Grand Prix Tours Strategy Reports
Bold strategy and flawless execution: Vettel Bahrain GP win echoes Schumacher, Brawn era Ferrari
The Bahrain Grand Prix was set to be a good acid test of the new F1 as it is generally one of the tracks with the most overtaking and we’ve seen strategy play a key part due to the way the tyres perform on this track.
This year the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari swung Ferrari’s way due to a combination of factors, including Sebastian Vettel’s very strong pace on supersoft tyres, especially in the second stint and Mercedes’ relative weakness on them; this is something we saw with the softer compounds in Australia and there is certainly a pattern emerging.
Ferrari has understood the new wider Pirelli tyres, especially the softer end of the range, better than its main rivals.
Once again Ferrari were bold on strategy and used the undercut on Mercedes. A Safety Car, which should have upset Ferrari’s strategy, as in China, immediately followed it but this time Mercedes failed to capitalise on their stroke of luck, due to a pit stop delay and then Lewis Hamilton got a time penalty.
Meanwhile there were some strong performances in midfield, especially Sergio Perez, who stuck to a set strategy and delivered a strong seventh place from 18th on the grid.
Here we will analyse in detail the big decisions, why they were made and how they created the race result.
This year’s race took place later than last year and the temperatures were really high until Sunday, when they fell. At the same time the wind changed direction from Friday to Saturday and Sunday, when it became a headwind on the main straight and on Sunday the wind was very strong.
As a result the information gained on Friday in FP2 was not carried though as some teams expected. Critically, Mercedes was caught out on its performance on the supersoft tyre. On Friday they thought they were okay on them, on Sunday they were outpaced by Ferrari and it played a big part in why they lost the race.
However for a team like Force India, who have a driver like Perez, who can look after the tyres while maintaining good pace, they never deviated from their belief that the tyre degradation would decrease significantly from Friday to Sunday and that a two stop plan, with the first two stints on Supersofts, was the way to go. Perez also got a slice of luck from the Safety Car.
Last year was an unusual race where many cars, including the podium finishers, all changed their strategy during the race. Normally that spells disaster and this year the drivers who changed strategy during the race certainly lost out to those who stuck to their convictions and went for it.
Last year Hamilton lost a place at the start to Nico Rosberg, who went on to win the race. This year, starting from second on the grid, he also lost a place to Sebastian Vettel, who had been disappointed to qualify third.
Bahrain is the third highest ‘start bias’ of the year, meaning that it is number three in the chart of tracks where the clean side of the grid has an advantage over the dirty side. Hamilton was on the dirty side, Vettel the clean.
Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene had called on his team to be ‘coragiosa’ (bold) and the strategist Inaki Rueda again took him at his word, as in China, employing an early undercut on Bottas on Lap 10.
Mercedes could see this coming, of course, and could have pre-empted it by pitting Bottas on that same Lap 10. There was a risk for Vettel as he would be coming out into quite a bit of traffic, including Perez, Sainz and Grosjean. Mercedes saw that traffic and were hoping for one more lap to be able to pit Bottas and pre-empt Ferrari’s strike.
It was a mistake not to take it, but from there they split the strategies to try to create a compromise for Vettel with Bottas on supersofts and Hamilton on softs.
Then fate intervened again, as in China. Handed a lifeline by a Safety Car being deployed for Lance Stroll’s collision with Sainz, Mercedes had the chance to pit Bottas without losing any race time and regain the lead.
Vettel should have fallen behind him and Ricciardo, and possibly also Hamilton, who would have had to wait for service in the pit lane behind Bottas and would have lost the position to Ricciardo.
But Bottas had a slow in lap and a slow pit stop while Ricciardo was held up by Hamilton on the way into the pits, for which Hamilton was handed a five second penalty.
It all played into Vettel’s hands; he retained the lead behind the Safety Car. Given a second chance, Vettel took it and did the great work in the second stint that won him the race.
Bottas was up to a second a lap off Vettel on the same tyres in that second stint, which underlined Ferrari’s raw race pace and also indicated that the Mercedes was not working on the supersoft tyres.
Hamilton, on soft tyres, spent 10 laps behind Bottas in that stint from Lap 17, losing five seconds to Vettel. Once Hamilton got past Bottas on Lap 27, he was able to pull away from Bottas at eight tenths of a second per lap.
That told the Mercedes strategist James Vowles that he had to change the strategy for Hamilton and fit used softs for the final stint rather than the planned supersofts. It was yet another compromlse to add to the start, the time penalty and the slow pit stops. Fortunately they had saved that set of used softs for the race, as had Ferrari, as an insurance policy, other teams had not, including Red Bull, who were committed to a supersoft led race.
In the final stint Hamilton’s pace was very strong. And after being allowed through under orders by Bottas to mount an attack on Vettel, Hamilton cut the gap, as Vettel managed his tyres.
However the German turned the power unit up with around six laps to go, to take the sting out of Hamilton’s attack and to show that he had some margin. He held on to win the race; a great collective effort by Vettel and the team, which is why he was so happy afterwards.
It was reminiscent of a Michael Schumacher/ Ross Brawn era Ferrari victory; bold strategy, great driving and flawless team execution.
One of the things that made this a good race was that Pirelli brought a tyre selection that led on the supersoft, a tyre that shows some degradation. This meant that the teams had to really think carefully about their strategy and we saw a real mixture of strategies, with the decision on whether to use soft tyres or supersoft tyres for the second and third stints split roughly 50-50. This is certainly what we want to see this year, rather than conservative selections where the likelihood is of almost no degradation and one stop strategies, where drivers finish in car performance order.
The soft may have been the better race tyre and Mercedes may have struggled on the supersofts, but some teams built their result on them.
Sergio Perez went from 18th on the grid to seventh by using a supersoft led strategy and sticking to it. The data from Friday’s practice showed the degradation to be around 0.18s per lap, but factored in that this would decrease on race day as the track improved and the coating of sand on the surface was lifted.
Perez has become one of the very best drivers at looking after the softer tyres for long stints while maintaining good pace. Here, like Vettel, he managed a 23 lap middle stint on supersofts, but unlike Vettel he was not running in free air, so it was a great performance.
He made a strong start, up to 13th, and then passed Palmer for 12th. The Safety Car also played into his hands, where he made his pit stop and he lost only 9.1 secs, compared to 21 for stopping at racing speeds.
This helped him to get past Grosjean, while Sainz and Verstappen hit problems. So Perez was ninth at the restart, behind Ericsson who was doing a one-stopper and Hulkenberg.
Renault put Hulkenberg onto soft tyres at the pit stop under the Safety Car, giving him the option of one stopping, but it meant that Perez was able to use his pace on fresh supersofts to pass him and he made it stick by keeping the tyre alive for 23 laps, to extend the stint. Hulkenberg switched strategy and pitted again which confirmed Perez’ result. He couldn’t get close to matching his qualifying pace in the race conditions.
Williams were probably a little surprised to see how close Perez was at the end of the race. Williams had 2 new softs, which was the best race tyre overall. The Force India qualifying pace had been relatively poor so they perhaps would not have expected to be so competitive in the race.
Massa’s middle stint was compromised by being overtaken by Raikkonen and Ricciardo and his pace suffered relatively at the end of the stint despite being on the soft tyre.
Perez has been in consideration for a Ferrari seat before and drives like this will certainly revive that consideration.
Pascal Wehrlein marked his return to F1 action with a strong performance to finish 11th in the Sauber, which is the slowest car in the field. This was done with a one-stop strategy, starting on supersofts and then switching to softs for a 45 lap final stint. He was pitted on Lap 11, so gained nothing from the Safety Car, but by going one stop he had 24 seconds of pit stop time he would save. In a slow car like the Sauber this time bleeds away every lap, but he picked up places as the cars ahead pitted for their second stops, like Kvyat, Alonso, Palmer, Ocon and Hulkenberg. The latter two re-passed him easily, but he managed to stay ahead of Kvyat and Palmer, both of whom have much faster cars.
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.
Compare the pace of Vettel and Hamilton with their team mates, again a different class. Raikkonen’s pace in the final stint is puzzling in that it is more on a par with Vettel’s.
Observe also how Perez manages to keep the pace going for a long middle stint on supersofts to keep ahead of Hulkenberg on softs.
