Grand Prix Tours Strategy Reports
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.
F1 Insight: What does it take to do well at Suzuka?
The last two races have provided exciting finishes, but they have also been highly strategic which has added layers to the interest. This weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka is set to follow suit.
Once again the teams will have the same three tyre compounds to choose from as in Malaysia, which means we are likely to see a lot of variation in the way the teams go about their preparation and execution of the race. And once again the hard must be used at some point in the race.
The soft tyre performed very well in Malaysia. This weekend is likely to be much cooler, but the corners at Suzuka put more load on the tyres and that contributes to the degradation. Mercedes and Ferrari weren’t happy with the medium tyre in Malaysia and avoided it, but the cooler conditions of Suzuka are likely to suit it much better and one would expect them to do quite a bit of work on Friday to establish if it is the race tyre of choice.
There may even be some strategy in the qualifying session, as we have seen in the last two races; saving new tyre sets or trying to get through Q2 on mediums in order to start the race on them.
Equally the hard is problematic for many teams when the track temperatures are low and only really Mercedes can get it working ideally – we saw that again last weekend when Red Bull and Mercedes went to the hard, Hamilton pulled away – so that could be in their favour if the circumstances come about.
After its unexpected 1-2 finish last weekend, Red Bull travels to Suzuka in a confident mood. The first and second sectors of the lap traditionally suit Red Bull, as its cars are all about aerodynamic efficiency, whereas the final sector is more power oriented. The team is more competitive than it was this time last year and the proof of that is that Daniel Ricciardo has beaten at least one Mercedes in four of the last five races.
Meanwhile Ferrari has slipped back into the position it was in for the latter years of Fernando Alonso’s career there; seemingly always qualifying fifth and not having the pace in the race. While Sebastian Vettel has had a messy time of it lately, with only one podium since Baku in June, Kimi Raikkonen has finished fourth in the last three races.
One area where the strategy battle is proving decisive every week is the McLaren/Force India/Williams battle. Although McLaren is well behind the other two in the championship standings, it is with them on pace and picking the right tyres in the right order is central to that. Alonso is making stunning starts – he’s picked up 29 places in the last five race starts.
Qualifying is critical; it’s rare for a car from outside the front row to win. Although pole position, which is on the outside, has a significant grip advantage compared to the inside line, nevertheless for the last two seasons Lewis Hamilton has won the race from second on the grid, despite losing out on pole to his team mate Nico Rosberg.
The other thing to keep the strategists busy is the Safety Car and Virtual Safety Car, which is appearing increasingly frequently, as we saw in Malaysia. This cuts the time needed for a pit stop and can be a game changer, for good or bad; it helped Alonso beat Hulkenberg last weekend, but it cost Button a shot at 5th place.
Suzuka is traditionally a race with quite a high chance of Safety Cars, so expect several interruptions in the race and tactical switches as a result.
Japanese Grand Prix in numbers:
This weekend’s event in Suzuka will be the 32nd world championship F1 race to take place at the famous 3.6mile track, where overtaking is tough and a high grid spot is crucial.
Since 1991, the Japanese race has only been won from lower than the front row on two occasions. Raikkonen won from 17th on the grid for McLaren in a memorable race in 2005, and a year later Alonso took the win for Renault after starting fifth.
Raikkonen has won more races from starting outside the top five on the grid than any other driver in F1 history, a feat he has achieved on six occasions.
The 2007 world champion’s win at Suzuka 11 years ago is arguably his most famous as he stormed through the field from his lowly grid position and passed Giancarlo Fisichella on the final lap to take the victory. No driver has won from that low on the grid since that race. This weekend, Raikkonen also passes his former teammate David Coulthard’s 246 F1 career starts, which will put the Finn seventh on the all-time list.
In the championship fight, Hamilton is still looking to take his 50th Grand Prix win and 100th F1 podium finish after he failed to finish last weekend in Malaysia from what looked to be a winning position.
That failure also meant Mercedes did not clinch its third successive constructors’ championship but it can do so this weekend as Red Bull needs its drivers to outscore Hamilton and Rosberg by 23 points to keep it in mathematical contention, while Ferrari lost its faint hopes of the constructors’ crown last time out in Malaysia.
Several drivers have streaks they will either be hoping to break or extended this weekend. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who failed to complete lap one for the third time this season after hitting Rosberg at the first corner in Sepang, is now on his longest-ever run without a front row start, a stretch that goes back 22 races to his pole at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix.
Malaysia winner Ricciardo has a 12-race scoring streak heading to Suzuka, which is the longest active run of the current drivers, and he also has a 24-race finishing record that is the second longest behind the 25 registered by Force India’s Sergio Perez.
At Haas F1, Romain Grosjean has only completed seven laps in the last two races after brake problems stopped him starting in Singapore and caused him to retire in Malaysia. His teammate Esteban Gutierrez scored the only points of his F1 career at the 213 Japanese Grand Prix, when he finished seventh for Sauber, but he has finished in 11th place five times this season without scoring.
What are you expecting from the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
Analysis: What Malaysian GP tells us about how Red Bull will manage future Verstappen, Ricciardo battles
One of the best Grands Prix of the season featured close racing, heartbreak for Lewis Hamilton with a late race engine failure and a fascinating strategic battle at the heart of it, as Red Bull challenged Mercedes in a war game.
For the second season in a row the dominant Mercedes team did not win in Malaysia, as Nico Rosberg fell to 21st at the start and Red Bull split the strategies across its two cars to attack Hamilton.
There is much to digest and analyse in our deep dive into the key decisions that shaped the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix
The resurfacing of the track greatly increased grip and meant that the lap times were close to record pace. Although Sepang is a tough circuit on tyres, the teams found that the soft tyres were lasting particularly well during practice.
While few thought a one-stop race was possible, there were some teams considering two stints on softs, followed by the mandatory stint on hards at the end. The forecasts were that the hard tyre would last around 30 laps, but not much more.
Red Bull cast the first stone in the strategy game on Saturday by saving a new set of soft tyres in Q1 for both drivers. Having set his Q1 time on medium tyres, like teammate Ricciardo, Verstappen went out at the end of the session on a set of softs, but only did a slow lap, so they were effectively new for the race. Ricciardo’s saved set was brand new and this would count for a lot in his final stint battle against Verstappen, as we shall see.
Red Bull splits strategies and what it tells us about the future battles of
Ricciardo vs Verstappen
Did Red Bull believe that they could beat Lewis Hamilton in Sepang, without the engine failure? Up to the point at which the drivers moved onto the hard tyres the answer is yes.
Once it became clear the pace Mercedes had on the hard tyres, Red Bull’s focus shifted to preserving second and third places ahead of Rosberg and Raikkonen. But the way they went about it tells us a lot about what how they will have to carefully manage the internal battle between Ricciardo and Verstappen in future.
The early stages of the Grand Prix saw two periods of Virtual Safety Car and at the second, on Lap 9, Red Bull rolled the dice and split their strategies, bringing Verstappen in for another set of soft tyres.
They did this because it made it very difficult for Mercedes to cover both strategies with only Hamilton in the game at the front. Had Mercedes been first and second they would have done the same thing, because there were a lot of unknowns about how the tyres would perform later and what other incidents may occur.
Red Bull’s philosophy was to take the risk with the tail car, which is why Verstappen was pitted. As it turned out, it gave him the better strategy.
Interestingly this is the opposite of what they did in Barcelona (above), where they took the risk with the lead car, Ricciardo, and it cost him the race win.
Verstappen fitted his ‘as new’ set of softs at this stop and re-joined. Ricciardo had stayed out as had the leader Hamilton. On new tyres, Verstappen was quickly into Hamilton’s pit window, meaning that the world champion would drop behind Verstappen when he made his stop.
Hamilton pitted on Lap 20 for hards, with Ricciardo covering that a lap later with the same move. Although Ricciardo radioed in that he felt the tyres would go to the end, realistically both drivers were going to need a late race stop for a set of soft tyres; Mercedes were certainly planning that.
So there is no question that Verstappen was on the better strategy and had Hamilton pulled into the pits to retire on Lap 40, rather than stopping out on track triggering another VSC, then Verstappen would probably have won the race. Ricciardo would have had to stop again and would then have tried to make up the 24 seconds his stop had lost him, in the closing stages on soft tyres, versus Verstappen’s hards.
Once Hamilton was out, Red Bull did the sensible thing and pitted both cars under the VSC. They did this not as a form of team orders, but to cover off Rosberg and Raikkonen, who could have beaten them if there had been a late race Safety Car. They had a 30 second gap back to Rosberg so it made perfect sense to use it and take on fresh tyres, which Ricciardo was now in need of in any case.
Ricciardo fitted his new soft set, Verstappen had to use one of his old qualifying sets, which had done three laps including a hard lap. And thus, with his strategy advantage neutralised and inferior tyres, it was always going to be a struggle to beat his team mate. Game, set and match Ricciardo.
However the really intriguing phase was just before Hamilton’s engine failed, when Verstappen caught Ricciardo, who had pitted on lap 21 for hard tyres, six laps earlier than his teammate. At this point Hamilton was 20 seconds ahead, but lapping over a second faster than Ricciardo.
Common sense would suggest that Red Bull would allow Verstappen through without delay, as he would then once again be in Hamilton’s pit window (i.e. less than the 24 seconds Hamilton would need to pit and re-join ahead). But at the rate Hamilton was going, that opportunity would be lost in a couple of laps time.
Switch them immediately and the Dutchman would have the track position when Hamilton stopped again. The Mercedes would have to try to pass him on the track at the end. Although Ricciardo had told the team he could go to the end on the tyres, the reality is that both he and Hamilton would need to stop again, so Ricciardo had little chance of winning the race, as things stood.
However what is significant is that Red Bull had conceded that Mercedes were too fast on hard tyres and they were not going to beat Hamilton. Thus their focus was on consolidating second and third places at that point.
They did not instruct Ricciardo to let Verstappen through because they were racing each other for position, not racing Hamilton.
That did not stop Verstappen from insisting on the radio that he be allowed through. We saw him do this a lot in the Toro Rosso days with Carlos Sainz and it’s clear that there will be some difficult moments in the future dynamic between the Red Bull drivers where these kinds of calls will be made. The data shows that Verstappen was the faster Red Bull driver all weekend in Malaysia and he had the better strategy before Hamilton’s demise.
What Malaysia showed us is how the team handle the situation when they don’t think they can win the race and they favoured Ricciardo here; bearing in mind how they let him down in Barcelona and Monaco, this was clearly payback. With Hamilton’s misfortune it turned into an victory payback.
However, if the Red Bull drivers, perhaps next season, were in a position to win if the team moves one driver over to give the other a better shot at beating another car, would Ricciardo or Verstappen yield if requested? One can imagine the respective answers to that question and it will be fascinating when that situation arises next year.
Bottas and Alonso shine as Button misses out
Valterri Bottas and the two McLaren drivers provided a couple of other interesting cameos.
Bottas had a strong race doing a one stop medium-hard strategy that very few people foresaw. It was bold by Williams and the kind of thing they need to do more often.
Starting 11th after a disappointing qualifying session, the Finn did a superb job to get 29 laps into the race on the mediums and then reach the finish on the hards, maintaining track position ahead of the Force India and McLaren cars.
Due to the new track surface no race strategist had a clear idea of the best order to take the tyres, “you had to be dynamic and on your toes this weekend, reacting to things.” said one.
Fernando Alonso had another astonishing afternoon, starting at the back of the grid after his engine penalty; he was already 12th at the end of the opening lap. Making up places at starts has always been one of his strengths, but it set him up for a strong result here. He too pitted under the Lap 9 VSC and took the hard tyres. He saved around 10 seconds by stopping under the VSC compared to a normal stop.
He then undercut Hulkenberg at his second stop to finish in seventh place for the second race in a row, showing the steady progress McLaren Honda is making as the season progresses. Alonso also set the sixth fastest race lap.
The Spaniard has definitely got his bounce back; he is driving well and the car is making clear progress.
Button had a great start too and was sixth on the opening lap. He was racing against Bottas for fifth place, but was caught out by bad luck when he pitted just before the final VSC for Hamilton’s breakdown. This allowed Alonso and Hulkenberg to get a cheap pit stop under the VSC and come out ahead of him and both separated him from Bottas ahead.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do if Lady Luck isn’t on your side, however good your strategy planning!
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH & TYRE USAGE CHART, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge
Key: Horizontal = Lap number; Vertical = Gap in seconds
Look at the pace of Verstappen as he closes on Ricciardo around Lap 38/39. Had Hamilton’s engine survived both he and Ricciardo would have needed to stop again, leaving both to pass Verstappen for the victory. Had Hamilton retired in the pits Ricciardo would have had to pit again before the end and Verstappen would have won the race by a margin. Holding Verstappen off on Lap 39 and then Hamilton stopping out on circuit triggering a VSC won Ricciardo the race.
