Although this was not a thrilling race, it was an intriguing one from a strategy point of view because of the difference between the two types of tyres each driver had to use. Like many races this year, it didn’t turn out the way pre-race expectations had predicted. In fact it was quite a surprise.
At the front, Vettel always had something in hand over Button. Although the McLaren was closer at the start of each stint, the Red Bull had the raw pace to ease away each time into a five second cushion. This was a margin Vettel was comfortable with in this race, allowing him to lose a second to Button by stopping a lap later and giving him a couple of seconds to play with in case of a poor pit stop. Generally this season he’s wanted to have a bigger cushion of more like seven or eight seconds so the five that he held on Sunday over Button for most of the race indicates that Button was pressing him. So it wasn’t as easy as it might have looked from the outside.
The thinking behind Vettel’s gap management tactic is that he doesn’t want to push too hard to open a larger gap for fear of damaging the tyres and as the leader is always the last to make a stop, covering the cars behind, he doesn’t want to put himself in a position where he has nothing left in the tyres.
With a performance gap between hard and soft tyres, the key as always was recognising the point at which a new set of hard tyres was quicker than a used set of softs.
Webber on the back foot over strategy
Mark Webber’s race summed up his season in many ways. He lost a place at the start, then had worse tyre wear than his rivals, so was forced onto the back foot strategy wise.
Webber was battling for 3rd place with Fernando Alonso, who got ahead of him at the second round of pit stops. Alonso said after the race that he was ‘surprised’ that Webber stopped so early. Webber had a gap of around two seconds over the Ferrari on lap 35, when his tyres started to go off. On lap 36 he lost a second to Alonso.
Webber’s middle stint was just 21 laps before his tyres started to go off, which is 7 laps less than Vettel’s in the same car and also than Button’s. This is his Achilles Heel this season. Alonso took two laps to push hard and then was able to pit and rejoin ahead of the Australian.
Webber’s plight seems all the more strange given that the Pirelli tyres were far more durable this weekend than expected. Michael Schumacher did 32 laps on a set of softs in his middle stint (albeit they were a new set, with no qualifying laps on them).
With the benefit of hindsight, Pirelli could have brought the soft and supersoft tyres this weekend, but they didn’t have any knowledge of the circuit. Also the temperatures could have been a lot higher, so it was probably best to play it safe.
Although he has had good pace at times, the story of Webber’s season is that he’s had poor starts, which have put him in traffic and this has hurt his tyres more. Without strong top speed he also finds it more difficult to pass. He has also lost the strategic freedom by having higher tyre wear, so he has to stop earlier each time.
How Schumacher beat Rosberg
This was another strong race for Michael Schumacher, who beat team mate Nico Rosberg for the third time in recent races where both have finished. Schumacher started 11th on the grid, four places behind Rosberg, but again got an excellent start to run right behind him in eighth place. He pitted on lap later at the end of the first stint and put on a set of new soft tyres, as did Rosberg. Schumacher’s middle stint was what won it for him; he did 32 laps on that set, four laps more than Rosberg. When Rosberg switched to hard tyres on lap 45, he should have been faster than Schumacher on used softs for the five laps before he stopped. But Schumacher kept the pace up, lapping in the 1m 29s, while Rosberg didn’t get the speed on the new tyres, so when Schumacher pitted on lap 50 he jumped his younger team mate.
The pair were told they could race, but Schumacher got the hard tyres up to speed more quickly than Rosberg and held him at bay. Mercedes were in a lonely race of their own, too slow to race the leaders, but faster than the midfield.
And it was again more evidence that Schumacher is back on form and ready to shine if Mercedes can build him a good car next year.
Di Resta – Counter strategy doesn’t work out this time
Although pre race predictions suggested that the gap between the soft and hard tyre would mean that drivers would want to run the hard as little as possible, in fact it didn’t turn out that way and the hard wasn’t a bad race tyre at all.
But that only became apparent after Paul di Resta, Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Perez, who started on the hard tyre, had pitted early to remove it. Di Resta pitted on lap 2 and was clearly hoping that the time he had lost by doing it this way, would be made up by a safety car period at some stage of the race. We’ve had five recently. Also teams felt that with inexperienced marshals, who had taken a long time to clear debris during practice, race director Charlie Whiting wouldn’t want to take any chances in the race if an incident needed clearing up. It didn’t happen.
Di Resta was now committed to the soft tyre for the rest of the race. But instead of stopping just once more, as Perez and Petrov did, dividing the race into half, he was forced to stop twice more, because he couldn’t make the tyres last long enough.
Early evidence that the hard tyre was in fact pretty quick came from Rubens Barrichello in the Williams. After a collision at the start, he was forced onto the hard tyre on lap 1 and once in clear air his lap times were competitive. So Di Resta, Petrov and Perez could have run a more normal length first stint on it.
On the first lap Di Resta was 13th behind the Toro Rossos and with a normal strategy would have finished behind them, along with Sutil. It’s a big call to put yourself out of the game by pitting that early in the race, in the hope of a safety car, especially when you are in a competitive position. Force India have a quick car which has scored points consistently and even beaten Mercedes a couple of times. But they were aware that in their championship battle with Toro Rosso, they couldn’t afford to give away a lot of points, if a Safety Car changed the game.
So they went for a gamble here, based on the premise that we’ve seen a spate of safety cars lately and this was a case of strategists trying to second guess the race director. It was a gamble over a point, so not much was lost, but arguably it was a risk worth taking if a safety car had come along and potentially changed the game for Toro Rosso.
Toro Rosso’s massive strides
Alguersuari had another very strong run to eighth. The Toro Rosso again had low tyre wear, but the surprising thing in India was that he was able to drive away from Sutil’s Force India car in the middle stint (compare the brown dotted line in the graph to the yellow line below it). Given that a few races ago Force India was beating Mercedes, it shows how far Toro Rosso has come.
Since Singapore their progress has been amazing. The combination of new front and rear wings, new floor and maximising the exhausts and engine maps has transformed the car. I’ll do a separate post on that shortly.
The UBS Strategy Report is prepared by James Allen with input and data from strategists from several F1 teams.