Analysis: Would Vettel have won China without F1 Safety Car and why did Ferrari leave Raikkonen out?
After the outlier of Melbourne’s street track the Chinese Grand Prix was the first opportunity on a proper race track in 2017 to assess the new F1 cars; to judge the level of overtaking and to understand better the way that race strategy has changed with the new rules.
There was some close wheel to wheel action and with mixed conditions at the start, decision making was at the heart of the action.
In the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, whereas in Australia it was Mercedes’ decision to pit early that cost the race, in China Ferrari took the risk to make the early stop.
Their plan was thwarted, not by the early stop, but by an accident and Safety Car immediately afterwards, which handed Vettel’s rivals a free pit stop. And because the accident was on the start line, it meant that the Safety Car had to pass down the pit lane, which helped the others and made it even worse for Vettel to recuperate.
It was a shame as without that, the race could have been decided between them at several different points along the way. Again the cars and lead drivers were very closely matched, with Mercedes perhaps just having the slight edge due to the cooler conditions, whereas the Ferrari was a shade faster in Melbourne.
Here we will take a deep dive into the background stories from the race and analyse the decisions made and their effect on the outcome.
Practice was cut short by bad weather on Friday, which meant all the work on slick tyres was done on Saturday morning. Red Bull looked better on long runs than on qualifying runs. No–one bothered with the overly conservative medium tyre, while the Soft tyre looked like it was capable of very long stints of over 45 laps, making it a likely one stop race in the dry. However the faster warm up of the Super Soft made that an option for some.
The problem with the SuperSoft was that it forced you into two stopping, gave far less flexibility to the strategy and defined the pit stop times. That lack of flexibility could have been costly for Red Bull if it had rained later in the race, for example. For the faster cars with more downforce there was no problem getting the soft tyre to work in the cold conditions, but for the midfield and slower teams, the Supersoft was tempting.
The outlier among the faster cars was Red Bull, which saved Supersoft tyres for both drivers (Verstappen’s qualifying was disrupted so he had new tyres anyway). This is a trend we are starting to see this year for that team to seek to take the ‘fastest’ tyre, rather than the one that gives most flexibility. It almost cost them in China and it could well cost them in a future race, where flexibility is key.
What teams did not have clearly worked out due to lack of data was the crossover from the wet to the intermediate to the dry tyres, as the Pirelli wet and intermediate tyres have had little testing. This would turn out to be a pivotal issue in the early part of the race.
Most teams sent their drivers out to do a couple of laps before joining the grid on different tyres to assess the grip levels. Lewis Hamilton arrived on the grid on slicks, while others only assessed the full wets and intermediates, thinking that it was likely to be an intermediate tyre start. The problem with a drying track in Shanghai is that beneath the two giant wing structures, which span the main straight, the track stays wet for longer.
Although that caught out Antonio Giovinazzi, whose crash at the end of Lap 3 triggered the Safety Car, in fact the area of the track some strategists were more concerned about was the final sector, which still had some damp patches affecting lap times.
The rule of thumb is that the closer to the front you are, the more risk averse you will be in a situation like this. The further back you are the easier the decision is to go to the slick tyres. Most people did the same thing, which was to start on intermediates and pit under the Virtual Safety car on Lap 2 after Lance Stroll’s car went off. The leaders did not do this, apart from Vettel and neither did Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso.
Sainz, starting from 11th on the grid, took the contrary decision to start the race on slick supersoft tyres. Although he got a positive race result in 7th place, it wasn’t because of this decision. It was in spite of it.
He got wheelspin off the line, dropping to 18th place and going off the track, brushing the barriers. He was lucky to get away with that and then picked up places when the Virtual Safety Car and then Safety Car came out.
But prior to the Safety Car, having lost lost 27 seconds at the start, he was already a pit stop behind the others anyway. What saved him and gained the places back, was the Safety Car.
Ferrari qualified close to Mercedes and felt that they had a chance to win the race in China, to back up their Australia win. There’s plenty of confidence in the team at the moment and their chairman Sergio Marchionne was in the garage observing them in action.
So when the Virtual Safefy Car was triggered on Lap 2, after Stroll’s incident, they assessed risk versus reward and went for the bold option – they pitted Vettel.
Both Mercedes, both Red Bulls and Raikkonen stayed out.
Ferrari now had a split strategy across the two cars. The problem was that Raikkonen had lost a place to Ricciardo at the start and sat behind him, unable to exploit the pace of the Ferrari and play his part in the game.
By pitting under the Virtual Safety Car, a stop takes around 12-14 seconds instead of 21. When the track goes green that’s a 7-9 sec gap that the leader has to build back up ahead of his own stop. As the track was drying quickly, Hamilton would surely be in a lap or two later, as would the other leading cars and Vettel could well have been in the lead (see below)
There are three main risks to doing what Ferrari did; one is that the VSC can end at any time and it would be a disaster for it to end while your car is in the pits and others get back up to racing speeds. Another is that on a cold day, if the VSC continues for a few minutes after you stop, you lost tyre temperature in the slicks and with it much of the pace advantage you’ve gone in for.
But the biggest risk is that a VSC is often followed by a real Safety Car, either because the Race Director feels that the situation requires it or because someone goes onto slicks and has a heavy accident.
The latter is what happened to Vettel in China. The VSC was lifted and it was looking good for Vettel as the benchmark Sainz on supersofts was setting faster sector times than the leaders on intermediates.
Then Giovinazzi smashed into the pit wall and the Safety Car came out, which gave Mercedes, the Red Bulls and Raikkonen a free pit stop.
Red Bull were especially smart here in that they could see that the Safety Car was going to be out for several laps,. So they did not ‘stack’ their cars, forcing the second car to queue behind the first for service, which is what Mercedes did, losing Bottas places to Ricciardo, Verstappen and Raikkonen.
As they passed through the pit lane, the tail car Verstappen was serviced first and then the next lap through Ricciardo was serviced, so both cars gained.
It would have been very close at Hamilton’s stop. On Lap 3, after the VSC ended, Vettel was 18 seconds behind and Hamilton needed 21 seconds to stop and retain position, so there would have been a crossover point, which could have swung either way depending on the track condition at that precise moment (a similar situation to Hamilton’s dramatic last lap world title win in Brazil 2008).
On Lap 3, Hamilton and Vettel set similar middle sector times, but Vettel’s final sector was two seconds quicker, so it was starting to swing back towards him. Either way, if Hamilton had pitted or if he had continued and completed another lap, chances are he would have come out behind Vettel. But the Safety Car put paid to that.
After that Ferrari had to rely on Vettel overtaking the cars ahead of him to get back to Hamilton. They opted not to move Raikkonen out of his path and Vettel lost around 7 seconds to Hamilton as a result. This early in the season it is unusual for Ferrari to issue orders. That tends to happen only when one driver is clearly the main title challenger.
Vettel passed Raikkonen and the Red Bulls, but Ferrari opted to keep Raikkonen out on track, past the ideal stop time for his tyre condition relative to the Red Bulls and Bottas. This cost him the chance of a podium.
But it wasn’t looking good anyway; had they stopped him earlier he had shown no signs of being able to overtake the Red Bulls in the first stint and would have lost a place to Bottas, who had dropped down the order because of a spin on cold tyres before the restart, so they looked at it differently.
The main reason why they left him out was to try to keep him in Hamilton’s pit window so he could be ahead after Hamilton’s stop and interfere with Hamilton’s race and bring Vettel back into play. It was the only card they had left to play.
But a realistic assessment showed that it was futile. Raikkonen was inside Hamilton’s pit window on Lap 31 but by Lap 35 Hamilton had 25 seconds gap.
Raikkonen was having an off day personally and his tyres were not at their best after following Ricciardo, although it must be said the Ferrari’s benign aerodynamics mean that it can follow other cars with less damage to its tyres than any other car in the field. Vettel demonstrated that clearly in Australia and China and it could be a factor that comes into play a few times this season.
Hamilton had enough in hand so that when he pitted he came out ahead of Raikkonen. Ferrari will look to Bahrain where the hotter temperatures and layout of the track mean they could be the team to beat.
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.
It is immediately apparent how the fast cars get the tyres up to speed quickly after the Safety Car while the cars with less downforce take many laps to do so and lose a lot of time in the process.
