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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.

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


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.

Do Baku GP strategy decisions show F1 teams’ mentality on title prospects?


This year in F1, with heated competition between the three top teams we are seeing not only close racing but drivers, teams and especially strategists being put under pressure.
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And the inevitable consequence is some bold moves on the one hand and mistakes on the other.

Baku was a good example; Ferrari seemingly in control with pole position and the lead of the race, but able to turn that into just a fourth-place finish for their title contender Sebastian Vettel and a fortunate second place for Kimi Raikkonen, who had a collision on the opening lap and dropped down the order.

Already in 2018 we have seen three of the four races turned on a Safety Car. In Baku this is always a strong possibility, in fact the strategists say that along with Monaco and Singapore this is one of the top three races where you actually factor the Safety Car into your planning and skew your tyre strategy accordingly, even if that means you have sub-optimal race pace should no Safety Car occur.

This is why we saw drivers staying out a long time on their initial set of supersoft tyres, waiting, hoping, for a Safety Car, that eventually came.

We also saw decisions which arguably revealed a snapshot of the mentality of each of the top teams to their championship priorities. Mercedes prioritise the constructors’ championship and the race win; they kept both drivers in the hunt for the win and the largest points haul with their decision making.

Ferrari again prioritised the drivers’ championship, as they have clearly done all season, while Red Bull let their drivers race – despite a warning sign when they banged wheels – something you would not allow to happen if you really believed you could win the championship or were stockpiling constructors’ points.

Pre-race considerations

All three tyre compounds were again in evidence on the grid, but with a wider spread than normal, indicating the different tyre models each team had. For a number of teams, including the top five Mercedes, Red Bulls and Vettel’s Ferrari, the tyre to be on at the start was the supersoft as it was only marginally slower off the start line than the ultra but had much better durability and would comfortably take you into the Safety Car window.

It was also durable enough to take some cars to the point at which they could switch onto the ultrasoft for a late race burst, which is what Mercedes did with Hamilton.

It wasn’t as warm a day on Sunday as it had been for Friday practice and one of the key considerations as the temperature dropped further in the late afternoon, was the warm up of the tyres. It was hard to get the soft tyre to switch on for many teams. In contrast, this was one of many things the Ferrari was doing better than its rivals.

Vettel calm despite losing again
It was telling that Sebastian Vettel was calm after the race, in which he had lost the lead due to the team’s reaction to a split strategy by Mercedes and to his own misjudged move at the restart at the Safety Car behind Bottas.

The reason for his calmness was that, once again, they had come to a circuit that should favour Mercedes and yet Ferrari had the upper hand in qualifying and the race, just like China. The Ferrari is the fastest car at the moment in both conditions – seemingly on all types of circuit.

But unlike China, where Vettel won, here they failed to capitalise on their advantage and Vettel finished fourth, allowing Hamilton both to win the race and take the championship lead for the first time this season.

Hamilton had been forced to stop on Lap 22, his strategy compromised by a lock up that flat spotted his tyres. The team had no choice but to put him on a set of soft tyres to the finish.

So, he was now on a suboptimal strategy and he found it hard to get the tyres working.

Mercedes objective is always to win the race with either car and to maximise constructors’ championship points. For Bottas, now the driver most likely to win for Mercedes, the game was to try to get a big enough gap over Hamilton to stop and fit ultra softs for the final stint to attack Vettel.

For Vettel decision time came as they approached Lap 30. The supersoft tyres were holding on well and he had a margin of ten seconds over Bottas; so, no reason to be the first mover in this chess game.

His tyres were slowly deteriorating, but he still had another five or six laps to go before being able to safely fit ultras. By that time Hamilton could be three or four seconds behind him after the stop and able to get a tow, although Vettel would have the faster tyres. And the falling temperature was not favourable to the soft tyres.

In retrospect it would have been better to stay out until either a Safety Car or the switch to ultras, as Bottas did. But a decision has to be made one way or the other and Ferrari and Vettel chose to stop to cover the strategy of Hamilton, their drivers’ title rival, rather than Bottas.

These decisions are all about lots of small factors; expected tyre warm up is one, but also critical is the amount of time lost in a pit stop, which was not as clear in everyone’s minds as at some circuits due to lack of past data, the blustery winds, the strange layout of pit-in and pit lane exit, plus the chance of a tow down the straight that can give you an unexpected 4/10ths of a second.

The margin of error in predicting a pit-stop time in Baku this year therefore was as much as 1.5 seconds, without any kind of mishap at the stop. Still recovering from their Bahrain pit stop accident, Ferrari were clearly not at ease in this decision and wanted some margin.

On the few occasions where you have an undercutting car that is not immediately faster than you and an overcutting car, which you are faster than, you stay out.

Especially at Baku, where the Safety Car is a factor in strategy planning. So, by stopping Vettel first, when not under direct threat from Hamilton, Ferrari handed Mercedes the chance to stay out and maybe luck into a Safety Car. When the Red Bull pair hit each other, Lady Luck smiled on Mercedes.

Bottas got a free pit stop and the race lead, Vettel did the right thing and pitted again, fitting the same ultra soft tyres, as did Hamilton. This set up the drag race at the restart and as Vettel felt compelled to try a move on Bottas, as much out of defence against Hamilton’s attack, as offence against Bottas, he misjudged the braking distance and ran wide, flat spotting his tyres.

Bottas had a tyre failure due to debris, so Vettel’s fifth place became a slightly less painful fourth, but Mercedes got what they came for, which was the race win.

Perez, Sainz and Leclerc stand out on a difficult day
If the competition at the front this year makes for more exciting viewing, the midfield is again hugely entertaining and in Baku there were three excellent results for Force India’s Sergio Perez (3rd), Renault’s Carlos Sainz (5th) and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc (6th).

For Perez and Leclerc this felt like a win, for Sainz he showed his doggedness in coming back from a sub-optimal strategy and an early stop on Lap 16, off the ultra softs onto the softs, which put him into traffic.

Leclerc showed remarkable pace and composure. He started the race on the supersoft, looking to stay in the hunt and capitalise on a Safety Car if one arose.

His race was with Williams’ Lance Stroll, who tried the undercut on Lap 22. At this point Leclerc was also ahead of Perez, who went onto finish on the podium, so the decision was whether to cover the team that they are fighting in the championship or to try to stay out and luck into a Safety Car that would keep them ahead of Perez.

Perez was not their race. They covered Stroll, while Perez, who had pitted on Lap 2 under the initial Safety Car for softs to give himself the maximum window of opportunity, went all the way to Lap 40 and took advantage of the second Safety Car and the chaos that engulfed the Red Bulls and Vettel in the closing stages.

Romain Grosjean was right with Perez before the Safety Car and also had the same opportunity, but he crashed when warming up the tyres before the restart and another big points result went begging for Haas, just as in Melbourne.

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

All photographs: Motorsport Images

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. 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.

Look at Vettel’s trace before his stop compared to Hamilton and Bottas. He is not under any real threat from Hamilton who is not closing the gap noticeably, while Bottas continues on a similar level on the supersofts after Vettel stops, showing that there was still life in them.

Analysis: The details that let Ferrari down and how Red Bull snatched the F1 win


This was a race Ferrari had two chances to win, Mercedes had one chance to win, Max Verstappen had a chance to win and yet Red Bull actually won it with Daniel Ricciardo.
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This would have been quite a straight forward one-stop race without the Safety Car 21 laps from the end, which Red Bull attacked boldly by stopping both cars.

The timing of the Safety Car caught out the leading pair of Bottas and Vettel, costing Bottas the win, but it opened up the chance for Ferrari and Mercedes to split strategies and hedge their bets. Neither team took that chance.

But they were wrong. This was a day when the main strategic turning points of the race, and the wonderful excitement of some breath-taking passing moves, were all about the power of having fresh, and ideally soft, tyres.

Pre-race considerations

Sunday was by far the hottest day of the weekend. The question was whether the ultra soft tyres would last long enough in the opening stint to make it a one stop race. Ideally, they would need to go 17 laps. For the cars that chose to start the race on softs -in the lead battle the two Ferraris and Mercedes cars – it was a clear one stop.

For Red Bull, starting fifth and sixth on ultras, but with strong race pace if they could just get a break on strategy, it was finely balanced. Their first moment of inspiration was when they took a risk and did a double pit stop, because the gaps around their cars meant that one of their cars would be at a disadvantage if they prioritised one; so with the gap between them on the road just enough to chance it, they went for the double stop. This kept both cars well in play.

For everyone thinking of a one stop, Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly was a benchmark; he was put onto medium tyres at the start of the race, which gave all the teams a chance to see the performance of the mediums. Fernando Alonso was another who went onto mediums quite early, committing to a one stop early. His performance provided encouragement to teams on the medium tyre

How Ferrari lost the lead to Mercedes

Although the main drama was saved until the final act, the middle part of the race provided a strange moment in the competition between Mercedes and Ferrari.

Ferrari, who had dominated qualifying and looked set for a third consecutive win, made a series of small errors that added up to Vettel losing the lead.

First, he squeezed his team mate at the start, forcing him to lift and he was passed by Valtteri Bottas. This gave us the same pairing in the lead battle as Bahrain and it left Vettel without protection from behind and vulnerable to an undercut.

Then the team underestimated that undercut effect – new tyres count for a lot in performance delta. It was in their hands, so Vettel could have anticipated the attack from Mercedes and stopped first. These things are finely judged and you don’t want to pit too early and have to risk running out of tyres. But you also have to cover the undercut otherwise you look foolish when you lose the lead this way. Vettel had shown in Melbourne and Bahrain that he can make a set of tyres last a long time on this Ferrari. So they should have been the ones taking the initiative.

When Bottas stopped on Lap 19 Vettel’s lead was just over three seconds, which was marginal for Ferrari. Especially as, after their problems with pit stops last time out in Bahrain, Ferrari might have built in a little more margin, knowing that the pit crew would be tense at that first stop. Mercedes executed the stop very quickly, while Ferrari lost a second when they pitted to try to cover the move and with Bottas doing his bit with a fast out lap, the net result was Vettel’s lead was lost.

Raikkonen was then sent on a mission to stay out. At first this looked like a repeat of what they did in Melbourne, with Vettel building a seven-lap tyre offset. But the time being lost by Raikkonen against cars on new tyres ( up to 2 seconds per lap) meant that this didn’t make sense as a strategy. The sub plot was that Raikkonen was being left out to try to close Bottas up to Vettel so he could try an attack.

This kind of move is risky on two fronts; first it is hard to choreograph and second, it’s demoralising for the driver who is asked to do it. Raikkonen has been more competitive this season than for many years and felt he had a chance to win this race. Being blocked at the start by Vettel into Turn 1 and losing position to Bottas did not improve his mood.

But he did what he was asked and avoided getting caught where Bottas would pass him easily, into the hairpin. Ideally Ferrari would have like them to catch Raikkonen where he would be able to hold Bottas, in the fast curves allowing Vettel a chance to ambush. But Bottas was bolder than in Bahrain and made a pass the first time he saw a chance, into Turn 3.

We’ve said since the start of the season that Ferrari will win this championship if they can execute perfectly. They did so in Melbourne and Bahrain, but this series of small errors handed Mercedes a lifeline, especially after the shame of not putting a car on the front row in qualifying.

Red Bull take the bold approach

Having been passive in strategy early on, it was therefore surprising that Ferrari didn’t react and have a go later on when the Safety Car was deployed 21 laps from the end.

It took a couple of laps for the Race Director to throw the Safety Car as he assessed the debris from a collision between the Toro Rosso cars. In a situation like that, teams have everything on standby, tyres ready for a snap call. Everyone is tensed up waiting for that signal.

It was called as Verstappen, in third place, was exiting the Turn 14 hairpin. Too late for Bottas and Vettel, but Red Bull strategist Will Courtenay again calculated he had enough gap between his cars to do a double pit stop. As a stop under the Safety Car loses two thirds less time than at normal speeds it’s attractive. But if the gaps aren’t in your favour you can lose track position. The calculation therefore is whether with new tyres you can have enough pace advantage to pass the cars who went by when you were in the pits and even go on from there to pass the cars who were ahead before you stopped.

Raikkonen’s tyres were the freshest of the leaders, but he still would have benefitted from a new set of soft tyres (he had one set available). Hamilton most definitely would (he only had a lightly used set).

He was having an off weekend but came alive when served up fresh soft tyres in qualifying and would undoubtedly have been very quick in the final laps had he been given the chance to stop.

For both Mercedes and Ferrari It made sense to pit one driver at the Safety Car, as they already had the other driver committed to staying out on worn medium tyres. The Safety Car would bunch the field up for the restart, so there would be the chance to attack on new soft tyres.

It was already clear from the Vettel vs Bottas undercut what the advantage of new tyres was on the day. Shanghai is a track where a car with more grip coming off a corner will have a great chance to pass into Turn 6 and Turn 14; two chances every lap.

One of the two strategies would have worked out and in Hamilton’s case he would have finished ahead of Ricciardo, although Red Bull might have left Ricciardo out had Hamilton pitted as a hedge of their own. That is what Mercedes feared and with Red Bull proving quick in race pace they were concerned about getting back ahead. Hamilton had 15 seconds on Raikkonen, so it was only Ricciardo they were thinking about when the prioritised track position.

Raikkonen’s had a 24 second lead to Hulkenberg. So, there was no risk from behind to him making that stop.

For Ferrari, the reason for not stopping Raikkonen must surely come down to the calculation that he might catch and want to pass Vettel.

With a clearly defined team dynamic between the two – Raikkonen seems to be cast as the ‘domestique’, as they call it in cycling, doing the dirty work for the lead driver – how would Vettel have reacted to being asked to let his team mate through?

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. 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.

Look at the gap Raikkonen has to Hulkenberg before the Safety Car (orange vertical band). Look also at how much time he loses by staying out in the opening stint. In contrast to Melbourne, where the tyres held on for Vettel, in China new tyres are at a premium.

Analysis: How did Vettel hold Bottas off in Bahrain GP and did Mercedes pull a punch?


After the rather mundane Australian Grand Prix this was a more interesting race strategically.
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Bahrain has one of the highest levels of abrasive tarmac of the season. It’s also very tough on brakes with big stops and that means that it’s easy to lock a wheel and flat spot a front tyre.

