GPTours

Analysis: How the strategy led to the conflicts in Brazilian F1 Grand Prix

2018-11-13

The Brazilian F1 Grand Prix provided some great talking points this year and clashes between drivers, but the seeds of these incidents were sown as much by the race strategy as by any hot headedness by the drivers concerned.

New tyres versus old; it’s part of the strategic thinking behind the Pirelli tyre degradation concept for F1. We had it in the refuelling era as well, the days of Bridgestone tyres, but to a lesser extent than Pirelli, especially towards the end of their time in F1 when they became very conservative

With F1 cars finding it difficult to overtake on many circuits, the idea of Pirelli is to give teams choices of three tyre compounds and when they get the complex formula of the right choices for the circuit and conditions, you get a fascinating situation where there are several different ways to cover the race distance.

It depends on their circumstances; those teams near the front will want the fastest possible race, others near the back may do something that wouldn’t be the fastest route from lights to flag, but which would give them track position by staying out longer in either the first or second stints.

So, you often get a situation when one car on newer, softer tyres comes up on a car with older, harder ones. In Brazil this happened with a number of scenarios, but two of them led to controversy: Ocon on Verstappen and the intra team battle between the two Toro Rosso drivers.


Trouble at the front

With the Ocon/Verstappen situation, the Force India driver had been lapped but had pitted for new supersoft tyres. Ocon’s second stop on Lap 40 had been delayed, taking four seconds longer than the norm, the second slow stop of the day for the Frenchman. This dropped him behind the race leader Verstappen on the track. Ocon on new supersofts in a midfield car was one second a lap faster than Verstappen in the leading car on soft tyres that were nine laps old.

There were still 28 laps to go in the race and Verstappen was attempting to do what he had also done in Austin to great effect, that is to run the race in a single stop but with a softer (and faster) tyre set than either Mercedes or Ferrari could manage.

As with his victory in Mexico, the seeds of the Dutchman’s strategy and strong performance were sown in that Austin race, which gave such strong pointers to Red Bull’s challenge at the end of this season. The chassis was working well and the team focussed all their attention on race set up, to maximise the performance of the chassis and tyres for the race.

They have this luxury currently because of the gulf in performance between the top three teams and the midfield. Mercedes and Ferrari were separated by 9/100ths of a second in an intense fight for pole position. Whereas Red Bull had a comfortable margin of over half a second to play with, back to the high-performing Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc.

So, whereas Ferrari chose to start on the soft tyre in Brazil and switch to mediums for the second stint and Mercedes went supersoft, then medium, Red Bull managed to get to Lap 33 on the supersoft, which took them into the window to be able to take the soft tyre to the flag – a similar strategy to Austin.

It wasn’t easy and it required exceptional skill from Verstappen to overtake cars, progressing from fifth on the grid to second by Lap 10 and keep the pace up in the opening stint, without damaging the tyres.

Meanwhile the Mercedes cars were also showing the same signs that we saw in Austin and Mexico of blistering the tyres, which compromised their race strategy. This has been the case since Pirelli increased the minimum mandatory tyre pressures.

Ferrari’s strategy of taking the soft tyre for the start was predicated on the weather being hotter on race day – which it was – but the weakness of the plan was the lower grip off the line if both cars were to qualify on the dirty side of the grid – which they did.

In Vettel’s case this led immediately to a loss of position to Bottas into Turn 1 at the start. Raikkonen was able to hold off Verstappen initially but the decision to go with softs did not pay off for Ferrari as the supersofts performed better than they had expected.

Raikkonen again went on to be the stronger of the two Ferrari drivers; the third time in four races. Raikkonen has outscored Vettel 65-46 in that period, which is a concern for Ferrari. That never happened with Alonso and Raikkonen in their time together.


In house troubles at Toro Rosso

The question of a car on newer, softer tyres coming through on one with older harder tyres was also playing out at Toro Rosso. We have often seen this, where a team tries two different strategies and at times the lead car on the road is at a disadvantage, so the team asks them to swap, especially if there is a points-paying result to be had. We’ve seen it with Ferrari, Red Bull, even with Mercedes in the days of Hamilton and Rosberg.

But with Toro Rosso it’s different.