Look at Raikkonen’s trace, you can see how he would have dropped behind Bottas if he had stopped at a normal time. Ferrari were also leaving him out to try to interfere with Hamilton’s race at the second stop. After following Ricciardo for many laps he didn’t have the pace left in the front tyres to close that gap to Hamilton at the second stops, so the plan didn’t work.
Once again the pace of Vettel and Hamilton in races is significantly better than their team mates.
The game has changed: Analysis of the big decisions that shaped the F1 Australian Grand Prix
The first Grand Prix to new regulations and with wider, more robust tyres brought about a complete change of approach in race strategy. With stronger tyres Melbourne is a one-stop race and that was the case for most runners this season.
But strategy is still critical to race outcomes; at the front the race victory was decided by a strategy call from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who wanted to make an early stop and as he came out behind two cars and not into a gap, he lost the race win to Sebastian Vettel.
Further back, track position proved to be the most valuable thing of all and overtaking proved hard, as Fernando Alonso managed to hold the Force India of Esteban Ocon behind him despite being 27km/h slower on the straights!
It was clear from practice that the 2017 tyres have very low degradation, so much so that both the supersoft and soft tyres were capable of doing most of the race distance. There was little chance of building a tyre offset to another car, which defined the strategy and racing in recent times.
Whereas last year five or six laps fewer on a tyre would mean enough of a performance advantage to overtake, this is not the case this year and there was nothing teams could do to generate a sufficient offset in performance. To illustrate this, Daniil Kyvat managed to cover 34 laps in the opening stint on ultra soft tyres and was on a similar pace, before his stop, to Felipe Massa ahead who was on new supersofts!
So most of the front-runners planned the same strategy, which was a first stint on Ultra softs and then a second stint on Supersoft.
Further back, we saw some teams split strategies; Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer started on Soft tyres, Lance Stroll on Supersofts.
Sauber for example, started one car on soft and the other on supersoft, hoping to have a chance to use one car to hold the field behind it, to allow the sister car to gain positions as rivals pitted earlier than them. This is the kind of strategy one sees at Monaco and which can be very effective in putting two or three rivals behind your lead car.
Another reason to employ an approach like this for teams at the rear of the field is that Melbourne usually has one of the highest attrition rates of the season. As the first race, many cars drop out with reliability issues and there are usually accidents and safety cars. So a smaller team can score points here, as we have seen many times in recent years.
This year just 13 cars reached the chequered flag, but five of the six front running cars finished, as did a Williams and both cars from Toro Rosso and Force India. So there were no points for cars at the back of the grid, like Sauber that tried the “Monaco approach”.
Ferrari vs. Mercedes – What were the differences between them and what turned the race?
Last year Ferrari led 34 of the 57 laps of this race, but failed to win it due to poor choices.
This year they started in second place, but picked up the lead after Mercedes stopped earlier than planned, losing the lead in the process.
This was more a case of Mercedes yielding the win, rather than Ferrari taking it off them, as they could have done last year. But nevertheless they played their hand well and maximised the strengths of their new car, which works well on the new tyres. Unusually Mercedes ran into trouble on the tyres, while Ferrari had similar pace on ultra soft tyres and was also fast on the softs.
The Mercedes enjoyed its usual advantage on extreme engine modes in qualifying to get the pole. But there were also signs that the Mercedes operated better when there was cloud cover, while the Ferrari was stronger when the sun was out, raising the track temperature. It was only a small difference, but these factors all add up.
Hamilton qualified ahead of Vettel and won the start; with Vettel following in second ahead of Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton tried to shake off Vettel, but the Ferrari persisted in its pursuit throughout the opening stint. The Mercedes was running with slightly less wing angle, so the straight-line speeds were among the fastest, while the Ferrari had slightly more downforce and its top speeds were around the middle of the field.
The Mercedes, in Hamilton’s hands, at least, was sliding more and this took the edge off the tyres. Hamilton radioed that they were overheating at one point and then on Lap 14 he had a small excursion, which cost him a second.
His lap times returned to the mid 1m28s, but he was onto the team asking to be allowed to pit for new tyres.
This is one of those situations where a team has to evaluate whether to heed its driver or just tell him to carry on. Teams further down the grid tend to overrule the driver, but a three times world champion needs to be listened to.
On this occasion it was the wrong thing to do.
Mercedes was trying to build a 22-second gap to Raikkonen in fourth place, who was racing with Max Verstappen. The second Ferrari was not on the pace of the lead car, but neither was it dropping off at a sufficient rate to open a gap for Hamilton to drop into.
By Lap 16, the lap before he stopped, it was just 16.2 seconds. Hamilton needed another six or seven laps to clear Raikkonen in a pit stop. But he came in at the end of Lap 17 and dropped back out behind both Raikkonen and Verstappen. He was put onto the soft rubber, rather than the supersoft, because there were still 40 laps to go to the end.
This was a gift to Ferrari, for whom Vettel now needed just to open the gap over Hamilton to 22 seconds to be able to pit and take the lead.
Hamilton’s pace on the soft tyres was strong but he soon caught Verstappen and lost time behind him, handing the opening to Vettel to pit at the end of Lap 22. Ferrari covered Mercedes with the soft tyres, despite being only 35 laps from the flag.
The only risk there was that if Hamilton were to do a Plan B strategy and switch onto supersoft or ultrasoft tyres later on and then get lucky with a Safety Car deployment, this would leave Vettel vulnerable to attack in the closing stages.
But Ferrari knew that Vettel’s pace on soft tyres was strong and that overtaking would be hard even with a tyre offset, so the risk was therefore manageable.
The only problem was that, despite having a safe gap to pit, Vettel had a slow in-lap, due to coming up behind Lance Stroll. He lost almost a second, so when he emerged from the pits he was only just ahead of the Verstappen and Hamilton battle. It took a few corners to warm up the tyres, but he managed to hold on.
Mercedes toyed with the idea of the Plan B, but as the laps went by they didn’t see enough of a performance advantage in the other tyres to make the plan work.
Also it would have required Bottas to move over and let Hamilton through, which would have been an unfortunate gesture to be asked to make on his Mercedes debut.
Alonso performs miracles ahead of Ocon, Hulkenberg
Few commentators, or McLaren team members, would have given you odds on Fernando Alonso sitting in 10th place with ten laps to go of the Australian Grand Prix after the problems the team has had with Honda.
Alonso’s car was 27km/h slower on the straights than Ocon’s Force India and yet he managed to keep it behind from the start to Lap 52. Nico Hulkenberg started ahead of both men, but fell behind them at the start and had a very frustrating afternoon as a result.
Ocon tried the undercut on Lap 15, pitting for new soft tyres, but the slower warm-up of the softs meant that when McLaren reacted with Alonso and brought him in a lap later – putting him onto supersofts for faster warm-up – the Spaniard was able to hold onto his position. Sadly he had to retire on lap 50.
Sergio Perez tried an undercut on Carlos Sainz and although that didn’t pick up the position in the pit stops, he got by after Sainz came out of the pits and was struggling with the tyre warm up.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is prepared by JA on F1, with input and data from several F1 teams and from Pirelli.
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge
The Race History chart shows the gaps between the cars and the relative pace of the cars. The more upward the slope the greater the pace. The zero line is an imaginary car setting the winners average lap time every lap.
Look at the massive gap between the fifth placed Verstappen and the sixth placed Massa. This is set to be a feature the season and makes life very easy strategically for the top three teams as they will have a gap to pit into after as few as 12 laps of a race this year. It makes life very hard for midfield teams to get a podium or a strong result with little to do on tyre strategy.
Look at the end of Vettel’s first stint on ultra softs – his pace is still very strong and he pits because he has the gap he needs over Hamilton. The tyre degradation which shaped the strategy and the racing is a thing of the past.
Analysis: How Red Bull F1 dropped the ball on a day when Mercedes was vulnerable
The season finale was packed with drama and tension, especially at the end as Lewis Hamilton tried everything to change his situation and win the world championship.
His personal strategy was clear, meanwhile team race strategy decisions had a huge bearing on what happened behind him, with Red Bull trying to win the race using a different strategy gambit, but getting caught out by some excellent work by Ferrari.