If you are doing a one stop race with a long stint, flat spotting a tyre early in that stint can ruin a strategy.

This year we saw several drivers go for the long stint on mediums -Vettel went for it on softs and got away with it – but Leclerc for example had his race compromised by a flat spot.

As last year Pirelli brought a tyre selection with the supersoft, a tyre that shows degradation. This year it is a step softer. That meant that the teams had to really think carefully about their strategy and again we saw a mixture of strategies, with the decision on whether to use soft tyres or medium tyres at the first stop.

It made for an engaging race with plenty of overtaking and this is certainly what we want to see, rather than 2017’s conservative selections; the likelihood was of almost no degradation and one stop strategies, where drivers finished in car performance order.

The battle at the front
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.

Kimi Raikkonen was deflated after missing out on pole, not only because he had been faster than Vettel again up to that point, but because he knew that there was a strong chance that he would lose places starting on the dirty side. And so it proved; Valtteri Bottas dived past and into second place. This put Mercedes in a position to play some chess moves.

A few places back, Pierre Gasly starting fifth passed Daniel Ricciardo, but the Australian was able to repass. However soon after he retired after an electrical shutdown.

The key to doing well in Bahrain is not simply to look at how the cars and tyres perform on Friday FP2 and then carry across the same expectations, but to adjust the expected degradation for a track that will improve in condition from Friday to Sunday.

So for cars that were able to start on the soft tyres, the fastest race was soft-medium, avoiding the supersoft all together. The supersoft to medium one stop was quite a bit slower on paper.

This is the strategy that Valtteri Bottas ended up doing, as Mercedes rolled the dice to try to outfox Ferrari.

Lewis Hamilton did soft-medium and got to the podium from ninth on the grid, while Marcus Ericsson in the Sauber did the same and scored two points, which is like a win for Sauber, even if their expectations are higher now they are partnered with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo.

Sauber was the first to pit to medium tyres with Charles Leclerc under the Safety Car. This gave everyone a good read on the performance of that tyre in those evening conditions as temperatures gently fell. Leclerc was faster on the medium tyre than the Williams of Sirotkin ahead of him on soft. Alonso was another driver going well on the medium.

Mercedes pulls a punch

The big surprise towards the end of the race was that Vettel was able to make the finish on soft tyres that were 39 laps old. Ferrari was certainly not planning on one-stopping that car, but at a certain point after Mercedes made a chess move by putting Bottas onto mediums as well as Hamilton who was also in Vettel’s pit window, Ferrari were caught out and had to either stick or twist. What they did was a Plan D.

It had started well enough; as last year the Ferrari was faster on the supersoft tyres and could extract more performance from them.

Ferrari could have expected Mercedes to change tactics with Bottas and one-stop, as he was not able to get within undercut range of Vettel to try a move on a two-stop plan. Once Ferrari pitted Vettel and closed off the undercut possibility, Mercedes’ decision on what to do with Bottas became easier.

Knowing that, the alternative for Ferrari at this point would have been to anticipate it and cover off Mercedes’ spoiler tactic by putting Raikkonen onto a supersoft-medium strategy. But on his stop at Lap 19 they went for the same soft tyre middle stint as Vettel.

Raikkonen’s race however was ruined by an unfortunate incident in the second pit stop on Lap 35 (above), where he left the pit box before the rear left tyre had been changed, knocking over and badly injuring one of the mechanics.

This could have turned the race; with the confusion in the Ferrari garage as Raikkonen’s car was pulled back and the mechanic was attended to, Ferrari could not pit Vettel.

Mercedes could have capitalised on this – with Ferrari not prepared for a stop and a man down – they could have gone for the jugular, panicked Ferrari by stopping one of their cars at this point.

But they decided that this would not be a correct thing to do and would be judged harshly; a rare example of scruple in a fierce competitive battle.

Bottas’ tyres were holding up well and Mercedes knew that he would still have plenty of chances later if Vettel stopped again – and also if he didn’t.

It was around 17 laps from the end that Mercedes realised for sure that Vettel would not stop again.

Vettel gets out of a ‘Check Mate’

Vettel described Mercedes’ move with Bottas onto mediums as being ‘check-mated’ in chess.

The question then was – would he be able to stop again, fit a set of supersofts and overtake the Mercedes cars by the end? As he would have had to pass both of them on track, it would have been very hard to come through to take the win. Second place was more likely.

Their only chance of the win was to stay out and for Vettel to keep the tyres alive. This was 100% his win, due to tyre management, especially in the final two laps.

Bottas lost the race partly because he lost more time coming through traffic in the closing stages than Vettel, but also because Mercedes probably should have given him the notice to ‘push’ a lap earlier, once they were sure Vettel wasn’t stopping again.

He couldn’t capitalise on his one chance to overtake into Turn 1. This is the place to do it as the DRS gives a 12 metre gain, compared to the end of the back straight. With Vettel 1.8 seconds per lap slower in the final two laps, the Ferrari would not have been able to defend adequately. Bottas half went for it but didn’t force the issue.

Hamilton’s race was not helped by a radio problem, which means that the team could not hear what he was saying. It didn’t change the result he would have got. The challenge was to be patient to see what Vettel would do, as he wanted more information on what he should be doing.

Points for Sauber
It is tough at the back of the F1 grid and two points for Sauber in Brazil late in the 2016 season virtually saved the team and put Manor Racing out of business.

With only ten teams now, that is not so critical as before, but still something to celebrate.

Here they scored two points. Ericsson’s race in Bahrain was interesting as he committed to the one stop soft-medium at the ideal moment and also committed to a specific goal – he didn’t waste the tyres on trying to fight the group of cars coming through on two stops; Hulkenberg, Alonso and Vandoorne.

His race was not with them but with the cars further back; Ocon, Sainz and Perez.

The judgement was that he would be able to stay ahead of them; each was on a different strategy that had been compromised in some way, either by a poor start or traffic or a spin.

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

Note the steep drop off in Vettel’s lap times in the final laps and Bottas’ closing speed. The Finn should have won the race.

Also note Ericsson’s management of the medium tyres to keep ahead of the Ocon Sainz, Perez group.

Analysis: How the Australian F1 GP got away from Lewis Hamilton


For the second year in a row the Australian Grand Prix was won by Ferrari on a race strategy twist and a strong opportunistic drive by Sebastian Vettel.
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But whereas Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton lost the race in 2017 thanks to an earlier than ideal pit stop and Vettel’s ability to extend the first stint to take track position, this year the Virtual Safety Car intervened, which was the worst case scenario for Mercedes in the strategy that they had adopted.

Even then they would have been able to cope with the VSC, had the maths they were working to on Hamliton’s gap to Vettel, been correct.

Here we will drill down into how that played out and look at whether Red Bull’s decision to start both cars on the supersoft tyres paid off.

Pre-Race considerations
Melbourne is one of the hardest tracks on which to overtake as well as one of the toughest on fuel consumption at 307km in total. This tends to point teams towards making just one stop, as retaining track position is vital here.

Practice showed that it was possible do the race on a single stop, starting on the ultra soft tyres for around 18-20 laps and switching to the softs to the end at 58 laps. A safety car or Virtual Safety Car is always welcome for those who are tight in fuel consumption and if it falls at the right moment, can open the door to a team that has not yet pitted. This happened a few times down the years and is always in the minds of the strategists.

