The Indian Grand Prix was an interesting race by recent standards in that, for once, the teams didn’t have to worry about the tyres wearing out and their race strategy was not decided by that. Instead they could focus on pure pace, the drivers able to push to the maximum throughout the Grand Prix.
So there was little opportunity for drivers starting outside the top ten to make the kind of progress into the points which we have seen this year from Sergio Perez or more recently the Toro Rosso drivers in Korea.
There were two reasons for this: to a certain extent the teams have now got wise to the 2012 Pirelli tyres and know how to get far more out of them now than six months ago, when we saw seven different winners in the first seven races.
But the main reason was that the tyre choice from Pirelli for the weekend, soft and hard compounds, was too conservative. After the race the Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery conceded that using the supersoft tyre instead would have made the race more like the other races we have seen this year with two pit stops and encouraged a variety of strategy options. But this underlines a trend we have seen in the closing stages of the season of Pirelli being more conservative as the championship reaches its climax.
On Sunday almost everyone went for a single stop strategy, as the tyres suffered little degradation or wear.
The proof of this is that the four fastest laps in the race were all set on the final lap, so there was plenty left in the tyres at the end.
The weather was benign and stable all weekend in Delhi, so the teams were able to do extensive running on Friday and Saturday morning and had a very complete picture of the way the tyres would behave in the race.
Before the race the strategists were planning to make one stop around lap 25, as one stop was showing as between five and 15 seconds faster than two stops.
Race pace looked evenly matched between the Red Bulls, McLarens, Ferraris and Lotus cars from practice.
Looking at the grid, then, it was clear that for the McLarens on the second row of the grid, they had to try to pass pole sitter Sebastian Vettel and his team mate Mark Webber on the opening lap when they would both be vulnerable down the long back straight. Once they got into the faster corners of sectors 2 and 3 the Red Bulls would be gone.
Likewise for Fernando Alonso starting fifth on the grid, he had to get past the McLarens at the start to be able to push the Red Bulls and hope they made a mistake or hit problems. The strategy worked out pretty much as intended for him, with a second place finish, but not for the McLarens, which came in fourth and fifth, one place lower than they started.
For the midfield runners, the chance to effect any major position changes through strategy were limited, but there was the chance of overtake at Buddh and with mistakes quite likely on the dusty track, there was scope to make some progress through the field.
In the opening stint Vettel was able to push very hard and to open a gap which gave him control of the race, but he found it tougher on the hard tyre as the Ferrari and the McLaren were slightly faster on that tyre (see Race History Chart). Ferrari was consistently fast on both tyres, while the McLaren was slower on the soft but stronger on the hard tyre.
In Vettel’s second stint his pace backed off by between 7/10ths and 1 second per lap, which was also partly due to running the engine lean and managing the gap to Alonso, once he had passed Webber.
Four drivers started the race on the hard tyres; Grosjean, starting11th; Ricciardo, starting 15th; Kobayashi, starting 17th and Schumacher, starting 14th. All of them gained two or three places except for Schumacher, who retired. In most cases this was not enough to get into the points, but Grosjean managed to get two points for 9th place, despite losing one place at the start to Maldonado.
The key to the final points positions for the cars running behind Rosberg in the opening stint was dealing with the Mercedes’ lack of pace. Rosberg pulled back everyone behind him, opening up the possibility for a 9th and 10th place finish for anyone who had a workable alternative strategy.
Everyone behind him, who was on the standard one stop, didn’t manage to clear him, but where Grosjean’s strategy worked well was that he ran a longer first stint and was able to clear Rosberg.
Grosjean ran a long first stint on the hard tyres, stopping last of all the runners on lap 36, for the soft tyre.
His plan in running longer on the hard tyre was to let the others who had stoped earlier age their hard tyres, so that the time delta when he came out of his stop on new softs would be greater and he could come through the field on new soft tyres in the final 24 laps.
It was thwarted as he came out behind Nico Hulkenberg, who managed to hold him off on a new set of hard tyres.
Grosjean was unable to maintain a gap to Hulkenberg prior to his stop and missed out on emerging from the pits ahead by 4 seconds. But one cannot say that he might have gained the place if he had stopped a lap or two earlier as he lost only 1.7 seconds to Hulkenberg in the three laps preceding his stop.
It was a shame that Lotus could not fully exploit its pace on Sunday. In Friday practice it was as fast as the leading cars, but Grosjean’s poor grid slot and Raikkonen being stuck behind Massa meant that they didn’t get the result the car’s pace deserved.
Raikkonen managed to undercut Massa on strategy, by pitting a lap earlier, but lost the place back again due to having too short a top gear on the straight.
It was odd that Massa had problems with fuel load, however he wasn’t able to run a full race test on Friday and they may have go their calculations wrong as a result. He was 35 seconds behind Alonso at the end, so working backwards, Ferrari would have started him on less fuel than his team mate as he was over half a second a lap slower. But without seeing the difference in fuel consumption on a race simulation run, due to spending longer on the straight at full throttle (without DRS), they ended up critical on fuel.
INDIAN GRAND PRIX, TYRE STRATEGIES
Vettel: SU HN (33) 1 Stop
Alonso: SU HN (29) 1
Webber: SU HN (30) 1
Hamilton: SU HN (32) 1
Button: SU HN (25) 1
Massa: SU HN (28) 1
Räikkönen: SU HN (27) 1
Hülkenberg: SN HN (28) 1
Grosjean: HN SN (36) 1
Senna: SN HN (26) 1
Rosberg: SN HN (27) 1
Di Resta: SN HN (28) 1
Ricciardo: HN SN (27) 1
Kobayashi: HN SN (36) 1
Vergne: SN SN (1) HN (33) 2
Maldonado: SU HN (27) HN (30) 2
Petrov: SN HN (31) 1
Kovalainen: SN HN (32) 1
Pic: SN HN (28) 1
Glock: SN HN (31) 1
Kartikeyan: SN HN (26) 1
Schumacher: HN SN (1) SU (33) 2 DNF
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the teams’ strategists and from Pirelli
RACE HISTORY CHART
Kindly provided by Williams F1 Team
Note how Ferrari and McLaren were a shade stronger than Vettel’s Red Bull on the hard tyres; Vettel’s opening stint was what won the race for him.