Spain it’s different, especially with the 2018 generation cars. It’s very hard to overtake. Even a big tyre offset doesn’t compensate; track position is king. This was demonstrated vividly after Hamilton’s pit stop, where on fresh tyres he couldn’t get past Verstappen, whose tyres had done over 30 laps.

And so when Ferrari – fearing an undercut attempt by Valtteri Bottas – pulled Sebastian Vettel in to the pits on Lap 17 from a second place he had taken off Bottas at the start, committing him to a two stop race, it did several things at once.

First it brought him out behind Kevin Magnussen, as he didn’t have enough of a gap back to clear the Dane. He lost some vital time there. Second it determined Lewis Hamilton’s strategy for the afternoon as the Englishman was running in clear air, which causes less damage to the tyres, and was able to extend his first stint to the point where he could move directly onto mediums to the finish of the race.

It also determined Bottas’ strategy, as Mercedes pushed Bottas to do two more hard laps while Vettel was losing time behind Magnussen, the target being to then overcut him at the stop. A problem with one of the rear wheels meant that Bottas stop was 3.9s, almost twice the normal length and he rejoined behind Vettel. That was two set-backs in the first part of the race for Bottas, who’d lost the start to Vettel and after his blowout in Baku he must be wondering when his luck would change.

It told everyone that Vettel was on a two stop and Bottas almost certainly as well as they had almost 50 laps to go to the finish. Both teams went into the race with two stops in mind. Ferrari were getting through the tyres more voraciously than Mercedes and far more so than Red Bull, who had seen in Friday practice that they could hold onto them longer that their rivals and that opened up the possibility of a one stop race, from soft to medium.

But Ferrari had another problem that was undermining their performance; the engine. As at the end of last season, when Vettel’s title hopes went away with reliability concerns on the engine, so in Spain Raikkonen lost an engine in practice and then another in the race causing alarm bells.

One of the problems has been traced to an electrical fault and that engine may be used again for practice later in the season. But Vettel’s race was doubly compromised by instructions to take care of the engine after Raikkonen retired before half distance.

Added to Ferrari’s strategy move to bring Vettel in on Lap 17 for the first stop, to prevent Bottas from undercutting him, it added up to a defensive race for Ferrari, rather than an offensive one.

This is the real story of Ferrari’s strategy in Spain, not the focus on the second stop under the Virtual Safety Car, that dropped Vettel down to fourth place where he eventually finished.

By that point he was already well and truly on the defensive and the move under the VSC was the right thing to do as it meant that the stop cost half as much time relative to the field as stopping at racing speeds. Ferrari had been hoping for a VSC or a Safety Car, knowing Vettel had to stop again. Every race this season has had one, it’s becoming a clear pattern.

Vettel dropped to fourth and stayed there because his positioning was slightly out on the pit box entry and also he was held momentarily for another car passing so as not to be released unsafely.

This allowed the one-stopping Verstappen to get past him for a podium finish.

Mercedes, meanwhile ‘did the opposite’, when Vettel stopped. Ferrari had been relying on the Finn also needing to stop a second time after an early first stop, but when Vettel pitted the instruction was to stay out and try to make the finish.

There was only a very small probability that the VSC for Ocon’s broken down car could become a Safety Car, which might have made the decision to stop more pressing. The Strategists on the pit wall are racing mathematicians, who calculate probability and risk/reward in real time throughout the race.

Bottas was able to make the tyres last to the finish for a one-two for Mercedes. He was helped by Verstappen breaking off part of his front wing in a collision. Although he maintained remarkably strong lap times, it inevitably imbalanced the car and despite having tyres that were 15 laps fresher, he could not get close to Bottas.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History & Tyre Usage Charts

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis. The thing to look at is the gaps between the cars and also the relative pace of the cars.

A positive sign is an upward curve indicating strong pace as lap time falls.

A collectors item: The highly unusual sight on the tyre usage chart of only one car, Alonso, starting on the ‘qualifying’ tyre.

On the race history chart, it is immediately apparent that Hamilton won the race in the opening stint as he had pace that Vettel could not live with. The Ferrari is managing rather than dropping off in tyre performance at the end of the first stint, but the trend is certainly downwards before the VSC intervenes for the second stop. Relative to Hamilton and Verstappen, who continue to rise, it’s clear that Ferrari didn’t have the race pace in Spain for various reasons.

Haas was clearly the fourth fastest car in Spain – look at Magnussen’s lonely race, but also at how well clear of the Renault of Sainz he is.

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