The European Grand Prix at Valencia was the least exciting race of the season so far from the point of view of spectacle.
But from a race strategy point of view it was quite interesting. It was less frantic than some of the races we have experienced so far this year and, surprisingly, there was no safety car. As a result the teams had some time to consider their options during the race.
Many had planned to do the race on a two-stop strategy, which on paper was eight seconds faster than a three-stop, assuming you had a trouble-free run in traffic.
But then the conditions changed and race day turned out to be much hotter than the practice days. The track temperature on Sunday was about 20 degrees hotter than it was on Friday, which is why so many people opted to go conservative and followed a three-stop strategy in the race.
In passing it’s worth noting that in previous years with Bridgestone tyres, the Valencia track rubbered-in and lap times improved by about four seconds per lap between Friday morning practice and the start of qualifying on Saturday, but the feeling this year was that it was less with the Pirellis, probably closer to three seconds.
Also worth remembering is that Pirelli had brought the medium compound tyre to race for the first time and although it was tested in practice, no-one had any knowledge of how it would perform with the 47 degree track temperatures.
There are some interesting observations to make about the strategy battle between Red Bull and Ferrari, but also an opportunity to look at one or two drivers in the midfield who coped with change, did something different, and got a great result.
Alguersuari: A fabulous drive under extreme pressure
When he qualified in 18th place, down among the backmarkers for the third race in a row, Jaime Alguersuari knew that the vultures were circling on his career. With pressure on his seat from Toro Rosso test driver Daniel Ricciardo, Alguersuari was fighting for his future on Sunday afternoon. What he did was remarkable. No wonder he jumped into the harbour in celebration after the race!
Starting on a new set of soft tyres, he got a decent start, moving up to 17th place, then quickly dispatched Perez and Petrov, who had both started on the medium tyre. He was now behind team mate Buemi who had started one place ahead of him on the grid, so was making similar progress.
They gained places as Heidfeld, Barrichello and Sutil all pitted around laps 11 and 12. When Buemi pitted on lap 14 and Alguersuari continued, it was clear that Toro Rosso were splitting the strategies with the Spaniard going for two stops. He made his first stop on lap 19.
What made his race and gave him his ultimate result of eighth place was his 23-lap second stint on the soft tyre. Not only was the stint long – most teams couldn’t have got 23 laps out of the soft tyre – Alguersuari was able to lap at a similar speed to the Mercedes and Renault cars throughout the stint. This is the remarkable bit.
Alguersuari’s performance caught out most of the midfield teams, who didn’t expect him to be able to run so long and stay competitive. They couldn’t understand how he made the tyres last that long because the Toro Rosso was not considered to be particularly kind on its tyres, like for example the Sauber.
When his rivals made their third stops Alguersuari rose back up the order. He also did a great job to hold off Sutil in the closing laps. They were both on the medium tyre, having made their final pitstops within a lap of each other (42/43), yet Sutil couldn’t find a way past, even with DRS and a straightline speed advantage of 4 km/h.
While Sebastian Vettel had the whole thing covered and was able to maintain a slender lead, not overstressing the tyres at any stage, Mark Webber was locked in a battle with Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.
Red Bull’s tactic was to pit earlier and try the undercut. There were three significant moments in the race which helped Alonso to take second place from Webber. The first was when he overtook team mate Felipe Massa at Turn 2 because that allowed him to run with Webber. If he’d been behind Massa, he would have found it difficult to pass because the double DRS activation wasn’t very effective in Valencia, particularly in the first stint.
After overtaking Webber on lap 21, Alonso allowed himself to be undercut at the second pitstop, by Red Bull making the first stop. He must have been worried about tyre wear, otherwise he should have come in earlier.
Ferrari was very cautious at the beginning of each of the soft tyre stints.
Alonso did not even accelerate at full speed out of the pit lane so that he would not overheat the surface of the tread on his outlap. He was very cautious about warming up the whole tyre, not just the tread surface.
Staying out on the option tyre for three laps after Webber had pitted for medium tyres on lap 42, again trying the undercut, worked out for Alonso. It was pretty obvious that a used option was going to be quicker than a new medium tyre – strategists could see that from looking at Kobayashi’s lap times on it. Alonso did enough in three laps to take the second place when he made his final stop.
The Ferrari was surprisingly fast on the medium tyre, having struggled on it in practice.
The UBS Strategy Report is prepared with input and data from strategists from the F1 teams. Thanks to them for their help.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH