Each race we look in depth at the strategies and analyse the decisions taken in the heat of battle and sometimes we see teams and drivers taking big risks. We also see the part that luck can play in the outcome.
Both are particularly true when you are trying to get a good result in Monaco. All the strategists know that there is a 71% chance of a safety car here and if it falls at the right time it can make your race – as it did this year for Sutil and Kobayashi. But if it falls at the wrong time, your victory plans fall apart -as they did for Jenson Button.
The 2011 Monaco Grand Prix was shaping up to be a classic until the race was suspended by a red flag for an accident six laps from the end.
The three leading drivers were converging. They had all started the race on the same tyre (Pirelli supersoft) and were all ending on the same tyre (Pirelli soft) but in between had done three completely different strategies.
Once again we saw a race in which pre-race expectations on strategy were proved wide of the mark as the tyres performed far better than expected. So once again the strategists and drivers had to really think on their feet.
Vettel – forced into a one stop
Vettel is on top of the world at the moment and sometimes when things are going for you, you get a bit of luck. Vettel was forced into gambling on a one-stop strategy on Sunday. If the race had not been red flagged it’s likely that Alonso would have launched an attack at the end, as Vettel’s tyres were 60 laps old, 20 laps more than Alonso’s. But the red flag gave Vettel breathing space and he was able to change tyres before the race restarted and take the victory.
Red Bull were caught out by Jenson Button making an early pit stop on lap 15 and taking the lead when Vettel stopped a lap later and lost three seconds with a slow tyre change.
Christian Horner has suggested that they put on the soft tyre by mistake, but whether by luck or judgement they did the right thing in taking the soft tyre at this point. This gave them flexibility to go either way – take the tyres to the finish in a one stop, or come in again later. From lap 16 onwards they were playing it by ear.
On lap 34 when the safety car came out, they saw Ferrari pit Alonso and knew that he would go to the finish on those tyres. From that point on Vettel was committed to staying out.
It seems that the Pirellis fall apart quickly on tracks with medium to high speed corners, like Istanbul and Barcelona. But on low speed tracks like Monaco they are better than Bridgestones because the surface of the tyre does not grain.
By race day many strategists felt that it was possible to do 40-45 laps on a set of soft tyres, but to do 53, as Vettel did and still maintain competitive lap times, was universally regarded as being very impressive.
From second on the grid, Jenson Button and McLaren took a big gamble in making a three stop strategy as it relies on being able to exploit new tyres on a clear track and any safety car will ruin it.
They were aggressively going for the win by doing something different from Vettel, believing it was the only way to beat him.
But McLaren also made a tactical mistake when Button made his second stop on lap 33, just before the safety car. He pitted just as a Virgin car was stopped on the track. Perhaps McLaren anticipated a safety car, perhaps not, but the mistake was to put on a set of supersoft tyres at that point. This forced them into having to stop again as Button hadn’t used the soft yet.
They had taken all the flexibility out of their strategy, something they didn’t need to do and which cost Button second place and maybe the win.
A few laps later the safety car did come out (for the Massa crash) and Alonso pitted immediately, switching to soft tyres. He took these through to the finish. Stopping during a safety car meant it was almost a free pit stop for Alonso. He was three seconds behind Vettel before he stopped and at the restart after the safety car, was only seven seconds behind on new rubber.
Ferrari had plenty of confidence going into the race that the tyres were capable of long stints. Their Friday practice long runs had shown that. They even managed to get 26 laps out of a set of super softs on Friday, showing that their tyre wear was very light.
So tactically they gave themselves plenty of options and unlike Red Bull and McLaren they didn’t take any risks with Alonso. Pitting under the safety car was the smart thing to do and when Button had to stop a third time, Alonso passed him and went up into second place.
On tyres that were 20 laps younger than Vettel’s, Alonso was waiting for the moment when Vettel’s tyre performance started to “fall of the cliff”, which may or may not have come in the last six laps. But the red flag prevented him – and us – from finding out whether he would have won.
For the record, Ferrari had split the strategies with Massa planning to do only one stop. He was in the category of cars which were not quick enough to pull away from the midfield cars and create a gap you can come back out into at your pit stop. So you have to wait longer for your stop and that pushes you towards stopping just the once.
Safety car is the game changer
After the controversy at Valencia last year the safety car rules were changed and this had a big effect on Sunday’s race.
The rules are complicated, but in a nutshell, now the safety car has to pick up the leader and anyone ahead of him is able to go around faster than the safety car, make a stop and carry on to the tail of the queue, thus gaining hugely. This happened to Kobayashi and Sutil who climbed to fourth and fifth places and were able to do their only stop of the race under the safety car. With a big window to the next car, they both got out of the pits still in that position, having started 13th and 15th.
Sutil got ahead of Kobayashi in the pits, but the Japanese forced his way back through on lap 65.
The UBS Strategy Report is prepared with input and data from strategists from the F1 teams
Graph of Monaco Race History
The zero line is the winners’ average lap speed, taking his entire race time and dividing it by the number of laps. Because of the safety car period many drivers set laps faster than the winners’ average, but this shows how the gaps grew to the other drivers and the crossover points as one passed the other, on the track or in the pits. The red flag period has been reduced to fit the data better.