The Scuderia beat Red Bull despite having a slower car, thanks to strategy.
Here’s the inside track from strategists involved in the race, on how it all happened.
With three tyres to choose from this year, many teams had prioritised the ultra soft for qualifying and the soft for the race. But having a new set of supersofts for the final stint of the race turned out to be a very beneficial strategy.
Red Bull decided to use theirs in the Q2 qualifying session, which meant that they would start the race on them. To do this and to forfeit the chance to have a new set of supersofts at the end meant that it was critical both drivers had a long and productive first stint.
Many teams’ strategy models showed that a one stop strategy was possible starting on the Soft and then using the Supersoft at the end, a luxury not allowed for the top ten, who had to start on their qualifying tyres.
To do one stop starting on supersofts was possible, but right on the limit. Max Verstappen pulled it off superbly after dropping to the back at the start. Daniel Ricciardo was left wishing he had tried one stop too after losing out to Vettel and Verstappen at the end.
Very stable conditions as always at Yas Marina led to ideal practice running for all teams and a clear picture of what the tyres would be capable of on race day.
What made this race unique was that Red Bull and Ferrari could be certain of one thing about Mercedes’ strategy: it would have to be conservative and fair to both drivers as they were fighting for a world championship.
That meant a straight forward two stop strategy for both; ultrasoft – soft –soft.
Knowing this meant that their rivals could seek to exploit it and there was a certain vulnerability to Mercedes for this race, even if they still had a modest car pace advantage in race conditions.
Furthermore, it was clear that Lewis Hamilton would have to back his team mate Nico Rosberg into the pack at some point in the race, to try to get two cars between him and his rival and swing the points advantage his way. This was always likely to be towards the end of the race, when Rosberg would have no time or strategy options to recover.
Knowing that, Ferrari went into this race better prepared than Red Bull and this was a race and a podium that they took away from Red Bull, which is pretty unusual for this season. Normally it is the other way around.
Verstappen’s race was obviously compromised by the first lap spin he suffered and he had to negotiate quite a bit of traffic. He had considered a one-stop strategy anyway after qualifying a disappointing sixth on the grid, but the team went for it after losing so much ground.
After what happened on the opening lap, Ricciardo’s race should have been significantly further up the road than Verstappen’s but he finished behind him. Here is why.
It started when he lost a position at the start to Raikkonen. The superior grip off the line of the ultrasoft will have contributed to that.
Red Bull then got caught out by the conflict between what they normally do well, which is to be aggressive in the first stint and undercut other cars and what they were set up to do in this race, which is run a long first stint on supersoft.
Ferrari spotted a gap to drop Vettel back into on Lap 8 when Kvyat and Button were fighting each other. Once that happened, Ricciardo needed to push for quite a few laps longer than the others he was racing against or he would have got nothing. Christian Horner said that a slightly flat spotted tyre compromised this plan, but Ricciardo played that down.
At this stage they had Verstappen one stopping and now in position ahead of Rosberg, Raikkonen and Vettel, which gave an ideal opportunity to have Verstappen hold back the Ferraris and Rosberg and make a gap for Ricciardo but instead of this, they pitted Ricciardo on Lap 9 and he lost all the advantage of qualifying on supersofts.
Verstappen’s performance showed that Ricciardo could have had much more flexibility in his strategy. He could have done a much longer first stint and then been prepared to attack at the end on fresher tyres, when Hamilton would be likely to hold up the field.
This is what Vettel did after a long second stint.
After that their only chance to boost Ricciardo was to undercut Raikkonen at the second stop, which they did manage to do. He finished fifth, whereas second or third could have been possible and this would have really put pressure on Rosberg at the end!
So you could argue that in both Brazil on Verstappen’s car and in Abu Dhabi on Ricciardo’s, Red Bull made strategy errors that took their cars out of the way and helped Rosberg’s cause, inadvertently simplifying his path to the championship. It’s another aspect that shows that his name was clearly meant to be on the trophy this season!
Looking at the whole strategy approach in a different way; knowing that the lowering track temperatures as night falls always play to the strengths of the supersoft tyres and knowing Hamilton was likely to slow everything down at the end; there was a good chance of an attacking end on supersofts paying dividends. Both ways up, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Red Bull picked the wrong strategy.
The Vettel strategy, which was opposed to Ricciardo’s, was clearly the right gambit. That is especially clear when you consider that the underlying pace demonstrated in Verstappen’s final stint was the fastest of any car on the track.
So Ferrari beat Red Bull with a slower car; a positive way to end a very difficult season.
There was an interesting little cameo in the midfield, where Fernando Alonso and McLaren had the same idea as Ferrari and Vettel.
It was another very strong drive by Alonso that didn’t get much attention. They were unlucky not to get past the Williams and Force India of Massa and Perez at the end as they also made the right moves with a long middle stint and an attacking supersoft stint at the end, like Vettel’s
This is another example of how it’s important to remember that every car in the Grand Prix has a different equation; depending on how fast it is, where it is in the field and what the risks are in making a certain strategy call.
Vettel was trailing the Red Bulls when he went for this tactic and Alonso was trailing the Williams and Force India. Both had nothing to lose by trying.
And that is an ideal way to end another season of F1 strategy analysis. We hope you have enjoyed it and look forward to next season’s action when the new cars designed to the more aggressive 2017 specification hit the track.
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 Chart – Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing Click to Enlarge
Look at the gulf in pace between the top three teams and the midfield (between the dotted red line of Raikkonen and the dotted orange of Hulkenberg)
Look at the parallel traces of Vettel coming back at the leaders on the supersofts which were in ideal conditions as the track cooled and Alonso doing the same strategy.
Analysis: How do you make F1 decisions in the rain and did Red Bull mess up the strategy for Verstappen?
Likely to go down as one of the great wet-weather races, due to standout performances from race winner Lewis Hamilton and especially third place driver Max Verstappen, the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix hinged on great driver skill as well decision making from the pit wall.
Whilst it was not decisive at the top of the Drivers’ championship, it was a hugely significant race in the struggle for survival at the back of the grid. Sauber finally scored points, to lift them into 10th place, ahead of Manor in the Constructors’ championship, unlocking tens of millions in prize money.
So how tough was it to make the right calls on Sunday and did Red Bull, for all of Verstappen’s brilliance, mess it up on the strategy side?
The Art of Decision making in the rain
The weather in Sao Paulo was hot and sunny on Friday and it deteriorated through cooler conditions on Saturday to constant rain on Sunday. Most rain-affected F1 races tend to be changeable from wet to dry or the other way around. It’s quite unusual to have a constantly wet race.
Pirelli has two tyres available for these conditions; the extreme wet and the intermediate. The crucial thing about deciding which of these to use is the crossover point, when one of them is demonstrably faster than the other.
On Sunday we saw the intermediate tyre at one stage lapping 1.5s faster than the wet and that was enough to persuade several teams to take a chance. Often there will be a ramp up of pace, as the intermediate gets warmed up and then the delta grows to two seconds, then three then five and so on until the whole field is on intermediates. That did not happen on Sunday and many strategists say it was never going to because of the prevailing weather conditions.
But it’s not as simple as spotting a pace advantage on another car and putting your car onto the different tyre. Each car has different risk profiles, depending on track position and car pace. So the leaders, who do not have traffic and therefore as much spray to contend with, have a fast car and track position, do not need to take risks.
Cars outside the top ten points positions are in traffic, which means lots of spray, and they are not able to use any car pace advantage they may have and therefore the risk of rolling the dice with the other tyre is lower.
The major risk is that there is an accident, which is more likely on a wet track and that brings out a Safety Car and/or a red flag stoppage. Then all the strategies are neutralised as everyone gets a free choice of tyres for the restart and cars that pitted for the intermediate have lost all their track positions. That is exactly what happened on Sunday.
So taking all these risk factors into account, when the weather forecasts all say that there is no sign of significant improvement in the weather, as was the case throughout Sunday’s race, then it is a bit like a fast pit stop versus a steady pit stop.
The fast one gains some time but there is a danger of a mistake or unsafe release. A steady stop loses a fraction of time but there are no slip-ups. The intermediate vs wet weather choice at Interlagos was like that.