Insight: Why the F1 teams are treating Malaysia’s Sepang circuit almost like a new track
Formula 1 moves to this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix with the drivers’ championship finely balanced, but changes to the track surface along with a change of date and greater tyre options mean that the teams are treating Sepang almost like a new venue.
We saw at the last race how race strategy can fundamentally affect a race outcome and this weekend we are likely to see a different kind of Malaysian Grand Prix from previous years. For a start there are likely to be more pit stops as the inclusion of the soft tyre, along with the medium and hard, is set to mix up the strategies and a number of drivers will do at least three stops.
Williams has already cliched the fastest pitstops award, having set the fastest stop at 11 races this season, which cannot be beaten. The outright fastest stop this year was 1.92seconds set in Baku on Felipe Massa’s car.
Track temperatures are always a key factor; last year the dial hit 56 degrees and this caused problems for the Mercedes team, as it lost out to Ferrari’s Sebtastian Vettel, who was able to do one stop fewer than the Silver Arrows cars. Hotter track conditions are still a point of weakness for Mercedes, but Singapore showed that they have made improvements in this area since last year.
Mercedes can clinch their third consecutive constructors’ championship this weekend if they score 26 points, regardless of their rivals’ result. There are other permutations, but a win and a fourth place will give them the title with five races to go.
Unlike Singapore last time out, Sepang is a track on which you can overtake, so teams can go for an aggressive strategy, knowing that their driver will have a chance to cut through the traffic. Last year there were 56 overtakes in the race, putting it at the higher end of the scale. The relative levels of thermal degradation on the tyres experienced by the different teams plays a significant role in this.
The start is always critical here; the distinctive first corner turns right and then left and always results in a big change of field order, with drivers winning and losing positions at the start of the race. Collisions in which drivers damage their front wing as the field gets pinched into the left hand turn, after the initial right, are common.
The circuit features a number of high energy corners among the 15 turns in total. The first and third sectors of the lap at Sepang feature long straights and hairpin bends, while sector two has some medium and high speed corners, which load up the tyres. Sepang is the fourth hardest track of the year on tyres (after Silverstone, Barcelona and Suzuka).
Malaysian Grand Prix in numbers:
This weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will be the 18th world championship race held at the Sepang circuit, the first F1 track to be fully designed by Hermann Tilke.
The race, at 192.879 miles, will be the longest on the 2016 calendar in terms of distance, and it returns to an October slot for the first time since the 2000 event, which was won by Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher.
There have been eight 1-2 finishes at the Malaysian race across the 17 events held since 1999 with the victories spread across seven constructors (Ferrari in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2015, Williams in 2002, McLaren in 2003 and 2007, Renault in 2005 and 2006, Brawn in 2009, Red Bull in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and Mercedes in 2014).
The Mercedes team is highly likely to seal the constructors’ title at this weekend’s race. To stop the German manufacturer securing a third consecutive crown, Red Bull would have to outscore it by eight points, or Ferrari by 23, to keep the championship going on to Japan.
In the scrap for the drivers’ championship, Lewis Hamilton has good recent form at the 3.44-mile Sepang track. He won the 2014 race from pole position and the world champion has finished on the podium at every Grand Prix for the last four years in Malaysia. He also has scored points in each of his nine starts at Sepang and has secured three of the last four Malaysian poles.
Nico Rosberg, who now leads the drivers’ standings by eight points after his win last time out in Singapore, is hoping to take the victory in Malaysia to become only the third F1 driver in history to win four consecutive races twice in the same season. Only Schumacher (in 2004) and Hamilton (in 2014) have previously done so and they both subsequently went on to win that year’s championship.
Rosberg’s Singapore win was also his eighth of 2016, and no driver has ever won eight races in a single season without going on to claim the championship.
Two other drivers can make F1 history this weekend. At McLaren, Jenson Button will become the third F1 driver in history to reach 300 Grand Prix starts. Only Schumacher (306) and Rubens Barrichello (322) have started more.
Valtteri Bottas will make his 72nd start for Williams, and as the Grove-base squad is the only F1 team he has driven for so far in his career, he will tie Jim Clark’s record with Lotus for the longest F1 career exclusively with a just one team.
What are you expecting from this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
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