The UBS Chinese Grand Prix was another tense race and the outcome was once again decided by race strategy. What made it particularly interesting was that there were different approaches among the leading teams, forced by the disparate performance levels of the soft and medium Pirelli tyres. Team strategists had to find a way to do the fastest race, which meant spending the least amount of time on the weaker tyre and running in clear air as much as possible.
Here, with the help and input of several team strategists as well as JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan, we analyse the key decisions which shaped the outcome.
Kimi Raikkonen had another terrific race and could have challenged for the win had he not suffered two setbacks; a poor getaway from the startline due to a wrong clutch setting which cost him two places and damage to the front wing from a collision with Sergio Perez. Lotus estimate that the damage cost him 0.25s in lap time loss, but took the view that changing the nose at their next pit stop would cost them 10 seconds and drop Raikkonen into traffic, so they left the nose on.
The next challenge was to get ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. The Lotus strategy team did this with a classic undercut on lap 34. Raikkonen pitted first, but Mercedes did not react to cover the stop. The Lotus had been just over a second behind when it pitted. But Mercedes left Hamilton out until lap 37. When he came out of the pits Raikkonen had done enough on fresh tyres to get ahead. They stayed that way to the finish, second and third. So why did Mercedes not react and could they have played it differently?
Lotus challenged them by coming in on lap 34, knowing that they had better tyre life than the Mercedes. There were still 22 laps to go to the finish. Hamilton had the pace to react; on lap 35 he did a 1m 41.8s lap, which was quicker than the previous laps. So he could have reacted on lap 35 and retained the position.
However the reason they left Hamilton out was because they knew that he would run into trouble with tyres at the end of the race if he stopped at this point. It was a real Catch 22 situation for them.
With Sebastian Vettel set to be very fast in the last five laps on new soft tyres, it would have cost Hamilton the podium had he reacted for a short term gain. This can be seen from the way Hamilton’s pace tailed off in the last two laps, indicating that even on a 19 lap stint his tyres suffered.
It’s a tough one for the team, but that’s why Ross Brawn said at the end to Hamilton, “We are not quite there,”
Lotus played their advantage very cleverly, but Mercedes did the right thing. It’s also worth pointing out the double pit stop they pulled off on lap five, which cost Rosberg just 2 seconds in the pit lane (their stop times were identical at 3.3 seconds). This is a sign of a group, which is confident and mature in its decision making and its execution. That could have gone horribly wrong.
Analysis of Fernando Alonso’s winning drive shows that the key moments were the start, where he got ahead of Raikkonen; the run up to the first pit stop, where got ahead of Hamilton; and then the second and third stints of the race, where he was the fastest car on the circuit.
It was a victory which was meticulous in strategic execution. Ferrari had done their homework during Friday practice and knew the best way to manage the long runs on the tyres. They spread the stops fairly evenly, with 17 laps in the second stint, 18 in the third and 15 laps in the final stint, so Alonso was never at risk of running out of tyre life and crucially they managed to get him into gaps in traffic after his second and third stops so he could make use of his fresh tyres. After the second stop he quickly passed Vettel and Hulkenberg, who were out of sequence, losing little time in the process and he was able to run in clear air.
Strategists say that in terms of energy damaging these tyres, between running a stint in clear air compared to behind another car the difference is as much as 20%. So you can see how vital it is to find the gaps.
As for Felipe Massa, who followed his team mate in the opening stint, he fell away because he was made to stay out an extra lap before his first stop and came out behind Raikkonen and Webber. He was now in traffic and struggled to get the medium tyres to work as well as he had done the softs. This lost him time, so he fell prey to Vettel and the two-stopping Button. A very tentative second stint meant he missed the opportunity to keep Vettel behind him after Vettel’s stop on lap 32 and to get ahead of Button at his final stop on lap 49.
To illustrate the point, in that second stint, between laps 24 and 35 Massa went from 10 seconds behind Alonso to 27 seconds behind!