Go right back as far as you like in their F1 history and you will see that Toro Rosso play race strategy differently from other teams because the concept behind the team is that they are blooding young talent, looking for their next Red Bull Racing driver. So, they usually give the drivers different strategies.

In the case of Brazil, there was an outside chance that on new supersoft tyres Brendon Hartley would be able to catch Sergio Perez for the final points paying position in tenth. Gasly had stopped on Lap 22 for medium tyres, while Hartley came in for new supersofts on Lap 49. Hartley was between a second and a half and two seconds per lap faster than Gasly.

Toro Rosso asked Gasly not to hold Hartley up, but to let him through and the Frenchman refused. He got through eventually, but the situation was made worse by Sainz passing Gasly before the end so the Frenchman ended up 13th having started ninth.

Hartley’s whole race strategy was based on being quick at the end of the race, he had started on the medium tyre, which meant a very tough and long opening stint. So, he was aggrieved that after what he described as one of his best performances in an F1 car, he wasn’t given a fair chance to score a point.
.
All photos: Motorsport Images

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

“It’s not going to be straightforward”: Why Mexico was so tough for F1 teams

2018-10-31

“It’s not going to be straightforward to the end, Max” was the message to Max Verstappen from his engineer as he led in Mexico.

It applied to every single one of the 20 cars in the field.

A race where every car up to fifth is lapped and the world champion is crowned by finishing in fourth place 78 seconds adrift of the winner is no ordinary Grand Prix.

It showed how being patient was the order of the day in Mexico; managing the car, the tyres, brakes and temperatures. Everything is on the limit unless you are running in clear air. This generation of F1 cars really struggle around Mexico and, as with Melbourne, to get two cars to the finish is no mean feat.

It’s not very glamorous, but resisting the temptation to push was the strategy for success and not everyone followed it.

Held at altitude and on a day when only the best-balanced cars can keep the tyres from damage and still manage to run at pace, this was a result that had been coming for some time for Red Bull and Max Verstappen.

The US Grand Prix hinted at what was to come in this race; Mercedes struggling with an imbalance, the quality of the Red Bull chassis, looking after the tyres better than the other cars.

No-one had the clear road map for this race, with six different strategies in the top ten finishers and the three top teams using different strategies on each of their two cars.

In the circumstances Lewis Hamilton did well to bring the car home in fourth to win his fifth world championship, especially as team mate Bottas had to make a third stop – and was lapped – as Mercedes struggled with all three of the tyre compounds used in the race.

The local fans were denied a strong result for their hero Sergio Perez, whose every overtake was cheered and who was making great progress from 13th on the grid on a reverse strategy, starting on supersoft tyres – even getting a boost from a pit stop under a Virtual Safety Car – but was forced to retire with a brake problem.

Max Verstappen vs Ferrari

Max Verstappen’s determination to win this race, after losing out by a fraction on pole to his team mate, was evident from the way he launched his car down the longest run from a start line in F1 and insisted on his line into Turn 1 against Hamilton.

His execution was perfect, as was the way he managed the fragile ultrasoft tyres in the first stint. Around a third of the way into the race, he was told, “It’s not going to be straightforward to the end, Max”, given the unpredictability of the tyres. But if we think back to Austin a week earlier, the Red Bull had been the only front running car that could run the second stint on supersoft tyres, whereas his rivals all had to use soft, so the pointers were all there.

The Red Bull team pitted Verstappen a second time on Lap 48, the leader having the unique luxury of a new set of supersoft tyres to move onto. Ferrari had overcommitted to hypersoft tyres in their selection for this race and Mercedes didn’t have a new set of supersofts for Hamilton as he had given them back after FP1. So when they were forced to make a second stop they only had ultra soft tyres to fit, which constrained their strategy as they couldn’t switch to that tyre too early and risk them dropping off in performance before the end. So Hamilton had to wait until Lap 47 for some new tyre relief.

He had found it hard not to push and to clinch the title in a glorious way.

In contrast, when Red Bull inspected the tyres that had come off Verstappen’s car, they could see that they still had plenty of life left in them and so they decided to leave his team mate Ricciardo out on a one stop strategy, which would ultimately have bagged him a podium ahead of Raikkonen, who was on the same plan but some way behind.

Sadly, Ricciardo’s race ended prematurely with a retirement, otherwise he would have managed a 57 lap stint on supersofts.