So the smart thing for a strategist outside the top six to do was hedge their bets and split the strategies, putting one car on the intermediate tyre and leaving the other one on the full wet.
In that way you’ll get it right with one and wrong with the other. For a team simply looking to score points that makes sense.
For a team like Red Bull that has its tail car out of position and lower down the order than expected (Daniel Ricciardo) it is also worth the gamble. But when Verstappen passed Rosberg for second place, it was extremely risky to then pit him for intermediates, putting him into traffic and putting all the team’s eggs in one basket, as we shall see.
Red Bull has split strategies to great effect in Spain and Malaysia this year, but strangely they did not do it in this race.
In a split strategy situation you need to put your lead car onto the strategy you think is most likely to come off. So at Sauber, for example, they desperately needed a point and they left their lead car (Nasr) on wet tyres while their tail car (Ericsson) went onto intermediates – and he crashed on them.
But as other cars went to intermediates, Nasr rose up through the positions and at one point was running as high as sixth place. At that stage the championship points predictor showed Sauber moving up to ninth in the constructors’ table. Toro Rosso did the same as Sauber and its lead car, Sainz, finished sixth. Both Renaults and both Williams did the same as Red Bull and got no points at all.
In all, 12 of the 22 drivers went for an intermediate tyre at some stage and all but two of them, Bottas and Magnussen, were forced to pull out of it.
Mercedes stuck to its guns and did not flinch when Red Bull twice tried to provoke it into stopping for intermediates. The Mercedes strategist did not feel the crossover numbers were compelling enough for the switch, he didn’t see the maths in it and also he had the most to lose from a bad call as his cars were leading the race. On top of that both drivers felt the wet tyre was the best option throughout.
We have seen in the past that some midfield teams follow what the benchmark team or driver does in this situation. Several teams scored good results in the 2010-12 period in wet/dry races by following what Jenson Button did in his McLaren. Button seemed to have an uncanny knack of feeling the grip and pitting one lap ahead of the crossover point from wet to intermediates. That gave him an advantage and won him races and it certainly boosted the results of those who followed him into the pits.
At Interlagos, Force India copied Mercedes and it brought Sergio Perez a fourth place and seventh for Nico Hulkenberg.
In reality though, a constant rain situation, such as was the case on Sunday, it’s not as simple as that; as there was nothing in the forecasts that suggested an easing of the rain, the numbers from the intermediate tyre performance were not enough. Strategists had to look away from the pit wall at the environment around them. One senior strategist told me he had a puddle he would check every few minutes to study the intensity of the raindrops splashing onto the surface; that told him the rain was at a fairly constant rate.
Red Bull’s decision with Verstappen was more based on the numbers and less on the environment and made little sense.
It cost him second place for sure, even if they believed that the gamble might bring them a win.
But the upside for the fans was that Verstappen’s recovery drive from 14th place was one of the highlights of the season.
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 the consistency of Lewis Hamilton’s pace through the race. That also demonstrates how consistent the conditions were. The spikes of pace from Ricciardo when he went to intermediates soon ebb as the rain does not abate and safety cars neutralise the strategies.
Dodging the showers and the chaos: How to come up with a winning plan for F1 Brazilian Grand Prix
Two races to go in the F1 world championship and one senses that if there is to be an upset, a final twist of the tale, it is likely to come at Interlagos, rather than the final round in Abu Dhabi. And the weather forecast from F1 specialists Ubimet suggests that there is a chance of low temperatures and showers on Saturday and Sunday.
Interlagos is tight, twisty, often unexpectedly rainy and usually unpredictable. Think of Lewis Hamilton’s first world title clinched here in 2008; it hinged on the rain falling harder on the last lap when the Toyotas had stayed out on slicks and that gave Hamilton the fifth position he needed to win the title.
It is a race for which you pack several pairs of shoes as it’s not uncommon to get a pair soaked by a downpour.
So how do you dodge the showers and the Safety Cars and come up with a winning strategy?
As with all the races this season, there are three tyre choices from Pirelli but they look quite conservative with last year’s soft and medium options joined by the hard, rather than the supersoft. Pirelli says this is down to the high loadings from some of the fast corners, but the track does not have the peak loads of the other circuits where these three tyres were chosen: Barcelona, Silverstone, Sepang and Suzuka.
Last year we saw some three stop strategies, but closer inspection reveals that Mercedes always planned two stops and only went to three to cover Sebastian Vettel who had done it to shake the tree and try something different. In reality a first stint on softs and then two on mediums was quite enough to cover the 71 laps.
Interlagos has a short pit lane at 387 metres and it’s quite a fast stop; 22 seconds is good and 23 is typical. Last year there was about five seconds difference between a two stop strategy and a three stopper. But the risk with a three is always of a Safety Car which tends to punish the multi-stoppers as it gives a cut price or even a free stop to other cars.
It looks very much as though the temperatures will play their part in the outcome of this race and it’s likely to be another race where the Friday practive running doesn’t give a reliable indication for the race.
On Friday Ubimet predicts temperatures around 23-25 degrees, but then cooler air on Saturday and Sunday with temperatures around 20-22 degrees. As we saw in Japan and Austin this can make all the difference and it is likely to hurt Ferrari more than Red Bull and Mercedes that generate more tyre temperature.
There is also a chance of showers for qualifying and the race. The track dries quite quickly, as we saw when Nico Hulkenberg won a dramatic pole position for Williams here on a drying track with slick tyres in 2010.
If we have proper rain then that swings the balance towards Red Bull. We haven’t really had a chance to see this in the second half of the season but projecting forward from Silverstone and the relative pace of Verstappen and the Mercedes with the improvements Red Bull has made since then, engineers on both sides feel that Red Bull would have the edge in the rain.
Brazilian Grand Prix in numbers
This weekend’s race in Brazil is the 44th world championship Grand Prix to be held in the South American country, and the Interlagos track will host the event for the 34th time.
In the six Brazilian races that have taken place since 2010, five of them have finished with a 1-2 result for two constructors. Red Bull took back-to-back 1-2s at Interlagos in 2010-2011 and did it again in 2013, while Mercedes’ drivers have finished first and second for the last two seasons.
The Brazilian race weekend has also been hit by wet weather on a number of occasions in recent years. In 2013 only the race took place in dry running, a year after the dramatic rain-affected Grand Prix in 2012. Both Saturdays in 2009 and 2010 featured wet FP3 and qualifying sessions, while the 2008 race was another event made memorable by rain.
Heading into this weekend’s race, Mercedes has now set a new single-season F1 record of 17 victories after Hamilton won last time out in Mexico. This surpasses the team’s existing record of 16 wins in both 2014 and 2015, and it did so in 19 races in 2016, the same number that were held in the previous two years.
Mercedes can also break the single-season record of F1 poles, which it currently jointly holds with Red Bull on 18, if its one of its drivers takes pole at either Interlagos or in Abu Dhabi.
As explained here, Rosberg can become world champion for the first time this weekend. If he were to be successful, he would do so 34 years after his father Keke won his world title 1982. This would make them the second father-and-son F1 champion combination to take the crown after Graham and Damon Hill – with the latter’s 1996 championship victory also coming 34 years after his father’s.
If Rosberg qualifies on the front row it will be his 19th of the year, which would be a new single season F1 record and surpass Vettel and Hamilton, who took 18 in 2011 and 2015 respectively.
Hamilton can break an F1 record of his own at Interlagos. If he wins on Sunday it will be the 24th different circuit that he has taken a Grand Prix win, and he will better Michael Schumacher’s long-standing record of 23 venue wins in the process.
McLaren will make its 800th world championship start this weekend, and in doing so it will become the second constructor in F1 history to reach that figure after Ferrari (which will hit 928 starts this weekend). The British team’s most recent win came at the Interlagos track in 2012, when Jenson Button won the race ahead of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
Alonso has finished on the podium on eight occasions at Interlagos without ever winning the race, which is a stat he shares with Kimi Raikkonen’s record in Bahrain. But Alonso did secure both of his world titles at Interlagos, the second of which occurred ten years ago in 2006.
At Ferrari, Raikkonen will be making his 250th F1 start this weekend. The 2007 world champion will become the seventh driver to reach that figure, and he will do so at the track where he clinched his world title nine years ago.
