This race may come to be viewed as a tipping point in the ongoing debate about whether the high degradation Pirelli tyres are good for F1 or not, as two of the three drivers on the podium did a four stop strategy.
Pirelli has indicated that they have been “too aggressive” with the construction of the 2013 tyres and will make changes from the seventh round, Montreal, onwards.
However against this backdrop, the strategy battle at the heart of this race was fascinating. And it showed that the teams who came out on top were the ones who had the best thermal management of the tyres and the clearest vision of how to execute their race strategy and who stuck to it.
Ferrari committed to four stops before the race began and likewise Lotus committed to three stops with the bulk of the running on the medium tyre, underlining their car’s gentle action on the tyres.
Other contenders, particularly Red Bull and Mercedes were washed away by not sticking to a clear vision of how to attack the race.
In 23 years no-one has ever won the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona from as low as fifth on the grid, but Fernando Alonso managed it on Sunday, which tells the story of how much the Pirelli tyres have shaken up F1.
Alonso knew from studying the data from Friday’s long runs in practice that the car to beat on race day would be Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus, as this had exceptional race pace and low degradation.
When Raikkonen qualified fourth ahead of Alonso, this made him the main target, even with Sebastian Vettel started ahead in 3rd. The long runs from Red Bull on Friday had shown that they were struggling with tyre degradation.
Ferrari’s assumption was that Raikkonen would three stop and that Vettel would probably four stop. So they committed to run four stops, with Alonso pushing hard in the second and third stints. They were right about Raikkonen, but not Vettel; this merely played into their hands as we shall see.
Lotus looked at the data and concluded that although a four stop race was three seconds faster on paper, it was also more risky because of the increased risk of traffic and of things going wrong in the stops. Lotus also gives away a second to Ferrari in a pit stop on average, they simply aren’t as fast. However Lotus was the only team able to do most of the race on used medium tyres. They found them faster over a stint than new hard tyres but with similar degradation.
Starting from the dirty side, Raikkonen lost the initiative to Alonso at the start and this was crucial to the outcome, as Alonso was able to stay ahead after the first round of stops, when the field opened out.
The Ferrari’s secret as a race car is its ability to push hard on the opening laps of a stint (see fuel corrected lap time chart below, Alonso in red, Raikkonen in black) without overheating the tyres or damaging them and Alonso’s second and third stints demonstrated this perfectly.
In his tight battle with Raikkonen, it was the second stint in particular where he set the platform for his win, by taking his lead over the Finn out from two seconds to seven seconds. When he came out of the pits after his fourth stop, he was eight seconds ahead of Raikkonen. So that second stint was decisive.
Raikkonen was also slightly unlucky to come out from his second stop behind Vettel, who was losing time to Alonso.
On lap 38, just after the mid point of the race, they were together with one more stop to make each. Alonso was on fresh tyres, Raikkonen on 12 lap old tyres. If the Finn had been able to hold him back for longer, or to stay with him once Alonso got past, then he might have had a chance to challenge for the win, but he didn’t quite have the pace.
Lotus would not have been any better off trying four stops as this would have put them on the same strategy as Ferrari but with slightly less pace, so three stops was the right way to go.
This was not Red Bull’s greatest Grand Prix from a strategy point of view. Vettel qualified third and had the advantage of track position over Alonso in the opening stint, but lost the race and finished fourth because Red Bull fell into the classic trap of Pirelli era strategy indecision.
Red Bull tried to do three stops, couldn’t manage it and were forced to stop Vettel a fourth time, which cost them hugely. The proof of this is that he was beaten by Massa. And his team mate Webber, who started seventh, finished just behind him in fifth place.
Ferrari undercut Vettel at the first stop to gain the track position advantage and then the Red Bull driver ran three laps longer in his second stint, losing a lot of time in the process, to Alonso, Raikkonen and Massa.
But the real problem stint for Vettel was the third one, on new hard tyres. He managed only to get to lap 39, which forced him to switch to a four stop, but as it hadn’t been planned, all the time lost by trying to run longer stints counted against him.
Could Mercedes have avoided their slide?
For the second race in a row, Mercedes slid alarmingly back from their pole position slot, with Nico Rosberg ending up sixth and front row starter Lewis Hamilton faring even worse in 12th place.
Despite knowing from practice that they had high tyre degradation, Mercedes went for a three stop strategy with Rosberg and he was forced to nurse the tyres, begging the question, could he – like Vettel – have done better if he had committed to pushing harder on a four stop?
In his case the answer is probably no, but not for strategy reasons.
The evidence suggests that the Mercedes’ geometry is such that the car generates excessive temperature in the tyre, which is what triggers its loss of performance over a series of laps. This would still have been the case even if they had divided the race into five stints rather than four.
All they would have done would be to add another 20 seconds for an additional pit stop. The strategists were hamstrung by the limitations of the car.
This is not an easy thing to fix; there are various devices around the brakes and rear wheels to control the temperatures by a few degrees, but not to control the kind of temperature spikes Mercedes is getting. The fact that this appears to be a recurring problem for the team on high energy circuits, like Barcelona, shows how difficult it is to know where to start.
Tyre Strategies, Barcelona
M=Medium; H=Hard; N=New; U=Used;
Alonso:MU HU (9) HN (21) MU (36) HN (49) 4 Stops
Räikkönen: MU MU (10) MU (26) HU (45) 3 stops
Massa: MU HU (8) HN (20) MU (36) HN (51) 4 stops
Vettel: MU HN (10) HN (24) MU (39) HN (51) 4
Webber: MU HN (7) HN (20) MU (36) HN (50) 4
Rosberg: MU HN (10)HN (27) HN (47) 3
Di Resta: MU HN (9) MU (19) MU (38) HN (53) 4
Button: MN HN (11 ) HN (28) HN (46) 3
Perez: MU HN (10) HN (23) MU (38) HN (50) 4
Ricciardo: MN HN (10) MU (24) HN(39) HU 51) 4
Gutierrez: MU MU (13) HN (28) MU (42) HN (54) 4
Hamilton: MU HN (9) HN (25)MU (36) HN (50) 4
Sutil: MU MN (8) HN (22) HN (36) MU (49) 4
Maldonado: MN HN (8) MN (20)HN (35) MU (53) 5
Hülkenberg: MU MU (8) HN (21) HN (34) HU(35) MU (53)
Bottas: MN HN (9) HN (25) MN (43) 3
Pic: HN MN (8) HN (23) HN (41) 3
Bianchi: HN HN (2) HN (16) MN (29 ) HU (46) 4
Chilton: HN HN (15) MN (30) HN(47) 3
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Courtesy of the Williams F1 Team
Note Alonso’s pace at the start of second and third stints relative to Vettel’s; also note the erratic lap times of Mercedes after first stint.