Perez goes for glory, but Sauber have the right idea

Sergio Perez’ early long run in supersofts had indicated to teams that once the initial painful phase of graining had passed, the tyre was durable. The Mexican went 30 laps in the opening stint before pitting under a Virtual Safety Car for what was set to be a 38 lap run on ultra softs to the flag. His battle was with Charles Leclerc and Sauber for seventh place and it would have been a good duel to the end.

Pushing as hard as Perez did was not good for reliability. It was such a knife edge for the drivers to manage the tyres, the brakes and the cooling.

Force India should have been ahead of Sauber on the grid, but chose not to do Q3 so they could have an open strategy. This looked a mistake, as was scrubbing their set of ultrasoft tyres. They got stuck in the train behind Ericsson and Perez felt that in front of his home fans he needed to put on a show and he paid a price. Perez was trying to overcut Ericsson, but the Swede made him and the other midfielders pay in the early stages of the race.

Seeing what the super soft was doing on Perez’ car, several other teams went that route on the second stint including Renault with Nico Hulkenberg, who bagged an excellent sixth place and Sauber with Leclerc in seventh and Ericsson in ninth – the team’s first double points score of the season and one which eased them ahead of Toro Rosso in the Constructors’ championship.

This was built on a strong qualifying performance, with both cars starting in the Top Ten grid positions on merit, underlining how well the team has progressed this season, partly thanks to its technical partnership with Ferrari.

The team embodied the patience that was needed to do well, as did Renault.

In 2016 with a poor car Sauber was able to pit early and keep everyone behind. It pays to know your history on days like these.

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

Holding your nerve: How Ferrari restored pride in F1 US GP with strategy masterclass

2018-10-23

The Americans love their sport as entertainment and Formula 1 served up a superb Grand Prix in Austin that had the perfect blend of virtuoso driving and intriguing strategy.

Like the Grand Prix in Monza, this was one of the best races of the season with close racing, emotion and strategy intrigue, which kept the outcome in doubt until the final lap, with the three podium finishers crossing the line close together.

Unlike Monza, which marked the start of Ferrari’s Autumn collapse, this race was their bounce-back. But whereas much of the reason Ferrari failed to win Monza was due to the strategic uncertainty over whether Kimi Raikkonen should be allowed to win the race having scored pole position, this race was Kimi’s to lose after Sebastian Vettel made another unforced error. It was his chance to shine after years of playing the domestique to Vettel and before that Fernando Alonso.

He used the strategy, made an aggressive start, controlled the race and took the win for himself. It was a perfectly judged victory both by him and by the embattled strategy team led by Inaki Rueda. When they get it right, like in Bahrain and Spa this year, it’s nigh on perfect.

Mercedes made some mistakes on strategy in this race, missing chances which could have seen Hamilton second and Bottas fourth. Ferrari’s victory was no surprise to them; they’d looked fast in the limited dry practice running on Saturday and after Pirelli increased the tyre pressures by 1.5psi post qualifying, Mercedes struggled with wear, especially with the way they had set their car up.

Ferrari ace it after Vettel penalty

Raikkonen’s victory was based on solid strategic thinking. After Vettel bagged a three-place grid penalty for not slowing sufficiently for a red flag in Friday’s wet practice, Ferrari got savvy with Raikkonen. They had the car for pole position, but were up against a COTA master in Hamilton, who is in the form of his life.

So, to make sure of having the chance to lead on Lap 1 and control the race, they made Raikkonen do Q2 on ultra softs – his race start tyres – which would have more grip off the start line. So even without pole, he would have a chance for the hole shot into Turn 1 at the start.

Knowing they were under pressure, Mercedes set their car up more for qualifying than the race and that was the seeds of their downfall.

They got the pole but then suffered terribly in the race. Bottas’ performance was the best they could do on a one stop strategy, whereby he was passed at the end by Vettel – on more or less the same strategy – who had had to come back through the field after a spin on Lap One.

Hamilton’s launch was slightly better than Raikkonen’s but he lost ground in the second phase with more wheel spin and Raikkonen forced his way up the inside. Hamilton used his head against a driver not in the title fight and yielded.

Ferrari had the pieces where they wanted them on the chess board, which would allow them to use Raikkonen to try to bring Vettel into the game. But the German took himself out of the equation with contact with Ricciardo and a spin similar to the one that cost him victory in Monza.