The Finn has also outqualified his teammate Sebastian Vettel for the last three consecutive races and the German driver has now gone 25 races without scoring a front row start. In fact, no Ferrari driver has qualified on the front row so far this season, but the Scuderia has notched up eight third place starts.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo has the longest active points scoring streak – he has finished in the top ten for the last 15 consecutive races – but the Australian driver has only scored one point at Interlagos during his F1 career so far, when he finished tenth for Toro Rosso in the 2013 event.
Force India’s Sergio Perez is also currently on his own notable points scoring record. The Mexican driver has finished in the top ten at each of the last eight races, which is the longest streak of his six-year F1 career to date.
What are you expecting from the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
Analysis: Why sometimes ignoring your driver is the best thing to do in F1
Mexico was a strange race for many reasons and doing well was all about taking care not to fall into the trap of believing your own assumptions.
It was year two in a new venue and there were some assumptions from last year that needed to be debunked. There were 21 overtakes last year, but the reality was that most of those overtakes happened because teams had underestimated the braking requirements at altitude and this year were more prepared, so overtaking was really difficult. And that meant no chance of doing the fastest strategy for teams starting outside the top ten.
Then there were assumptions about the medium tyres and how long they would last in the race. In fact they performed more like the Bridgestone tyres of 2010, with almost no degradation, so a car could do almost the whole race on them. Misreading that cost several teams big results.
And the final assumption that needed to be ignored was the driver reporting that the tyres were ‘finished’. In most cases they were not and teams needed to tell drivers to be quiet and get on with it. Those who did that succeeded, as we shall see.
Pirelli brought the same medium and soft compound tyres as last year, but added in the supersoft to try to make the strategies more interesting. The supersoft was the qualifying tyre for most teams, except for the Mercedes and Ferrari squads that went with soft.
As was the case last year, teams knew that this was likely to be a one stop race, with 50 of the 71 laps of the race on the mediums being feasible, especially for the midfield and slower cars. The earlier you pitted in the race to get onto that compound, the better off you were.
However the faster cars that load up the tyres more needed to be a little more careful, as Daniel Ricciardo’s experience in the race showed; he ran out of tyre performance around 45 laps into his stint on mediums and pitted again for new softs.
At the front of the race, Mercedes looked like it had things under control, but the reality was that on Lewis Hamilton’s car there was a delicate balancing act to perform. He had badly flat spotted a front tyre with a lock up into Turn 1 at the start and the challenge was to get him far enough into the race to be able to make just one stop, without running the risk of damaging or breaking the suspension in the meantime due to the vibrations. So Lap 18 was the earliest the team could stop him.
At this point Nico Rosberg, in second place, had just a 22 second gap back to Ricciardo, who had already pitted on Lap 1 after the Virtual Safety Car and then Safety Car were deployed. Red Bull were trying a pincer move on Rosberg with two different strategies.
So it looked quite tight for Rosberg to retain that position. But in fact he was managing his pace and was able to keep Ricciardo at arms’ length and keep the place when he stopped three laps later.
Red Bull had gone aggressive with the supersoft tyres again for the start, hoping to get ahead of Mercedes off the line. This is the second race in a row the team had tried it and while in Austin it won them a position, in Mexico it did not. The decision to start with supersofts was more because it knew Mercedes had to be more conservative, as German manufacturer have more to lose with both drivers in the title fight.
Sebastian Vettel meanwhile was racing hard to make up for a disappointing qualifying, which had seen him fall behind both Red Bulls and his Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen. Vettel’s strategy was to run a long first stint on the soft tyres and then have a tyre offset advantage for the end of the race.
In fact the performance difference in the final laps for a tyre that is ten laps fresher than another car’s is only around 4/10ths of a second, which is not enough to promote an overtake.
Some have argued that Ferrari’s decision to pit Kimi Raikkonen a second time, later in the race, was in order to clear the way for Vettel to get through.
In fact it was not that cynical, quite the reverse; they were guilty of believing their driver when he said that the medium tyres were losing performance and asked for a new set. Ferrari’s mistake was to bring him into the pits, even if he did manage to pass Nico Hulkenberg at the end on fresher tyres.
It turns out that quite a few team strategists had the same message from their drivers – that the medium tyres were not going to last – and most told them to be quiet and get on with it. They knew and the data backed them up, that the tyres had plenty of life and almost no degradation.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Mexican home hero Sergio Perez, who spent the entire race stuck behind a Williams. He had not got the job done in qualifying, unlike his team mate Hulkenberg who was outstanding in fifth ahead of the Ferraris.
But Force India did not believe that the medium would last to the end of the race from Lap 14, which is when Felipe Massa made his stop. Valtteri Bottas came in on Lap 19 and it was then Force India made its mistake, by pitting a lap later. This condemned Perez to sitting behind the Williams cars.
The problem was that the team could not see Perez’ true pace in the opening stint as he was behind the Williams and the calculation was not about doing the fastest strategy for the tyre sets he was using. In this strange race that was like a throwback to the Bridgestone era of minimal tyre degradation, it was all about track position. Remember Abu Dhabi 2010 when Fernando Alonso lost the world championship because he came out of the pits behind cars that had pitted on lap one? This was that kind of race. And it’s quite useful to reflect on whether that makes for better racing.
If they had pitted earlier, as Perez said afterwards they should have done, they might have got the Williams cars. But for sure once Massa pitted on Lap 14 the smart tactic was the opposite; Perez had started on soft so he should have emulated Vettel and run as long as possible on the first set of tyres, even if he was giving away a few tenths per lap to the Williams.
What that would have allowed him to do would be to put pressure on Williams later in the race and drive Massa into a position where he would have had to push his worn tyres and get them to drop off a performance cliff.
Stopping right after Williams just made life comfortable for the Williams drivers and frustrating for Perez.
Sauber desperately needs to score a point in the F1 Constructors’ Championship and Marcus Ericsson came very close in Mexico with a bold strategy that saw him start on the soft tyre, switch to the medium on Lap 1 and then run to the finish on that tyre.
This strategy relied on the fact that in the midfield, the pace differences between cars were minimised by the traffic and the difficulty of overtaking.
So you were not choosing a strategy and tyre sets based on your fastest race, as at most F1 venues, but rather on the fact that if you got track position on tyres with ultra low degradation, no-one coming through from behind was going to be lapping much quicker than you.
This was how a Sauber managed to finish ahead of two McLarens, two Toro Rossos, two Renaults and two Haas cars.
It was a good drive from the often-maligned Ericsson.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow
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 Hamilton’s pace in the first stint on flat spotted tyres – quite impressive considering that braking becomes difficult when a flat spot is introduced as the wheel tends to rotate until it settles on the spot.
Look also at Raikkonen’s short (25 lap) middle stint on mediums compared to Verstappen’s. The Dutchman goes to the end, Raikkonen surely could have done the same and been part of the mix with the Red Bulls and Vettel at the end.
Scope for more strategy gambles as F1 moves to popular Mexican GP
The last few races have seen some fascinating strategy gambles from Red Bull and others, so will we see more of the same this weekend, as the F1 teams race for the second time on the revamped Hermanos Rodgrizuez circuit in Mexico City?
Over 350,000 people are expected to attend across the three days, with organisers installing new grandstands, such is the demand for F1 tickets in Mexico.
The track was brand new last year, so the surface has had a year to shed the oils that are always present in new tarmac and in addition there has been quite a bit of racing activity, so there should be significantly more grip from rubber on the surface.
It is forecast to be hot and dry; Mexico is entering its dry season, which means a very low risk of rain for the weekend.
Last year Mercedes had a huge pace advantage over the rest of the field, so it will be intersting to see where they are relative to Red Bull and Ferrari this time. It is likely that they will still have a good edge, so the intensity of the drivers’ championship battle will continue.
There was a Safety Car at a key moment in last year’s race, which had a big effect on the race and a bold strategy gamble from Williams on Valtteri Bottas’ car paid off to give them a podium finish. How Williams would like to repeat that this season!
They are in a tight fight with Force India over fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship, with several million dollars in prize money, not to mention pride; Williams were third in 2014, so it would be a bad collapse to fifth two years later with a Mercedes engined car.