It’s one of the reasons why Red Bull went with the decision to race on supersoft tyres. Knowing that they could not beat Mercedes and Ferrari on pure performance, they would be on the third row of the grid – Ricciardo also had a three place penalty – so with a gap back to the next fastest cars opening in the race, they had nothing to lose by adopting this tactic, which could put them in the right place if they happen to be on track when a Safety Car or VSC is deployed when the leaders have pitted. It worked like this for Ricciardo and would have put Verstappen in contention for a podium had he not spun early in the race.

It was slightly disappointing that the new Pirelli tyres were not more marginal between one stop and two stops, as had been their target. However, there will be races, such as Bahrain in two weeks, where the drivers will need two stops.

Mercedes get their numbers wrong
Hamilton and Mercedes had a 0.3-0.4s/lap inherent pace advantage over the Ferraris. So after Hamilton won the start and got into control of the race, Ferrari’s only play was to take different approaches with their two cars car so that Hamilton physically could only cover one of them.

Ferrari pulled the trigger, pitting Kimi Raikkonen on Lap 18, the earliest he could safely do that and make the finish on the soft tyres.

Mercedes had to decide whether to cover Raikkonen’s stop or to stay out and cover Vettel. Later in the championship, they might have covered the title contender, if they were in a tight championship fight, but here their sole objective was to win the first race of the season.

Of course, if they couldn’t win, Mercedes would have preferred the other Ferrari to win the race, the one less likely to fight for the title. But by covering Raikkonen they left themselves vulnerable only to one scenario, which was that a VSC or Safety Car would come out during the laps when Vettel stayed out to build a tyre offset to Hamilton, which was the only tactic he could adopt.

That turned out to be a seven-lap period and with problems frequently occurring in the past, with cars stopping after the first pit stops of the season, it was well worth a gamble. It was the same tactic Ricciardo was adopting as well as Fernando Alonso further down the field.

Hamilton was not helped by the fact that he was fighting the Ferraris on his own, as Valtteri Bottas had taken himself out of contention by crashing in qualifying and so was down the field.

Race Strategy planning involves a complex series of ‘what ifs’ around scenarios that might arise in the race and for that you need reliable data. One of those is what effect the Virtual Safety Car will have on the time it takes to make a pit stop.

They had a problem a few years ago in Monaco when Lewis Hamilton was leading from Nico Rosberg and they believed it was possible to make an extra stop under the Safety Car only to find that he came out behind Rosberg and Vettel.

Their number of what constituted a ‘safe’ gap didn’t take into account that there is no true GPS in Monaco, so the gaps between cars are hard to measure over the last few kilometers of the track.

This one in Australia was down to a wrong lap time in the mechanism used to calculated losses under the VSC. It’s a difference of 1.8 seconds in this case, but it was the difference between Hamilton being ahead when Vettel emerged from the pits after his stop under the VSC and behind. Stopping under the VSC is advantageous as you lose less time relative to the cars still on track, around half as much in fact.

After his stop, Hamilton was balancing the pace, not pushing too much too early in the stint on the soft tyres, Mercedes working to what they believed was a ‘safe’ gap to Vettel. This was in their hands and, had they had the correct number in their strategy model, they would have pushed more in those seven laps to have Vettel inside the window for that gap and would have won the race.

There was only a lap and a half after Hamilton’s stop when he was truly outside the safe gap to Vettel and from then on, he was in what Mercedes believed was the safe gap.

This will require some work in the factory in the operations room to review the way that the reference lap times are consolidated, to avoid this mistake happening again.

Red Bull zig while others zag
Red Bull are famously aggressive in race strategy and when they are in the role of challenger, rather than the team to beat, they will always try things to see if they can get a better outcome that the models suggest.

With a big performance gap worth over a second back to the next fastest cars on the grid, they knew that they could afford to try something different in the race without much apparent downside risk of losing track position.

So they sent both cars out to qualify on super soft tyres, the only team to do so. Vettel admitted after qualifying that Ferrari had also looked at that strategy and decided against it.

That’s because there are some risks involved; one is that you lose start line grip and arguably one of the reasons why Verstappen lost position to Magnussen into Turn 1 is down to that. Then there is the question of pace in the first stint, because what you are doing is offsetting yourself against the other leaders, who are pulling a gap to you the whole of the first stint as they are faster cars on a faster tyre.

The tyres are hyper sensitive to temperature; they work on a knife edge of performance relative to track temperature. Mercedes’ dominant pole position was partly down to getting a couple of extra degrees of temperature into the tyres before Hamilton started his final run (plus another tenth of a second from an engine mode). On Friday in practice the temperature was 45 degrees, on Sunday it was 41. The supersoft was a better tyre than the ultrasoft on Friday.

Red Bull’s gamble was a hedge against the track being warmer in the race than it was, or the other scenario, where the ultrasoft grains in the colder conditions, which could also have happened. And finally, it was a hedge against a VSC or Safety Car after the leaders had pitted.

Only the final one came off, for Ricciardo, while Verstappen was unable to capitalize after his spin and even lost out to a determined Fernando Alonso, who had stayed out long enough to capitalize on the VSC in the same way as Ricciardo. He managed to hold Verstappen behind him to the flag for a very satisfying start to the season for McLaren.

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 – Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing- click to enlarge

Plotting each lap of each car against a zero reference point lap, which is designed to show the gaps between the cars. It’s a good indicator of relative performance.

Here you see clearly how costly Verstappen losing the start to Magnussen and then spinning in the opening stint, which lost him track position and then Alonso came into the picture by delaying his stop until the VSC and Safety Car period (pink vertical bands)

Analysis: Lots of pointers for 2018 from on track decisions in Abu Dhabi 2017


The 2017 season finale was not as high on drama and tension as last year’s edition, with the drivers and constructors’ championships both decided.
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But there were some interesting cameos and decisions taken during the race in the duels at the front of the field, in the middle and at the back.

And it gave a counterpoint to what kind of racing we can expect next season with the new range of tyres unveiled by Pirelli.

Pre Race Expectations

As has become the custom in 2017 – and which Pirelli has taken steps to avoid next year – the hardest of the three tyre compounds (Soft) did not get used in Abu Dhabi.

Instead it was possible to do the race on a single stop strategy from ultra soft to supersoft; or the other way around on a mirror strategy with the supersoft in the opening stint. Last year, in contrast, it was a two-stop strategy. For 2017 two stops was up to 8 seconds slower than a one-stop.

Overtaking is difficult at Yas Marina and although there was little passing at the front of the field, there was plenty of close racing in midfield and at the rear, using the two consecutive DRS zones on the lap.

Strategy-wise the alternative to overtaking was to try the undercut, which means pitting a lap before the car ahead and using the new tyre advantage to take the place when he stops. This weekend the gap required to achieve it was around 1.5 seconds, although in practice there were very few successful attempts as some teams that tried it suffered with a slow pit stop.

The overcut, whereby you stay out longer and build an offset, so you can attack at the end on fresher tyres, is a tactic we have seen many times this season and which has been effective in some places, was not effective here.

Esteban Ocon, for example, was locked in a battle with Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg and built a huge offset of 15 laps, but lost too much time before the stop and was only able to close down the gap in the second stint from 11 seconds down to 6 seconds at the flag.