When Ricciardo retired nine laps later with no engine power and the Virtual Safety Car was deployed, Mercedes had some quick thinking to do. They told Hamilton to ‘do the opposite’ of Raikkonen, trying to tempt the Ferrari team to react and bring Raikkonen in only 11 laps into the race. They didn’t bite. So, Mercedes pulled Hamilton in and he re-joined on new soft tyres behind his team mate Bottas, who duly let him through once racing resumed.

So far so good; after eight laps Hamilton was now back where he had been, but with better tyres and more strategic options against Raikkonen whose ultra-soft tyres were starting to fade. But Ferrari and Raikkonen held their nerve.

The Finn did some valiant defending before diving into the pits on Lap 21, but by taking some pain at the end of the stint, he had made his race stints more balanced and he had enough tyre life at the end to hold off Verstappen and Hamilton after his second stop.

Meanwhile the other notable point in the early stages was that the gap back to Bottas was strangely large. There were two reasons for this; one is that Mercedes felt a one stop strategy would be hard to do for their car and so this was his controlled pace to achieve it. Secondly his role for the day was as a blocker, covering the gap to Raikkonen and shielding Hamilton from Vettel.

But like the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, the Mercedes was running out of tyres after 20 laps whereas Red Bull and Ferrari were fine; Red Bull so much so that they were able to put Verstappen on the supersofts for his second stint which gave him great pace and opportunity. Red Bull had completely set the car up for the race, the opposite of Mercedes.


How could the outcome have been different?

Mercedes ended with a third and fifth place finish. It could have been second and fourth. Hamilton could have gone for an undercut on lap 19 to end on soft tyres that would have nine laps more life in them to try to win, but probably he would still have run out of tyre life before the end.

Another option was that on Lap 32 he could have stopped and at that point he would have come out between Raikkonen and Verstappen. He would have finished second, but it’s unlikely he could have won the race.

After Lap 32 passed without him stopping, Mercedes knew they had committed Hamilton to overtaking two cars before the end. They lost around five or six seconds of vital race time in that period as he was in traffic, so the true state of the tyres was not clear.

As for Bottas, he did the best one stop Mercedes could manage, which was not competitive and was passed by Vettel on the same strategy. They had data from Hamilton’s early stint on softs that other teams didn’t have.

The mistake was to cover the undercut by Verstappen, who was charging through the field in a virtuoso drive from 18th on the grid. Bottas should have gone further on his first tyre set, to shorten the demand on the softs in the second stint. That might well have stopped Vettel passing him at the end.

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

Analysis: Covert games in midfield catch the eye as F1 title battle fizzles out

2018-10-09

There’s a saying among F1 strategists that the faster and more dominant the car, the easier the strategy calls.

This is because the margin for error is so large; if you make a mistake the car is fast enough relative to the competition that it is recoverable.

The calls made in the tightly-packed midfield are much more finely balanced.

The Japanese Grand Prix saw a series of problem decisions for Ferrari in qualifying and the race, while in the midfield we saw an excellent battle between the Force India, Haas, Renault and Toro Rosso cars and some interesting tactics going on.


Ferrari vs Mercedes vs Red Bull

While it’s fair to say that Lewis Hamilton had the edge in Suzuka, there was a second place there for the taking for Sebastian Vettel to keep his slim world championship hopes alive a little longer and he may even have been able to put some pressure on Hamilton in the race, if he had managed to get himself up there in qualifying.

Instead, as the dark clouds loomed before the decisive Q3 session, Ferrari sent both cars to the end of the pit lane first, fitted with intermediate tyres, had to later back out of that decision and as the two drivers then faced pressure on their hot laps, they made individual driving errors that confined Vettel to ninth and Raikkonen to fourth.

Suzuka often puts the teams and drivers on their mettle with changeable conditions like this, as does Interlagos, Brazil. In a championship fight the strategy team will normally assess what choice the main rival makes and cover that, but with Hamilton having outscored Vettel by 75 points to 42 from the Italian GP onwards, Ferrari clearly wanted to go aggressive. The reason for going down the pit lane first was to have the best visibility in the rain that was expected. There were several other possible scenarios and options and no real need to show your hand.

