The Malaysian Grand Prix provided us with an exciting glimpse of what we can expect in 2012, from a racing and strategy point of view.
We saw also a phenomenon which could provide the key to the season for whoever wins the title; the ability to be fast on all types of tyre in all conditions. Because judging from the Sepang race, even more so than Melbourne, all the teams are finding it hard to manage that. Hamilton, the pole sitter, for example, wasn’t particularly fast in any condition, while the Sauber was very quick on used intermediates and hard slicks. Williams’ Pastor Maldonado was not particularly quick on intermediate tyres, but once he went onto slicks he was extremely fast.
It was a fantastic race and one that Sergio Perez could and should have won, even without the driving error he made six laps from the end, as we will see.
Race morning strategy predictions for a dry race had been that the hard tyre would actually prove faster in the race, with estimates of up to 0.2s advantage. In the event this proved true and what was critical was taking a new set of hard tyres versus a used set of mediums. This was to be proven by the duel in the closing stages for the lead.
Perez and Sauber – the one that got away
Sergio Perez and Sauber were the fastest car/driver/tyre combination in two vital phases of this curious afternoon; in the long second stint on used intermediates and particularly in the final stint on slick tyres. But a historic victory wasn’t lost solely on his driving mistake. The strategy, while bold early on, became very cautious as the race progressed and this also cost him the chance to win.
As the rain fell heavily in the opening laps, Sauber pitted Perez on lap 3 for wet tyres. He was the first serious runner to make the move and everyone followed suit, but not for another two laps. On extreme wets Perez was three or more seconds faster than the leading cars and when everyone pitted on lap 5 he moved up to third place.
This bold move by Sauber had set up the platform for a great result. But then they started playing it cautious.
Going into the second stops, Perez was ahead of Alonso. At the second stops, the move from full wets to intermediates, Perez stopped two laps later than Button and a lap later than Alonso. The track was drying out and by the end of lap 13, when the safety car was withdrawn and it was obvious that intermediates were the faster tyre to be on. But Sauber played it safe, leaving Perez out for another lap, in which he took the lead.
But critically, this mistake led him to lose track position to Alonso. When Perez came out of the pits on lap 15 he was still just in front of Alonso, but was now feeling his way on new intermediates, whereas Alonso had a lap’s worth of experience on them and was able to pass Perez early in the lap.
However Perez did gain a position over Hamilton who was held in his pit box by McLaren so as not to collide with the incoming Massa.
The Ferrari opened up a six second lead over the Sauber, but as the intermediates wore down and the tyre pressures came up, Perez came flying back at Alonso, closing the gap to 1.3 seconds on lap 39. By now Ricciardo, the pioneer on slick tyres, was lighting up the time sheets and it was clearly the moment to follow.
The Sauber strategists delayed again; they were cautious about putting their inexperienced driver on slicks too soon, they also had one eye on the weather, with the threat of more showers in the air. They lost the initiative; Ferrari went for it, bringing Alonso in. As the leader, Alonso needed to cover off the threat from clearly the faster car, which he did.
This second mistake dropped Perez back seven seconds behind Alonso. Sauber had chosen a new set of hard tyres, Alonso a used set of mediums. The Ferrari decision was an interesting one as many strategists weren’t sure whether the medium would last 16 laps, the distance to the flag from this point. But on paper the medium offered faster warm-up. In fact the hard tyre proved faster to warm up on the Sauber and was instantly quicker. Perez again caught Alonso easily and with the DRS wing activated and a tyre advantage was sure to pass him at some point in the final six laps.
However he lost focus when the team told him to protect his position and he made a mistake, losing four seconds. There were suggestions that with Sauber so politically aligned to Ferrari and a long-standing customer of its engines, had made some kind of “arrangement” with the Scuderia, but Sauber and Ferrari denied this on Sunday night. And it does look more like a case of Sauber not wanting to throw away the chance of its best result in five years.
Nevertheless in that final stint we saw something that gives great encouragement for the season ahead. After six laps we had reached a crossover point where the hard tyre was the faster tyre than the medium. This is something Pirelli had been hoping to achieve this year and it will make the strategies extremely interesting. With lots of cars close on performance and many strategic options, it’s going to be a great year of racing.
Toro Rosso – tactically astute
Toro Rosso’s technical director Giorgio Ascanelli used to be race engineer to Ayrton Senna at McLaren and is one of the wiliest old foxes in the pit lane. On Sunday we saw a couple of classic Ascanelli moves: first he left Jean Eric Vergne out on intermediate tyres as the torrential downpour hit. He had only to stay on the track as everyone pitted for full wets and he managed it. When the race director stopped the race, as Ascanelli knew he would, Vergne was in seventh place. And with the restart behind the safety car, this meant full wet tyres must be fitted so Vergne got a set of full wets without having to make a pit stop! It set him up for his eventual 8th place finish.
Meanwhile Ascanelli was at it with his other driver too; as the track dried out he decided Ricciardo should be the first to go onto the slicks. This made sense as he was 17th at the time and needed to get into the game. There was no need to risk Vergne’s position. So Ricciardo rolled the dice and gained three places; not enough to get him into the points, but well worth a try.
Risk and reward; it’s what F1 race strategy is all about.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input from strategists from several F1 teams
(Race history graph to follow)