This was a very interesting race from a strategy point of view, there were a lot more unknowns than normal, particularly with the tyres, as there was so little dry running before the race. And then there was the partially wet track at the start, which forced everyone to start on intermediate tyres, but how long for?
Prior to the start most strategists were thinking of a three stop race, with some further back on the grid planning to do one less stop to try to make up places.
The wet start meant two things which made life easier; drivers would not have to use both types of dry tyre so the much slower hard tyre did not have to be used and the wet start, essentially shortened the race by 11 laps and made the race simpler and the strategies easier to achieve.
The first key decision was how early to come in for dry tyres.
This decision was helped by Michael Schumacher who was forced to pit for a new nose on lap 9 and went to dry tyres, as he had nothing to lose. By lap 11, when his tyres were up to temperature, he was a second a lap faster than the leader and it was clear that slicks were faster and drivers like Jenson Button dived into the pits.
Red Bull: coping with two competitive drivers
At the point of wet to dry changeover, Sebastian Vettel had an eight second lead over Mark Webber, who was under pressure from Fernando Alonso. Using this to their advantage, Red Bull pitted Webber first so he would not lose time or a place to Alonso. It worked, but keeping Vettel out for the extra lap cost him five seconds. So the team was definitely thinking of Webber’s needs when it made the call on the order at the first stop.
However at the second stop they inadvertently cost Webber the place to Alonso. They did their usual thing of pulling the driver in just before the tyre performance drops off a cliff and Webber pitted on lap 26. Alonso still had life in his tyres however and did a 1m 35.5 which was the fastest lap of the race to that point. That and Webber losing a second and a half in his own pit stop meant that Alonso had done enough to undercut him. But then when Vettel’s stop went wrong and he lost the lead to Alonso, the German came out in Webber’s path, preventing him from attacking Alonso on tyres that were up to temperature.
This was a very rare example in 2011 of a driver undercutting a rival by stopping a lap later; normally new tyre performance means the undercut can only be achieved by stopping first.
McLaren – race compromised on several fronts
Leaving aside the extraordinary situation where Jenson Button’s wheel wasn’t attached at his third pit stop, McLaren’s race strategy was compromised. Like in Valencia the car was very hard on its tyres relative to the opposition. But the worse problem for Lewis Hamilton was that he didn’t have enough fuel.
With engine mapping changed for this race – meaning less fuel needed because they were not using it to off-throttle blow the diffuser – and no real dry running in practice, team strategists were really estimating the amount of fuel that would be needed to complete the race. Starting 10th McLaren clearly went over aggressive on Hamilton’s strategy. Normally you need around 150 kilos of fuel to do 52 racing laps of Silverstone.
The wet opening 11 laps should have played into his hands, because you use less fuel in the wet and many strategists took fuel out when they saw that the race start would be wet. But surprisingly it didn’t help Hamilton and he was still forced to save fuel in the last 20 laps, which cost him a podium place to Webber and almost cost him another to Massa.
This is one of the big challenges for race strategists; they want the car to finish with the minimum amount of fuel, because any extra weight you carry for 52 laps slows you down. If you are too aggressive it loses you a lot of positions when you are forced to slow at the end. If you put too much into the car, it will make you slower in the opening part of the race, but you won’t lose positions from it.
We’ve seen very little of this in the last 12 months, which indicates that teams don’t feel that being super-aggressive on fuel load is a worthwhile risk.
From back to front again for Alguersuari
This year we are seeing a phenomenon which we haven’t seen before in F1 strategy; in six of the nine races so far, a driver who is eliminated in Q1 is able to come through and score points. Alguersuari has now done it three races in a row from 18th place on the grid.
Toro Rosso’s official word was that they were caught out by the rain at the end of Q1 and didn’t get a lap in on soft tyres, but I’ve been told that they went for a hard tyre run only in order to save three sets of soft tyres for race day, as it’s worked for them in the past.
At any rate, Algersuari drove his customary long stints, taking advantage of the extra life and performance of new soft tyres to stop only twice and finish 10th.
Nico Rosberg and Sergio Perez were the highest placed two stoppers in sixth and seventh places.
But we are seeing some trends in starts this year, which are making a difference to drivers’ results.
The most obvious example is Pastor Maldonado, who qualified a brilliant 7th at Silvestone and then lost three places off the startline. This is a strong trend this year for the Venezuelan, who has lost 19 places in 9 starts this season.
Webber also has a poor start record – he’s lost 12 places in 9 starts – and he lost the lead at the start to Vettel at Silverstone.