The irony of the situation is that the track was arguably in slightly better condition at 15-59pm local time, when the Ferraris set their definitive lap times, than two minutes earlier when the Mercedes drivers and Verstappen set theirs. So the situation was still recoverable.

In the race, Vettel made an excellent start and was soon up to fourth, with the Mercedes and Verstappen ahead.

At this point Verstappen was on the super soft tyres and had been given a five second time penalty to serve at the first pit stop. Mercedes were on the soft tyre, so likely to run longer, and were getting away up front. Vettel, also on supersofts, needed not to lose touch with them, but equally knew that Verstappen was only a temporary block. In the end the Red Bull went to Lap 22 before stopping, so Vettel was correct that he needed to pass him and Lap 8 was way too early to think about an undercut.

Another longer term consideration at this point was that Mercedes was committed to running the medium tyre in the long second stint, whereas Vettel would be using the faster soft tyre in his second stint and might therefore have the chance to attack Bottas, who was not on Hamilton’s level at Suzuka, later in the race.

Vettel went aggressive, lunging for the overtake at Spoon corner, rather than waiting for the DRS at the start of the next lap and collided with Verstappen, dropping down to 19th, an uncomfortable echo of the opening lap of the Italian GP at Monza.


Covert games in Midfield thriller

The midfield battle has been very entertaining this season with intense battles, often decided by strategy calls.

In Suzuka the grid had a nicely mixed-up look, with Grosjean fifth for Haas, Hartley and Gasly sixth and seventh for Toro Rosso, Perez ninth (after Ocon was dropped to 11th for a penalty and Leclerc tenth for Sauber with a free choice of starting tyres. Sainz was 13th for Renault.

And yet they finished in the order: Perez, Grosjean, Ocon, Sainz, with Gasly narrowly missing out on a point in 11th.

So how did that come about?

Grosjean held his position over Perez at the start, with Gasly between them, while Ocon slipped ahead of Hartley, who had a poor start and dropped to 10th. Leclerc slipped to 13th, as Sainz moved up to 12th.

Grosjean, like the Mercedes drivers, had started the race on the soft tyres he had used in Q2, quite an unusual move for a midfield team and one that clearly showed the confidence Haas has at the moment in the pace of its car. Normally trying to get through Q2 on the second fastest tyre is the preserve of the top teams only.

Perez was right with Gasly and 3.5 seconds behind Grosjean when he pitted on Lap 24 and switched to the soft tyres for the second stint. Grosjean and Gasly continued on until Lap 29. Ocon pitted on Lap 26 as Force India split the strategies, putting the Frenchman onto mediums.

The temperatures on race day were significantly hotter than the rest of the weekend and there were therefore some question marks about which would be the better tyre. Sainz had started on new softs and went to Lap 32 before switching to mediums.

Perez came out behind Sirotkin in the Williams and lost time, which meant that when Grosjean stopped he was able to get back out ahead of the Mexican. Ocon then suffered the same fate two laps later, but was able to pass the Russian after a lap, which was important as he was attempting to jump Gasly.

A slow stop for the Toro Rosso driver on Lap 29 didn’t help and Gasly dropped behind both Force Indias.

Gasly was not helped by the two Sauber drivers on a covert ‘spoiler’ strategy, holding him up after his stop, to make life difficult for him as the two teams are locked in a close Constructors’ championship battle.

Sainz and Renault saw the opportunity to take advantage; Sainz offset himself to Gasly, stayed out until Lap 32 and dropped five seconds to Gasly in the process. But in the final few laps his pace on mediums was stronger than Gasly’s on fading soft tyres and he was able to pass him. So Toro Rosso had the double whammy of being undercut by the Force Indias and yet running out of tyre performance before the end of the race, an unusual and very unfortunate combination.

Renault had sent Hulkenberg out on a reverse strategy at the start on the medium tyre, the intention being to get him involved in the race effort of Sainz’ rivals to help his team mate climb the ladder, so there were some interesting tactics at play one way or another.

Grosjean meanwhile had some issues with telemetry, but maintained his lead over Perez until the Virtual Safety Car was deployed for Leclerc’s retirement.

As the race restarted, Perez was sharper and forced his way through, thereby winning the midfield battle.

As is so often the case, had the midfield competition been for the overall race win, this would have been a thoroughly entertaining Grand Prix!