Last year the new track surface appeared from practice running to give low tyre degradation, but in fact it was quite significant as the race went on. Although tyre graining was an issue for many until enough rubber had gone down in the race, the higher temperatures in fact reduced the effect of graining. Meanwhile another challenge the teams will be aware of from last year is the fact that the low air density at altitude means that the cars travel at speeds of over 360km/h and as a consequence brake cooling is critical for many cars.
Last year Pirelli brought the soft and medium tyres and it was essentially a one stop race. The medium works better in cooler conditions, as we saw on Sunday in Austin when the cloud cover came over during the race and many teams went to that tyre.
For Mexico few medium tyres have been picked in the allocations so it looks like qualifying on supersoft and then leaning more on the soft for the race, with the likelihood of two stops for most. The soft lasted around 25 laps last year, the medium significantly more. The drive through time in the pits is 16 seconds, plus the time for a stop so the total time needed for a stop is quite short relatively speaking and this encourages more stops.
The track showed huge improvement in lap time as the rubber went down last year; at one point Lewis Hamilton did a faster lap on the medium tyres than he had done in the first part of qualifying, which is highly unusual and shows how fast the pace was in the race as the track improved.
Last year the race was held on the first week of November and the track temperature on race day hit 56 degrees. The medium tyres were good for around 40 laps last year and its interesting to note was that Hamilton was harder on his tyres in this race than Nico Rosberg, who went on to win.
There were only 21 overtakes in the race last year, of which 12 were DRS assisted, so it’s not a high overtaking track.
Mexican Grand Prix in numbers
The 2016 Mexican Grand Prix will be the 17th world championship F1 race hosted at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. The track is named after Mexican F1 racers Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez, and the former held the record for being the youngest front row starter by qualifying second at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix aged 19 until Max Verstappen qualified second at Spa earlier this year aged 18.
Heading into this weekend’s race, Mercedes has now won 16 races in each of the last three F1 seasons and can now set a new all-time record for victories in a single season if it wins any one of the final three events. The 2016 season is the longest in the history of F1 but if one of the Silver Arrows wins in Mexico, the team will break its own record in the same number of races (19) as were held in 2014 and 2015.
Nico Rosberg goes to Mexico with the first ‘match point’ in the drivers’ championship as he can clinch the title if he wins and Lewis Hamilton finishes tenth or lower. If he does win the title this year, Rosberg will become the third German F1 world champion after Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel.
For the first time in F1 history, two drivers from the same team are now guaranteed to finish in the first two positions in the drivers’ championship for a third successive year. Behind Rosberg and Hamilton, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo can wrap up third place in the 2016 standings if he finishes in the top ten in Mexico.
Hamilton can score a victory at a 23rd different F1 circuit if he wins this weekend, which would tie Schumacher’s current all-time record. The world champion can also reach that target if he wins at the next race in Brazil, or take the record for himself if he wins both events.
The British driver’s pole at the US Grand Prix last weekend means he has now taken the top spot in qualifying at 23 different venues, which broke Alain Prost’s record of 22 that had stood since 1993.
Felipe Massa will make his 250th F1 race weekend appearance in Mexico, but he won’t get to 250 Grand Prix starts until the season finale in Abu Dhabi, which will be the last race of his 14-year career in the sport. This is because the Brazilian driver didn’t start the 2005 US Grand Prix due to the Michelin tyre saga at Indianapolis, and the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix after his accident in qualifying.
Massa secured his 150th F1 points finish last time out in Austin, but his controversial collision with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso meant he has slipped down behind the Spaniard to 11th place in the drivers’ championship. The 35-year-old, who announced his retirement at the Italian Grand Prix last month, has not finished outside the top ten in the standings of a full F1 season that he has completed since 2005 when he race for Sauber.
What are you expecting from the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
Insight: The key decisions behind the F1 US Grand Prix and why Williams were left cursing
The US Grand Prix was not one of the most exciting races of the season, but the strategic side was very interesting, with Red Bull continuing to probe Mercedes in a chess game; they might have split the two Silver Arrows had they had more luck with a Virtual Safety Car, triggered by one of their drivers to the detriment of the other.
Meanwhile further back some important results were achieved for Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz by a combination of brilliant driving and decision-making.
So why were some of the key decisions taken as they were? What was the race behind the race?
After last year’s rain affected US Grand Prix, it was a thankfully clear weekend. The forecast for race day was for the warmest day of the weekend, but cloud cover early in the race changed that, cooling the track and tipoing the balance towards the medium tyre as the one to be on for many runners, as it copes better with the cooler conditions.
This took the edge off Carlos Sainz’ result as his car is less effective on the medium and that ultimately cost him the fifth place to Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. There are very fine margins at work here on the details.
Red Bull again rolled the dice on strategy; they split the strategies on Saturday, qualifying Daniel Ricciardo on the super soft tyre for the opening stint of the race while Max Verstappen copied the Mercedes drivers in starting on the soft.
The idea with Ricciardo was to get ahead of Mercedes at the start, given the Silver Arrows’ regular weakness in getting off the line. The risk for Ricciardo was coming out into traffic after his first stop and losing momentum and track positions as a result. It was very aggressive by Red Bull once again.
Team sources have confirmed that part of the reason for this is a dress rehearsal for next season, when they expect to be racing Mercedes for wins and the championship each weekend. They are learning how the Mercedes strategist James Vowles thinks and makes decisions under provocation.
Red Bull’s idea was to keep Mercedes guessing and try to catch them off balance by being aggressive. They perhaps sensed that Rosberg was in championship mentality rather than race winning mentality and that was certainly true after the German driver lost the start to Ricciardo,
At a couple of points in this race it looked like Red Bull’s tactic might be working and if the Virtual Safety Car had not been deployed on Lap 30/31 then the Australian would have had track position over Rosberg, who would be forced to overtake him in the final stint.
Ricciardo had a strong opening stint on the supersoft and pitted on Lap 8. He came out behind Alonso and Sainz, but the good news was that he did not have Hulkenberg and Bottas to clear as both had been taken out of the equation at the start. They had been one of his concerns.
On fresh soft tyres he quickly cleared Alonso and then Toro Rosso pitted Sainz at the end of Lap 10, so he didn’t lose much time in the opening phase of the second stint, which had always been the risk of his strategy to start on supersofts. He had taken some of the upside of the risk by splitting the Mercedes at the start, gaining track position over Rosberg. So on balance the strategy gamble worked.
Ricciardo getting ahead of Rosberg at the start had effectively decided the win for Hamilton and meant that Rosberg was on a recovery strategy to get back to second place by the end.
Having started on the softs, Rosberg and Hamilton had more strategic options available, but with Ricciardo in good form on new soft tyres, the Mercedes strategists realised they needed to pit both cars. Stopping Rosberg first they put him onto the medium tyre to give him a longer middle stint.
The idea was to put him on a different strategy from Hamilton and Ricciardo; Mercedes knew that their car worked well on mediums and in fact Rosberg was able to lap at a similar pace on the tyre to Ricciardo on softs. It was a low risk mentality, given that Rosberg was leading the championship and clearly wasn’t getting sucked into a more aggressive approach, such as Ricciardo was taking.
This was very evident at the second stops; Ricciardo and Red Bull went ultra aggressive with a stop on Lap 25, leaving him 31 laps to the finish on mediums. The message to Rosberg was clear; if you want second place you will have to overtake us on track.
Mercedes again did not bite. They left Rosberg out on his medium tyres and lucked out when Max Verstappen’s car broke down. As the car was stuck in gear and would not move, a mobile crane was needed to lift it and post the Jules Bianchi accident in 2014 that means a Virtual Safety Car.
It was ironic that an incident for his own teammate should cost Ricciardo the chance of second place.
With a 10-second gap between its cars, Mercedes was easily able to pit both of them on the same lap and retain track positions first and second.
Without the VSC Rosberg would have done another four or five laps and then pitted onto new Softs around Lap 35. He would had a deficit of around six seconds to Riccardo and 16 laps to catch and pass him on track. With a championship at stake and clearly in a conservative mood on the day, Red Bull calculated that there was a fair probability he might not try a risky move.
In the end Rosberg’s luck with the VSC was Ricciardo’s misfortune. To win a championship requires a little luck even for the very best drivers and the VSC in Austin, combined with Hamilton’s engine failure in Sepang give one the impression that luck is on Rosberg’s side this year. That is not to take anything away from his driving, which has been on a higher level this year and he has rarely given much away to the opposition.