Did Vettel’s strategy gamble work?
For a team that has been used to winning in quite a conservative way in the last few years, Red Bull has now taken two big strategy gambles in two Grands Prix with Vettel, when not really under pressure to do so. In Malaysia Vettel pitted too early on a wet track for slicks and lost the lead to Webber, while in Shanghai Red Bull took a gamble which gave Vettel a huge amount to do on race day and ultimately failed to bring him a podium.
For once Red Bull knew that they did not have the pace to challenge Ferrari, and Lotus for the win in China. So they took a different approach from qualifying onwards. Vettel did not run in Q3, leaving himself the option to start the race on new medium tyres. Vettel had saved two sets of new mediums and one set of new softs for the race. However by doing this he put himself in ninth place on the grid, and therefore in traffic, with drivers like Ricciardo and Grosjean ahead of him.
The reason why this plan failed to bring a podium was because, unlike Alonso, Vettel was stuck in traffic for much of the first half of the race. His first stint he lost time behind Hulkenberg and in the second he was held up by Perez. This hurt his lap times and sitting behind other cars also took more out of the tyres.
This sense of “edginess” at Red Bull is also illustrated by the error strewn weekend Mark Webber suffered; he was underfuelled by 3kg on Saturday for qualifying, which is a lot given how rigorously the process is tested and checked, but the best example is when he pitted in the race for a front wing change on lap 15. This process slowed the stop down to around 8 seconds from the usual 2.5 seconds and yet the right rear wheel gun man failed to secure the wheel and it came off. It’s very strange to have an error like that when you have a spare six seconds to play with in a stop. It’s almost as if they are putting pressure on themselves and at the moment it’s not working.
In each of the three races so far McLaren has known that it does not have the pace to race its usual rivals. So the team has taken some big gambles on strategy to try to get a better outcome. Some have worked and others have not. Sergio Perez is yet to see a good outcome from his bold strategies, for example. In China he was one of only two drivers to try a short stint on the soft tyre in the middle of the race, rather than at the end. It didn’t work out.
Jenson Button, however, managed to get a fifth place finish, which the team was happy with, by making one less stop than the opposition in China.
The pre-race data showed that the first stop on this plan would be around lap 18, but starting on used mediums, Button managed to get to lap 23 still setting competitive lap times, comparable with Alonso’s at that stage. From lap 20 to the end of the race, both drivers had two more stops to make and they were together on the race track. Button looked like he had a chance of a big result.
However his second stint of 26 laps was less effective and, mindful of the need to protect the tyres over the longest stint anyone would do in this race, his pace dropped off, particularly around laps 35-42. And that is where a better result got away from him.
Race Tyre Strategies
Alonso: SU MN (6) MN (23) MN (41)
Raikkonen: SU MN (6) MN (21) MU (34)
Hamilton: SU MN (5) MN (21) MN (37)
Vettel: MN MU (14) MN(31) SN (51)
Button: MU MN (23) SN (49)
Massa: SU MN (7) MN (19) MN (36)
Ricciardo: SU MN (4) MN (23) MU (38)
Di Resta: MN MN (14) MN (32) SU (53)
Grosjean: SU MN (7) MN (23) MU (37)
Hulkenberg: MN MN (14) SN (29) MN (36)
Perez: MN SN (24) MN (31)
Vergne: MN MN (15) SN (37) MU (43)
Bottas: MN MN (16) MN (34) SN (51)
Maldonado: SN MN (7) MN (23) MN (39)
Bianchi: SN MN (6) MN (16) MU (32)
Pic: SN MN (5) MN (17) MN (33)
Chilton: SN MN (7) MN (21) MU (33)
Van Der Garde: SN MN (6) MN (20) MN (37)
Rosberg: SU MN (5) MN 19) MN (20)
Webber: SN MN (1) MN (15)
S= Soft tyre
M = Medium tyre
N = New
U = Used