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

Analysis: Why Hamilton and Vettel had very different Russian F1 GP experiences

2018-10-02

When things are going for you in Formula 1, they really go for you.

There have been many examples this season where race weekends have worked out for Lewis Hamilton and not for Sebastian Vettel.

At the German Grand Prix, for example the tiniest of rear wheel lock ups for Vettel on a damp track caused him to crash out of the lead. While confusion and a split second last minute decision by Hamilton to stay out when he’d been called into the pit lane entry, won him the race.

In Monza Ferrari had a front row lock-out to defend with their number two driver on pole and with some confusion about whether Raikkonen was entitled to go for the win, the team contrived to lose the advantage and the race to Hamilton.

In Russia this weekend there was another glaring example. Both sides made important mistakes; Hamilton in sector two of his final qualifying lap, which handed pole to Bottas and then Mercedes made a further mistake in the race, leaving Hamilton out too long so Vettel jumped him at the pit stops.

But Vettel made a mistake soon after his pit stop which allowed Hamilton to re-pass him for second place. Mercedes then switched the cars to give Hamilton protection in the lead. They had thus done what Ferrari failed to do in Monza from a position of strength. And Hamilton and Mercedes had again got away with a mistake, while Vettel paid the price.

What happened strategically on team orders with Bottas and Hamilton in Sochi wasn’t pretty, but it was practical. It further extended the points lead Hamilton has over Vettel to 50pts and pretty much killed off the championship.

Drama around the pit stops

The strategy for most teams was very simple, as has often been the case this season: one stop. The hyper soft and ultrasoft tyres were not good race tyres compared to the soft, which would have been able to do the whole race, (much like Rosberg did in 2014 after a first lap lock up).

Both Mercedes and Ferrari were fast enough to get through Qualifying 2 on the middle tyre in the range, the ultrasoft, and therefore to start the race on that tyre. Knowing they had engine penalties to take, Red Bull and Renault went a different route, while the other six cars in the top ten all started on the hypersoft, which was not projected to last more than ten laps in the race.

The soft tyre meanwhile was performing very well on the Red Bulls, who had started at the back of the field on it. Verstappen made mighty progress early on and was going very strongly on what was clearly the best race tyre on the day.

Having lost the start to Mercedes, Vettel’s only chance was to do something at the pit stops. The undercut was projected to be quite powerful, giving the car that pitted first an advantage of around one second on the first lap, but as always there was a doubt around how long it would take the soft tyre to warm up on the out lap from the pits.

We got a clear illustration when Magnussen pitted early due to a flat spot. He was racing Ocon, who did the opposite to the Haas driver and stayed out. When Ocon pitted and rejoined he was well behind; the soft tyre was clearly getting up to speed well.

This lesson was perhaps not being heeded as the leaders approached their stops, Bottas led with Hamilton second and Vettel third. Defending his lead and with pit stop priority as the lead Mercedes, Bottas got into the pits before Ferrari was able to undercut him. With Hamilton second and Vettel third there was a case for Ferrari to follow Bottas in, which would have given Vettel a good chance to jump Hamilton, who had to do another lap.

Ferrari didn’t do that, because they could already see from the choreography at the race start that the Mercedes drivers were working together as a team. Had Vettel followed Bottas in, the Finn would have done a very slow out lap to back him up, in order that Hamilton could pit and rejoin ahead.

So Vettel took the extra lap and then pitted, predictably rejoining behind Bottas. Mercedes did not bring Hamilton in ahead of Vettel as they were discussing the possibility of getting Bottas to back Vettel up so Hamilton could jump them both. Vettel’s out lap was very quick, Hamilton lost time in traffic and the net result was that when he pitted he rejoined alongside Vettel and lost the position to him. Ferrari also did the trick we’ve seen both top teams do this season, of putting their mechanics out in position in the pit lane as if expecting a stop, so that the rival team’s driver has to drive around them to get out of his pit box.

So the teamwork by Ferrari had got Vettel ahead, but then a lock up by Vettel at the end of the back straight set Hamilton up with an opportunity to pass early the next lap. Vettel defended in Turn 2 but Hamilton then ambushed him on the exit of the long turn three into the tight turn four.

Most teams found it difficult to blister the soft tyre in Sochi, but the energy of his engagement with Vettel had damaged Hamilton’s tyres and Mercedes took the decision to switch the two drivers around to use Bottas to protect Hamilton.

They maintained position to the flag, but Bottas could be seen in parc ferme inspecting Hamilton’s rear tyres to see whether the blisters were genuine.

Great drives from Verstappen and Leclerc

The other cameos worth noting in this race were Verstappen and Leclerc, who no doubt one day will battle each other for the championship for Red Bull and Ferrari respectively.

Verstappen managed to storm through from 19th to fifth in eight laps and had an attack on Kimi Raikkonen in his sights when he pitted on Lap 43 to fit a set of ultrasofts for a ten lap attack. But unusually, this strategy didn’t work this time as the ultrasoft tyres didn’t perform. The soft was a far superior tyre for this weekend and team experienced graining on both the ultrasoft and hypersoft tyres after a few laps.

Leclerc’s race to finish seventh was made by a bold early overtake on Magnussen. This kept him out of the dog fight between Magnussen and the two Force India cars and allowed him to run in clear air, picking an optimum strategy.

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge.

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

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

Mind the gap: What could Ferrari have done differently to sway Singapore F1 GP?

2018-09-18

As with 2017, Singapore was a potentially decisive race weekend in the championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

Another race – along with Germany, Hungary and Italy – that should have been won by Ferrari slipped away through a combination of driver and strategy; the balance heavily slanted here towards Hamilton and Mercedes.

Mind the gap

Often in F1 race strategy, it’s all about the gaps between cars and ability to put your car back out into clear air. On many circuits with the combination of tyres brought by Pirelli, this sorts itself out relatively simply as the faster cars pull away from the midfield and large gaps open up for them to pit into, thus not losing too much time when they rejoin.

It’s the biggest advantage top teams have in this so called two-tier F1 where the top three teams are so superior on pace to the midfield. It makes their life so much easier on race strategy 90% of the time.

But on street tracks sometimes finding the gaps is not so easy and the story of the 2018 Singapore Grand Prix was the way the teams worked the concertina effect created by race leader Lewis Hamilton who had the prerogative to control the race as he saw fit; nursing his first set of tyres, the hypersofts, at over ten seconds a lap off qualifying pace before bolting on Lap 12 to cover off the undercut.

We’ve seen this before in Monaco, a famous Rosberg/Hamilton encounter in 2013 springs to mind. But in Singapore it was the desire to make the race a one-stop that necessitated getting the hypersofts to last to around Lap 15 or 16 where a switch to softs would take you to the end.
Everyone knew this as they sat in the train behind Hamilton. To undercut you need to be within around three seconds of the car in front. This depends however on what tyre you switch onto.

In Singapore the soft tyre was slow relative to the two softer compounds, but the warm up of the tyre on the outlap was the real problem when attempting an undercut. This tactic would only work if you could switch the tyre on straight away. The soft was at least two seconds slower on warm up than ultra soft.

So having initially started behind Verstappen, he passed for second place milliseconds before the Safety Car was deployed for the accident involving Esteban Ocon – the second time recently that Vettel has squeaked in a move under the wire as the Race Director was reaching for the “Deploy Safety Car” button – Vettel was in a position to look at a strategy attack on Hamilton.

Hamilton was playing with the concertina, lapping in the high 1m47s until Lap 11, when he suddenly bolted and pulled a gap of 2.2 seconds on Vettel over two laps. On tyres that had not suffered from following another car, Hamilton had more pace, so Ferrari had to act even though they did not have the gap they required back to Perez in the Force India.

There was a nice five second gap between Ricciardo and Perez – and growing fast – but Ferrari knew that they had to try to bring Vettel in and fit the ultrasoft to attack Perez and hope that their driver could get the job done quickly enough that when Hamilton reacted on the next lap and pitted, he would come out behind Vettel.

Pitting a lap or two earlier and fitting the soft would not have won the game.

This was a high-risk strategy for Ferrari because if Vettel was not able to pass Perez, who was in a pugnacious mood that night, having hit his team mate at the start and later slammed into Sirotkin, then he risked losing second place to Verstappen. This is exactly what happened as Perez held up Vettel for two laps, costing him a further three championship points.