Sainz and Alonso shine. Massa and Williams left cursing
Carlos Sainz finished sixth in Austin last year, although he was later demoted to seventh for a pit lane speeding penalty. This year he got his sixth place, but it could have been fifth, but for a slight weakness on the medium tyres.
This pushed Toro Rosso into a strategy where he was obliged to go longer in the second stint to try to shorten the third stint, given a likely scenario where Toro Rosso expected others to go for medium tyres, but they knew that they themselves had to go soft. Sainz was the only driver not to use the medium in the race.
This pushed them longer in the second stint than they would ideally have wanted. However on this occasion it turned out very well with the VSC, which got him ahead of Massa, who had stopped just before the VSC. But then the flip side – being on the softs and running out of tyre performance at the end of the race – cost them fifth place to Alonso.
Massa had been unlucky with the VSC timing, but Williams will be unhappy that he did not pass Sainz for a potentially crucial extra two points in their championship battle with Force India.
He had more pace in the previous two stints and a fairly substantial top speed advantage (333km/h against Sainz’ 316; the slowest car on the straights) with a Mercedes power unit against a wheezy year old Ferrari. Sainz was also nursing soft tyres. Massa had got himself close enough on many occasions but didn’t try a move.
It is often the case in F1 that if you don’t take the opportunity to go forward you become exposed to someone else going forward at your expense. That is exactly what happened here with a very competitive Alonso coming up at a second a lap faster.
This is an indication of Massa’s situation with three races to go to his retirement. But in a finely balanced championship battle, where both Williams and Force India can expect to score around 6-8 points maximum per race, it is unfortunate for Williams.
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
Showing the gaps between the cars and the relative pace. An upward line is good pace, a descending line is poor pace.
Look at Ferrari vs Red Bull on soft tyres in middle stint, which is relatively positive but on mediums the relative weakness is exposed.
Analysis: Why being aggressive on F1 strategy proved the right move at Suzuka
This year’s Japanese Grand Prix was one of only three at Suzuka in the last 25 years where all cars finished, making it a tough race in which to make progress, especially if you weren’t running towards the front.
It was also unusual for a Suzuka event in not featuring either a Safety Car or a Virtual Safety car, to mix up the race and offer some strategic dice rolling opportunities.
But there were some major talking points about the decisions that were taken with Ferrari again missing out on a podium due to a questionable strategy call and some very aggressive strategy calls from Red Bull which paid off with Max Verstappen splitting the Mercedes cars in second place.
The same tyre choices as Malaysia of soft, medium and hard were available to teams with a compulsory stint on hards. But the temperatures were very different, particularly on race day, which was quite cool. The teams with more downforce, especially the top three teams, did not like the medium tyre for long runs, as it lacked stability. The teams at the back of the grid had the opposite view and it formed the basis of the one-stop strategies of Sauber, Williams and Renault particularly. These were also hoping for a well timed Safety car to give them a ‘snakes and ladders’ type opportunity to move up the order towards the points. It did not come.
Friday practice again showed that the Red Bulls had very strong race pace compared to Mercedes, while Ferrari had a better single lap pace than Red Bull, making it look like this would be one of their most competitive weekends.
In the end the weekend summed up their season; they had a better car than they were able to show in the results, for various reasons.
One has to feel for the Ferrari team; they brought a very quick car to Suzuka and qualified third and fourth, close behind Mercedes.
With Lewis Hamilton dropping the ball off the startline, on another day Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen could have both been on the podium.
But as with so many races for the Scuderia this season, the result they were capable got away from them.
Vettel had a rather cheap grid penalty from the previous race and Raikkonen got a gearbox penalty, moving both drivers behind their Red Bull rivals and Sergio Perez’ Force India.
In the race Vettel did a strong job and went to work early, making a couple of excellent overtaking moves before the DRS was available and set himself up for a podium shot.
He didn’t get it due to another curious strategy call, which he later admitted he was complicit in, but which was nevertheless hard to understand, particularly as pressure from the other Ferrari was what triggered Hamilton to make the stop which did for Vettel.
With just over 30 laps gone out of 53, Vettel was racing Hamilton, who was recovering from a poor start.
Both extended their middle stints of the race, Ferrari with the idea that they could fit the soft tyres for the final stint. But by staying out long, they offered Mercedes and Hamilton the chance to undercut them. If Vettel had pitted on Lap 33, with 20 laps to go to the end, he could have fitted hard tyres and held Hamilton behind him. Hamilton had to pit when he did as Raikkonen was coming up behind and Mercedes always planned to fit hards.
So Hamilton pitted on Lap 33, which he needed to do as Raikkonen was coming into his pit window; in other words was getting close to being inside the 22 seconds behind Hamilton that the Englishman would need to pit and rejoin ahead.
Mercedes gratefully took the gift and with Hamilton’s pace on the new hard tyres, he was able to undercut Vettel, who stopped on the next lap onto the soft tyres. This gave him a 19 lap stint to the end on softs, which was optimistic. But if he was to have any chance of beating Hamilton to the podium from this position he needed to attack him early on the soft tyres as Hamilton’s hards were coming up to temperature. He could not manage it and the podium chance was gone.
What is puzzling about Ferrari’s decision making here is that they had the track position but sacrificed it based on a soft tyre model that appeared not to have been re-tuned after the first stint, when the degradation was high.
The hard tyre was performing well, but Ferrari has always had a distrust of the harder tyres and in this case their bias against it cost them.
Ironically last year in Suzuka they lost second place to a recovering Rosberg in the final part of the race, because again they were waiting for the moment when it was safe to fit the medium tyres to be able to go to the end of the race and Rosberg undercut them.
A number of fans have been puzzled by Red Bull’s decision to bring Daniel Ricciardo into the pits behind Max Verstappen for the first stop in Suzuka. Ricciardo had lost time at the start, swerving around the slow moving Lewis Hamilton off the line and dropped to fifth, with two cars between him and Verstappen in second. On Lap 10 Verstappen pitted, having complained about the tyres losing performance. Ricciardo was running 10 seconds behind him, so Red Bull tried an audacious double stop, with Ricciardo not losing any time waiting for service. Why did they do this?
The answer is because once the lead car has pitted, that puts rivals racing the tail car (Ricciardo) on notice that he will probably be stopping soon. And so it can trigger an undercut. In this particular case, there was a real risk of that; Ricciardo had Raikkonen on his tail and the Ferrari driver may well have been sharp and pitted on the same lap as Verstappen. To mitigate for that Red Bull did the Ricciardo stop on the same lap and got him back out. It worked and not only did Ricciardo retain position over Raikkonen, he also now had Perez and the one stopping Magnussen between him and the Finn.
The downside was that he had to clear the one stopping Massa, but that was always going to happen with a Williams one stopping. Hamilton also got ahead of him by extending his first stint, but again that was always on the cards anyway.
Suzuka is a track to be aggressive on, it often brings results and Red Bull has benefitted from that many times down the years.
One stoppers hope for some good fortune
Conversely teams like Williams, Renault and Sauber went for a one-stop strategy on the medium and hard tyres, which saw them progress from their grid slots and in the case of Williams bagged some points. But with no-one retiring and no Safety Car or Virtual Safety car, there was to be no lucky jackpot result.
The decision was based on the fact that the practice sessions showed that the degradation (drop off in performance) on the medium and hard tyres was quite low, so the limitation was only the wear.
Williams had some luck with the one stop strategy in Malaysia (helped by three VSCs) and decided to do it again to try to beat the Haas cars which had unexpectedly qualified ahead of them. Haas had a poor race after an excellent qualifying and Massa and Bottas were able to finish in the places where Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified.
Sauber got Ericsson ahead of the McLarens and a Toro Rosso and Renault finished 12th and 14th, having started 16th and 18th. On a day when no-one retires it’s hard to do much better than that.
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 – Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing – Click to Enlarge
Look at the large gap Vettel has over Hamilton after the first stops. With better stint management and an earlier second stop onto hards, he probably could have held him off to the flag. Whether he could have attacked Verstappen for second place is open to question, but the middle stint shows that he had better pace than the Red Bull driver.
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