The tyres were very consistent and had low degradation, it was possible to stop anywhere from Lap 10 to Lap 30. Next year’s range of tyres will prevent this happening, as the tyres move a step softer and the steps between compounds and the range of compounds is improved.

Ferrari wasn’t able to compete with Mercedes in Yas Marina, which left a few people scratching their heads after their competitiveness in Brazil, but a disappointing performance on the ultrasoft tyres and then the need to manage the fuel in the second stint, despite Vettel feeling more competitive on the supersoft, led to a gap to Mercedes at the finish of 19 seconds.

On ultra soft he dropped five seconds in 22 laps, on the supersoft he dropped a further 15 seconds.

Max Verstappen tried the undercut on Kimi Raikkonen, but despite the fastest pit stop of the race, it didn’t come off.

Massa and Alonso – midfield thrills and spills

In the midfield there was more going on.

Alonso and Massa had another great battle over ninth place where Alonso attempted the undercut on Lap 21 after following Massa for the opening stint. He would have pulled it off most likely, had the McLaren team not had a slow stop, over one second slower than Massa’s a lap later.

Alonso came out behind Massa but was able to use the warm up slope advantage on the supersoft tyres to attack and pass on Massa’s out lap from the pits.

It was Massa’s final Grand Prix and appropriate that he should spend it sparring with his former Ferrari team mate Alonso. The pair have battled often in 2017 and the point of note is how much better the McLaren Honda package seemed to be in the closing stages of the season, which Toro Rosso can take encouragement from in terms of engine supply next season and McLaren can take encouragement from in chassis terms.

Hulkenberg survives a penalty to still beat Force India

There was also a fascinating battle between the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg and the two Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.

Hulkenberg started ahead on the grid in 7th place, but after light contact at the start, he only retained the position a few turns later by cutting the corner. Perez was furious and felt Hulkenberg should have given the place back but he didn’t and the FIA Stewards gave him a five second time penalty at his pit stop.

He should really have been behind Perez and with the added complication of having to use strategy to get the place back.

Instead he was able to finish ahead in 6th place, which gave the Renault team the points to move ahead of Toro Ross into 6th place in the Constructors’ Championship.

It was also a tactical signal from Renault to Force India, a team it aims to be beating next season with greater resources.

Apart from a certain ruthlessness about the way they played the aftermath of the corner cutting, Renault’s result here also revealed a willingness to take risks. Hulkenberg had been given only six laps in the race on which he could maximise the engine modes, causing damage to the engine. Instead, to enforce their advantage and make it stick despite the five-second penalty, they allowed Hulkenberg double that number of “maximum attack” laps.

Force India were aggressive too; they pulled the trigger on the early stop on Lap 16, looking to undercut Hulkenberg, knowing that he would have to pit to cover the move and then serve his penalty.

He did so, but having hammered his engine in the run-up to this period in anticipation of the stop and on his in-lap, he had sufficient margin, despite the extra five seconds lost at the stop, to retain track position.

Force India tried the pincer mover, with one driver under cutting and the other one overcutting, but Ocon’s huge tyre offset didn’t bring any kind of competitive advantage, unlike other races we have seen this year where that tactic most certainly worked.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History & Tyre Usage Charts – Courtesy Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge

Look at the gulf in pace between the top three teams and the midfield as 2017 comes to an end. That gap will be closely monitored at the start of 2017 to see if the midfield teams like Renault, Force India and McLaren in particular have been able to close the gap.

Analysis: How Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo lit up Brazilian F1 Grand Prix


With the championship already decided there was a certain sense of ‘nothing to lose’ about the decision-making running through the penultimate race of the season in Brazil.
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The combination of the tyre choices and the conditions at Interlagos meant that this looked like it could be a race with few strategic variations and limited scope for an undercut tactic at the pit stops.

However with two fast cars out of position after Lewis Hamilton crashed in qualifying and Daniel Ricciardo suffered a ten place grid penalty, the race took on a different complexion.

A Safety Car at the right moment, around Lap 18-20 might have given Hamilton the chance to win the race, but as it turned out the Safety Car was deployed far earlier than that and fourth was the best he could manage.

Pre-race considerations
The two main tyres Pirelli had brought for Interlagos were the supersoft and the soft and Friday’s practice running showed that it would be possible to do the race with just one stop as the degradation was very low, like in the Bridgestone tyre days in the 2000s.

However it also became clear from Friday that the best order for the tyres was soft first, when the cars were heavy on fuel and then supersoft at the end, as the track ramped up in grip. The other way around – the standard format for the Top ten qualifiers – was tricky for the supersofts, which needed management against overheating.

Knowing this and also mindful that he had a ten place penalty to serve, which would mean him starting around P14/15, Ricciardo opted to qualify on the softs and do the mirror strategy to the Top 10, who would all be starting on supersofts. Sadly he wasn’t able to fully capitalise as he had to be careful with running the engine too hard.

Hamilton, had no such concerns in the race. He had crashed on his first flying lap in qualifying and the decision was made to fit a new engine, on which he could run at maximum mode for much of the race and to start from the pit lane.

Clearly starting on the softs was the best strategy for him and he would be able to use the superior power of the engine to overtake cars.

On race day the weather was hotter than in practice; the track was 60 degrees and this meant that the tyres overheated and suffered wear, but still not any meaningful degradation (drop off in lap time performance).

What this meant was that the undercut would be difficult to achieve (pitting before your rival ahead and then using the new tyre pace to jump him when he stops a lap later). To make that really work, you need the degradation to be meaningful between a old tyre and a new, so you can make the move when you are within two seconds of the car in front.

In Interlagos the undercut margin was only around 0.8 to 1 second, which means that you have to be right behind to have any chance.
This in turn put the emphasis on the start and the opening lap as the place to make up positions. And when you have that situation, you have a strong likelihood of a collision and an early Safety Car, which is what we got.

Ferrari wins, Bottas loses
Valtteri Bottas had the pole position, but failed to convert it into a win because he lost the start. But it wasn’t the whole story.

He still had two more chances to get the lead back from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. One was at the restart after the Safety Car, the other was at the pit stops, if he could get close enough for the undercut.

He wasn’t able to challenge at the restart, as Vettel played a cat and mouse game with him before accelerating, like Hamilton had done with him in Baku. So it was all about getting close enough from Lap 26 onwards to have a go at the stops. From this point onwards the softs would be able to make it to the end of the race without too much difficulty.

Mercedes moved Bottas into position and pulled the trigger on Lap 27, but Bottas came into his pit box a fraction too hot and the team lost 3/10ths of a second adjusting position to remove the wheels.

When the leader Vettel came in a lap later to cover the move, his stop was normal and he came out approximately 3/10ths of a second in front.

Bottas would not have been ahead with a normal stop, but Vettel would certainly have been coming out into a drag race with him down to Turn 4. In the end it was more comfortable than that for Vettel.

Hamilton and Ricciardo light up Interlagos.
Ricciardo did a fine job to race from 14th on the grid to 6th at the flag on his mirror strategy. Although clocked at 338km/h with DRS and a tow on one lap, he did not enjoy the consistently enormous straight line speed advantage that Hamilton had with a new spec engine – sometimes as much as 25km/h faster on the straight than the cars he was passing – so it took longer to make progress. He wasn’t helped by contact on the opening lap, which dropped him down to 17th and last place behind the Safety Car.

The accidents at the start helped Hamilton’s cause, boosting him to 14th place from 20th, but the Safety Car didn’t help him particularly.

That’s because when he was racing he was able to pick off one car every lap – and two per lap in the early stages.
So the five laps behind the Safety Car meant five fewer opportunities to overtake in the early stages and gain ground.

Once he got to the front – after the leaders had pitted – his pace was strong, but once he pitted and came out on new tyres in clear air on Lap 44, as the graph below shows, Hamilton’s thicker trace is clearly dipping down consistently into lap times that are a second faster than the lead cars. (Verstappen’s outlier of a fastest lap was at the end of the race on supersoft tyres)

With low tyre degradation and a clear track ahead as he was leading after the front runners pitted, Mercedes extended Hamilton’s stint by seven laps over the original plan to Lap 44. He mounted an attack on Raikkonen at the end, but had lost 1.5 seconds passing Stroll (see Lap 48 on table above) and with tyres that were worn, he didn’t quite have enough impetus to make a pass for a podium.

Could Perez and Force India have done anything to get Massa and Alonso?

Force India had a disappointing afternoon by their own high standards. Esteban Ocon’s long finishing streak came to an end due to a collision at the start with Romain Grosjean. That gave him his first retirement in F1 after a season and a half!

Sergio Perez started fifth on the grid, but finished ninth after losing out at the start to Massa and Alonso. This tight midfield battle was a case study for the problem with the undercut. As the pit stop window opened on Lap 26, Alonso was one second behind Massa and Perez was one second behind Alonso.

That was close enough to try an undercut but neither McLaren nor Force India tried it. Perez would have benefitted most from it as he was struggling to pass two cars, with Alonso able to get DRS from following Massa ahead.

Massa had the luxury of pitting first on Lap 27 with no undercut attempt, then Alonso pitted and inevitably came out behind him. Perez and Force India, having missed the opportunity, decided to extend the stint and then try to make it up later on fresher tyres. He extended by seven laps, but lost too much time during that period and wasn’t able to get the benefit at the end. They crossed the line together in the same order in which they had raced.

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

Race history and Tyre Usage charts, kindly supplied by Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge

Analysis: Setting off a chain reaction – how to make things happen in F1 races


Mexico is a great event, with huge crowds, but it’s turning out to be a place for strange races, due to the unique circumstances of the altitude, which impacts the way teams prepare and run the cars and constrains overtaking.
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Another decisive factor at his stage of the season is the ‘nothing to lose’ mentality and how that collides with teams who still have something to lose. This was one of the triggers behind what happened in Singapore and it happened again at the start in Mexico.

With the championship more or less decided before the race and with most teams at this stage now only racing one or two other competitors, the decision making has a different edge.

Teams like Red Bull with Max Verstappen have nothing to lose from being aggressive, while teams like Renault need to look ahead at how they can gain places and points, rather than look backwards at how they can defend a position.

The drivers championship is now decided and Force India has confirmed its fourth place in the Constructors’ table so we are likely to see most of the cars at the front going for it in the last two races because now they all have nothing to lose.

This was a race where the Virtual Safety Car made a decisive appearance, allowing drivers who had not stopped to get a cheap pit stop and consolidate their positions, reducing the threat from behind, so drivers like Lance Stroll and Kevin Magnussen really benefitted from that.

Pre-race expectations

Mexico is rather like Sochi in that it is a low energy circuit, so the tyres last a long time, even the ultra softs, which went to half distance. At the same time, the track is difficult to overtake on because it is hard to get close to the car in front without temperatures soaring. The Drag Reduction System to aid overtaking has less effect at altitude because the air is thinner and the cars are going faster on the straights for the same reason.

For most teams the clear strategy for the race was one stop with ultrasofts to around Lap 30 and then supersofts. However, the key was staying out of traffic, which could cost 3/10ths of a second per lap due to cooling limitations on the car. So there was an argument for stopping early and using soft tyres if you could run in clear air, rather than run on supersofts in traffic.

Mexico is a track where few cars get to run at their fastest strategy.

Raikkonen sets off a chain reaction in midfield fight

Ferrari had the fastest car in Mexico and, like Singapore, this was a race Sebastian Vettel should have won.

He took pole position, but the start was always going to be high risk with almost 900metres drag down to Turn 1, like Sochi, it’s easy for the pole sitter to be slipstreamed and with Max Verstappen having nothing to lose, Vettel came off worse and even damaged his car and Lewis Hamilton’s in secondary contact. They dropped to the back.

Kimi Raikkonen lost ground too, slipping to 6th in the first stint behind Ocon, Hulkenberg and Perez.

Ferrari needed to break this train of cars up for two reasons; to get Raikkonen ahead of these midfield cars and also to create spaces so Vettel’s path through the field would be clearer.

During Lap 18 Raikkonen was told to pit, a very early and aggressive move, then told to do the opposite of what Perez did. Force India, thinking more of defending at this point than moving forward, pitted Perez to cover Ferrari but Raikkonen continued and Perez carried on. This was a problem for Perez because he came out into traffic behind Magnussen, which was avoidable. And it was not until Lap 30 that he managed to pass him.

If they had allowed Raikkonen to stop, for softs, he would probably have had a slow warm up on the tyre and Perez could have pitted a lap later for supersofts to cover him. Force India clearly doubted whether the supersoft would reach the end of the race, but it turned out that they would have done.

But Perez’ move triggered Renault into a reaction with Hulkenberg, at this stage Renault’s only remaining car in the race. If Force India didn’t need to stop on Lap 18 then Renault certainly didn’t need to stop with Hulkenberg on Lap 19 because it put him out into traffic behind Magnussen, instead of travelling quickly in a gap behind Ocon.

And there was a further negative knock on effect of sitting in traffic; it meant that his power unit overheated and ultimately he retired the car on Lap 25.

Hulkenberg’s stop in turn triggered Force India into pitting Ocon from fourth. Arguably, this too wasn’t necessary; with the performance deltas between cars reduced by the anomalies of racing at altitude, Ocon would have been able to hold Raikkonen in all likelihood and then as it turned out, the Virtual Safety Car gave them all a cheap pit stop on Lap 32, so Ocon might have had his first podium.

Raikkonen continued and was able to take advantage of the Virtual Safety Car to make his stop and consolidate his position. The only odd thing about Raikkonen’s race was that he fitted the soft tyre rather than the supersoft. That was because he didn’t have a new set of supersofts. Ferrari had chosen to use it in Q1 and to save a set of ulrasofts for the race.

This was presumably in case of a situation of having a chance to attack at the end of the race on a two stop, but it seemed strange as al the indicators were that a one stop race with ultrasoft then supersoft would be the default.

Virtual Safety Car not good news for everyone
Sauber has been plugging away this season, with only two points scoring finishes and no joy since June.

Last year Marcus Ericsson came close to scoring in Mexico with a bold strategy that saw him pit on Lap 1 and then run to the finish on a single set of tyres.

This strategy relied on the fact that in the midfield, the pace differences between cars were minimized by the traffic and the difficulty of overtaking.

They did a variant on that strategy this year, pitting one car early (Wehrlein) and the other one late (Ericsson). This put them in the position where they were a pit stop apart in time so rivals like Stoffel Vandoorne couldn’t get them because if he tried to undercut Ericsson he would come out behind Wehrlein and get held up. It was working quite well until the Virtual Safety Car, which neutralizes such strategies. Ericsson’s car later failed in the race anyway, but it was interesting to see a team trying something different at the back of the field.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli

Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – Click to Enlarge

A graphic representation of the Race History in terms of the lap times of each car. It shows the relative pace of the cars and the gaps between them in the race. Upward curve is good pace, downward curve demonstrates slower pace. Sudden drop is a pit stop.

Look at how the Perez/Hulkenberg/Raikkonen/Ocon battle resolves itself with a sequence of stops. Stroll’s race is a good example of riding your luck after a strong start and focusing on track position. He lucked in with the Virtual Safety Car at the right moment when he needed to stop, but you have to be in it to win it!

Perez stops a second time to see if he can catch Stroll on fresh tyres, but the teenager judges it well for another strong result in 6th.

Analysis: How Verstappen shook the tree, why Bottas faced more F1 misery in Austin


Red Bull have come on strongly late in the season after a slow start, as happened last year and they increasingly play a prominent role in race outcomes.
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And as they are not involved in the championship fight they can try aggressive disruption strategies on the others to try to force them into doing things they don’t want to do on strategy.

We saw that vividly from Max Verstappen in Austin as he made a surprise second stop on Lap 37 to shake the tree.

Here we will analyse the strategy and why Ferrari and Mercedes reacted as they did.

Pre race considerations

Pirelli had brought the ultra soft tyres to Austin, a good step more aggressive than previous years, where the range had included the mediums. But with the strategies having been disappointingly binary this year, rather than spread across the three compounds available, the Italian marque was trying to stimulate more variety with its selection.

It worked in Austin and all three compounds were used in the race.

After the practice running, which was mostly held in dry conditions, it looked like a finely balanced decision between a one and two stop race.

Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo had qualified strongly in fourth and had an aggressive armoury of tyres with two new sets of supersofts available for the race, hinting at a flat out two stopper. The Australian did pull that trigger on race day, but an engine failure meant we never got to see the outcome.

Mercedes had done their usual tactic and kept all options open with one new set of supersofts in addition to new softs, while Ferrari had no new sets of supersofts for the race; they had installed a set in FP3, which was next to new, however.

A violent storm on race morning dumped huge amounts of water onto the track and washed away all the rubber that had been laid over the weekend, raising the spectre of two stops being a sensible plan.

The key to the race, then, would be how hot the temperatures might get during the race as to how much degradation that would cause and whether that might tip it towards a two stop race. It was cooler on Sunday than on Saturday and that tipped the balance away from Ferrari, towards Mercedes and played a hand in deciding the race in Hamilton’s favour rather than Vettel’s.

Another factor in the strategy planning was the power of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) this weekend, which was worth 0.7s on the main straight. So if a car could get close enough into the turn before the straight, an overtake was certainly possible.

And we also saw it give the car behind the ability to get close and then attack in the sequence of corners that followed. This became the default for many drivers during the race and led to many overtakes in the final sector of the lap.

Objective 16th to the podium – Red Bull tries the disruption strategy

Max Verstappen had a stunning race, after taking a grid penalty for replacing his engine for the new specification higher-performing Renault. He was targeting the podium from 16th on the grid and it needed something special from the strategists as well as from the driver.

Verstappen played his part with some excellent overtakes, but the masterstroke from the strategist was to pull Verstappen in on Lap 37 for supersoft tyres. This disrupted the battle ahead with Vettel in second place, leading Bottas and Raikkonen at that time.

Red Bull could make the stop because there was no threat from behind, Ocon was 50 seconds away, so Verstappen could use fresh supersoft tyres on a clear track to hunt down the leading cars that at that stage were already struggling on the soft tyres, with 19 laps to the finish. Vettel and Bottas in particular both looked to be in trouble, Raikkonen’s tyres were in good shape.

Red Bull was agitating, hoping to get Ferrari or Mercedes to cover the stop. But the reality was that once he made it, both Bottas and Raikkonen woujd have lost a place if they stopped on the following lap.

Only Vettel had enough margin to cover the move. He had been talking on the radio about a Plan B anyway, which was a second stop. So it was logical for him to be the only one to cover Verstappen.

As Bottas and Raikkonen were already compromised by the move, the so-called number two drivers were left out to block Verstappen’s progress. For Bottas he was also going to be called on to block Vettel as he came back through.

It made for a hard afternoon for the German to fight his way back through to second place, but he managed it. Given that Verstappen only caught Raikkonen on the last lap you could argue that Vettel’s extra stop was unnecessary, but as he had been complaining about the soft tyres anyway it made sense.

Verstappen made up 18 seconds in 19 laps and caught Raikkonen because the Finn was fuel saving in the closing stages. We saw that with Vettel in Malaysia, towards the end of the race, so Ferrari has had some difficulties since the new version of the engine was introduced in getting the starting fuel level right.

Mercedes had a 9 second margin with Lewis Hamilton and with Bottas as a buffer, they did not feel the need to cover Verstappen and Vettel’s move.

Mercedes not perfect – Bottas misses out again

Valtteri Bottas celebrated Mercedes’ fourth consecutive constructors’ championship with the rest of the team, but his dream switch to the strongest team in F1 currently has not been going smoothly lately.

He has used the world ‘struggling’ frequently of late and in Austin he missed out on a podium on a day when his team mate managed to dominate the race.

Bottas qualified third and held that position through the round of pit stops which put the front runners onto soft tyres and ostensibly a one stop race.

By Lap 35 it was clear that Bottas and Vettel were struggling with the tyres and considering switching to a two-stop plan. At this point Verstappen had not stopped.

The consideration they had was that had Mercedes pulled the trigger it would have amounted to an undercut attempt on Vettel, who would have been able to cover it the next lap. So in terms of a chance to move forward it was limited in scope. But what about as a defensive play against cars behind? It was a question of whether they could hold up Raikkinen on the same tyres.

They believed they could, especially with Raikkonen in fuel saving mode, but they were wrong. Raikkonen passed Bottas on Lap 42 and after Vettel came through on fresh tyres and with Verstappen set to pass him as well, Bottas made a late stop.

With a huge gap back to Ocon there was nothing to lose by doing this. But by not following the initial instinct to stop, what would have been a podium ended up a fifth place and more dejection for Bottas.

Sainz and Ocon shine.
Carlos Sainz finished sixth in Austin in 2015, although he was later demoted to seventh for a pit lane speeding penalty. Last year he got his sixth place and this year, on his debut with Renault, so driving an unfamiliar car, he bagged seventh, behind Estaban Ocon; a fantastic result.

In this he was helped by the latest instalment of the Force India driver feud, whereby Sergio Perez was again requesting to be allowed through past his team mate. He was told that Ocon was “managing his pace” to the end of the race on the soft tyres, so it was not the case that Perez was faster. The team was unwilling to swap the cars because they felt it would not change the finishing result and points haul, as in Japan. But unlike the last race, they were wrong, because Sainz cruised up behind Perez and passed him, dropping the Mexican to 8th, where he finished.