On top of that Ferrari were fitting a tyre where the gamble on faster warm up on the out lap had to pay off, otherwise the risk of the tyre performance dropping off later in the race would outweigh the upside.

It is easy in hindsight to criticise Ferrari’s strategy in Singapore, but on the pit wall you have to make a decision in the heat of the moment; they had few other options, as they could feel their grip on the world championship fading away.

The longer it had gone on, Hamilton would have pitted without challenge and the chance to undercut would have gone. Stay out too long and Vettel risked being undercut by Verstappen.

The danger for Maranello is the damage to morale of losing a championship every single team member knows they should have won, having done such a wonderful job in the last year to turn the team around and build a dominant car. It would lead to questions about the driver, the leadership and much else besides.

Hence the willingness to take a risk to try to make something happen in Singapore.

Alonso gives a reminder of his class in the midfield

A little further back in the field was a driver who left Maranello in 2014 having lost belief that they could perform the technical turnaround that they have subsequently done.

Fernando Alonso got the maximum out of his car and the reverse strategy that he was given by the McLaren team, starting on the more durable ultrasoft tyre. He was able to take advantage of the concertina and the fact that the midfield cars that qualified in the Top ten ahead of him were all on hypersofts and had to stop early into traffic. Behind him his fellow Spaniard did the same thing and followed his mentor.

It meant that the likes of Perez and Grosjean got stuck behind Sergey Sirotkin, who had stopped on lap 3 under the Safety Car and who held them up significantly and it opened up a nice gap for Alonso and Sainz to pit into, yielding seventh and eight places.

Charles Leclerc was another beneficiary of this strategy in the Sauber, although he had to pull off an overtaking move on the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly, to get into position to benefit. He pitted on the same lap as Alonso, Lap 38 and picked up a very handy ninth place –his sixth points scoring race from 15 starts in F1.

A couple of other interesting details; Magnussen was on the right tyre but did not do what Alonso, Sainz and Leclerc did and instead he pitted early from Ultrasoft tyres behind the train – which shows that they had modelled the race very differently to the other three teams (and on this occasion incorrectly).

Meanwhile Toro Rosso chose to start both cars on hypersoft, which suggests that they also modelled the race incorrectly as they believed it would be an aggressive undercut race and/or they could extend longer on the hyper.

As most teams outside the top ten believed that this race was quite obviously one to start on ultrasoft, it is strange they committed to hypersoft with both cars. It didn’t pay off.

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

The opening 12 laps tell their own story, compare it with previous race history charts on this page and you will see the extreme way that Hamilton was controlling the pace on the hyper soft at the start.

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

2018-09-04

This was one of the best Grand Prix races for years, with the right mix of super high speeds, close racing, emotion and strategy intrigue which kept the outcome in doubt until the final laps.

That Mercedes won the race, against the odds, on Ferrari’s home soil is a major blow for the Scuderia that had the best car at Monza and locked out the front row.

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

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


Ferrari – team orders or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bottas comes into play

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

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

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

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

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

All photos: Motorsport Images

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

2018-08-29

This was an unusual Belgian Grand Prix in many respects from a strategy point of view.

Spa is normally up there as one of the toughest races of the season for tyre degradation and we normally see a lot of strategy moves and position changes as a result.

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

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

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

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

So the leaders had a clear run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tough weekend for the number two drivers

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

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

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


Big decisions on Strategy going forward

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

The title contenders are clearly now Vettel and Hamilton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

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

2018-07-31

There’s nothing quite like a wet qualifying session to make things interesting for a Grand Prix and in Budapest we had just such a scenario.

It means everyone has a free choice of tyres at the start; it opens up the strategic possibilities from the start, rather than only the cars starting outside the Top 10 having some fun with tyre choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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


What was the effect of Ferrari’s split strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting it right in midfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

2018-07-24

F1 is a sport where fine margins make the difference and some Grands Prix really highlight that. The German Grand Prix was one of them.

It was the tiniest of rear wheel lock ups for Sebastian Vettel on a damp track that caused him to crash out of the lead. It was a split second last minute decision by Lewis Hamilton to stay out when he’d been called into the pit lane entry that won him the race and it was a finely balanced call to fit ultra soft tyres on Hamilton’s car as a rain shower approached that set him up for the win.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race History Chart

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

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

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