Felipe Massa started the race in 10th place, due to other drivers’ grid penalties and was able to start on supersoft tyres and run a long first stint. He pitted on Lap 29 onto ultrasoft tyres, leaving 26 laps to the finish. It was an unusual strategy and it netted him a ninth place after he passed Kvyat at the end of the race. But he was never on the pace of Sainz and the Force India cars ahead.

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge

Showing the gaps between the cars and the relative pace. An upward line is good pace, a descending line is poor pace.

Look at Bottas’s pace (blue dotted line) in comparison with Hamilton. Had he stopped on Lap 35 or 36 he would not have been passed by Verstappen and would probably have been able to pass Raikkonen for third place in the closing stages to secure a podium.

Insight: How Red Bull forced Mercedes’ hand in tense F1 tactical battle


Hamilton and Verstappen

It is easy for fans to assume that a one-stop race is straightforward for all teams concerned, but in the case of the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix, nothing could be further from the truth.
[+] Expand

The teams went into the race with four laps of data on which to base key strategic decisions around 25 lap stints.

Suzuka is a track to be aggressive on, it often brings results and Red Bull has benefitted from that many times down the years.

We saw Red Bull taking lots of risks to try to win the race with Max Verstappen and he almost succeeded, forcing Mercedes into a sub-optimal strategy with Lewis Hamilton. But the Englishman managed to hold on, just, to win the race.

Further back we will look at how two midfield teams imposed team orders, refusing drivers’ requests to switch the cars, how Valtteri Bottas’ role as a rear gunner for Hamilton cost him a podium and whether the fast-starting Sebastian Vettel could have won the race if he had not suffered power loss due to a spark plug failure.

Pre race expectations

With very limited dry running before the race, teams had little data to work on for race strategy planning. The soft and supersoft tyres would be the main sets and Vettel opined that the lack of data didn’t matter too much as they know the tyres well by now. But memories of Silverstone where Vettel’s blistered front tyre failed due to going on too long were still vivid in people’s minds.

The expectation was that this would be a one-stop race, but there was quite a set of unknowns and the Plan B of a switch to two stops was ready to be deployed.

The uncertainty about what to do creates a dilemma for teams; because the tyres are a bit too resilient to be ideal this year (last year one stoppers used medium and hard tyres!) teams default to the minimum stop solution, in this case one stop.

But it leads to two things: lots of risk taking at the start, as it’s one of few opportunities to make up places and also it leads to a ‘group mentality’, which means making copycat moves.

Underlying these one-stop races this year is a great tension; what to do if a rival attacks with an early stop on Lap 16? Do you cover it or copy the move?

Two stop strategies create gaps in the traffic, while one-stop races create doubt, especially for the drivers. This is why you often hear Lewis Hamilton questioning a strategy decision; he’s picking up on that mood of uncertainty. What swung it towards one stop this year was the Virtual Safety Car periods, which gave the tyres a breather.

Last year in Suzuka everyone finished and there were no VSCs. But this year with faster cars it was clear that the track punished mistakes, which is as it should be in F1.

So against that backdrop of tension and doubt, a team like Red Bull, with nothing to lose in the drivers’ championship can afford to take big risks.

How Verstappen almost made it back-to-back wins

Verstappen won in Malaysia by making an aggressive overtaking move for the lead on Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton respects Verstappen, you can tell. And he respected him even more after that, even though he was dealing with a de-rate problem on his engine at the time.

So when the Dutchman forced his way past team mate Daniel Ricciardo at the start at Suzuka on Sunday, he was in the fight for the win and Red Bull was on a war footing.

On the first set of supersoft tyres, he had similar pace to Hamilton, but lost the front tyres as the stint evolved and struggled to keep the gap. But team boss Christian Horner had predicted that Verstappen would have a say in the final part of the race on the soft tyres and so it proved.

Red Bull took a huge risk on the timing of Verstappen’s stop; Raikkonen had started the race on soft tyres and was coming through the field as cars on supersofts peeled into the pits. Verstappen was pulled in on Lap 21, in order to provoke Mercedes into stopping Hamilton to cover.

Verstappen exited the pits only just ahead of Raikkonen. This forced Verstappen to push the tyres on the outlap, which may have cost him later in the race.

Hamilton had to stop the following lap, leaving 31 laps to go to the flag. His supersofts still had life in them; in a race where he was not under pressure he would have gone on to Lap 26, which would have given a more even balance to the stints.

Mercedes were under pressure, but had another piece to play in the chess game; Valtteri Bottas was on a similar strategy to Raikkonen having taken a five-place grid penalty. He was left out for a couple of laps once Hamilton had passed him on Lap 28, to hold Verstappen, in order to create a breathing space for Hamilton.

The judgement now was how long to leave Bottas out in order for his new supersoft tyres to be in perfect shape for attacking Ricciardo at the end for the podium. The problem for Bottas is that he lost two seconds of race time in the process of letting Hamilton through and spent two extra laps in the 1m35s compared to the 1m 33s he was able to do on supersofts after his stop.

The consequence was that he didn’t have quite enough time on the supersoft tyre set to catch Ricciardo.

Raikkonen was a distant 5th and didn’t seem to have the underlying pace in the car that we have seen of late from Ferrari. It wasn’t fuel and it wasn’t that the engine was turned down particularly after the recent reliability issues.

In Malaysia one could say with some certainty that had Raikkonen or Vettel had a clean weekend they could have won the race. In Suzuka that is less clear-cut, judging by the pace deficit Raikkonen had to Hamilton coming through the field.

Team orders imposed in midfield

Both Force India and Haas F1 teams imposed team orders on their drivers, refusing requests from the supposedly senior driver in each team to be allowed through. Both teams got away with it because of other drivers’ outcomes, so there was no controversy, but it is worth examining.

Force India had warned their drivers that they would not tolerate any more collisions; Esteban Ocon had a better qualifying and a better start than his teammate and was a contender in the early stages. Perez caught him and requested to be allowed to pass. The team refused to allow it, but in this case the result would not have changed if they had done so. And so Perez was able to accept the decision.

At Haas it was more finely balanced. There was a queue of cars behind eighth placed Felipe Massa, who was struggling on his tyres. The danger man for Haas was Nico Hulkenberg, who had run an extremely long first stint on softs and who stopped on Lap 38 for supersofts. He would be catching quickly and had Massa’s position in his sights.

Romain Grosjean was on tyres that were four laps fresher than team mate Kevin Magnussen’s and he wanted to be allowed through to attack Massa.

The team declined to swap. Fortunately for them Hulkenberg had to retire soon afterwards with his DRS wing stuck open and both Magnussen and Grosjean cleared Massa for a decent afternoon’s work for Haas in 8th and 9th places.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History and Tyre usage charts – courtesy Williams Martini Racing

Intended to show the relative performance of the cars and the gasp between them. Upward curve is positive. Lap time and gaps down the vertical axis, lap number on the horizontal.

Look at the pace of Raikkonen in the second stint compared to Bottas on the same strategy or Hamilton who is managing his tyres.

Look also at how close Verstappen comes to getting stuck behind Raikkonen on Lap 22, which would have blown his challenge for the win.

After the final VSC Hamilton’s pace declines steeply as his tyres are on the limit, but he holds on.

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