The Monaco Grand Prix was similar in many ways to last year’s event; a race of managed pace, but this year with interesting consequences.
It showed a wider strategy on the part of the championship contenders in particular. If you analyse the way they conducted their races, it appears that they were focussed on the championship rather than on challenging for the race victory.
Nico Rosberg was the dominant figure in Monaco across practice and qualifying, but he wasn’t well placed in the championship going into the event and he wasn’t challenged in the race as he might have expected to be, particularly given that his strategy was to slow the pace down from the outset, which meant that his rivals were never far behind.
Because he – and later Sebastian Vettel – backed the field up, there were plenty of passes and attempted passes and this led to a number of incidents. So it was a race punctuated by two safety cars and a red flag stoppage. The stoppage on lap 46 of 78 gave all the teams a chance to fit a new set of tyres before the restart and meant that no-one struggled for tyre life.
In their strategy briefings before the Grand Prix, teams were confident that a one-stop race was possible. Two stops was shown as being 15 seconds faster than one stop but it was considered risky because of slow traffic and the high chance of a safety car (80%), which could negate the advantage accrued from running at a higher pace.
It was expected that Mercedes, given its tyre management problems in the previous races, would control the pace, but in the end it was slower than any of the strategists had imagined.
Mercedes strategy was to control the pace and drive to a target lap time. Red Bull did a similar thing with Mark Webber the year before.
They did this in order to ensure that the tyres would reach at last lap 30, which was the window for a one-stop race. Although two stops was theoretically faster, they decided that attempting two stops might make them vulnerable to a one stopping Red Bull or Lotus, particularly if a safety car intervened.
The pace in the first stint was extremely slow – ten seconds a lap slower than qualifying. The degree to which the pace was controlled is demonstrated by several things; Sebastian Vettel set the fastest lap near the end in a moment of exuberance, some two seconds faster than the next fastest lap!
Meanwhile Nico Rosberg’s pace on new soft tyres after the restart from the first safety car was five seconds slower than it had been on used supersofts when he pushed hard immediately before his pit stop under the safety car ten laps earlier.
This had two effects; first it stopped any of Rosberg’s rivals attempting to undercut him – ie making a stop a lap before and trying to pass when the Mercedes pitted afterwards – because there were few gaps without traffic to drop back into.
Secondly it meant that the field was bunched up and this led to drivers overtaking or attempting to overtake and colliding. The result was two safety cars and a red flag.
Safety car changes the game for Hamilton
The unintended consequence of this is that the first safety car spoiled the race of Rosberg’s team mate Lewis Hamilton and cost the team a 1-2 finish, although it was more the driver’s fault than the strategists’.
Hamilton was running second in the opening stint, but then the first safety car was deployed for Massa’s heavy accident which was always likely to trigger a safety car, but Mercedes were slow to react. Their cars were three corners away from the end of the lap when it happened.
But the Mercedes pair had crossed the line to start a new lap when the safety car was deployed.
So they had to drive around the lap at the approved speed (around 40% slower than normal), while the Red Bull drivers had pitted immediately. In itself this is not a problem, because everyone has to drive to a prescribed speed and in any case the Red Bull cars were picked up by the safety car. The problem was that Hamilton lost an additional eight seconds on his in-lap to the pits.
If he had maintained the same speed as Rosberg, a 1min 54s lap he would have arrived in the pits three seconds behind the German, as he had been the previous lap. The mechanics were ready with a second set of tyres for Hamilton long before he arrived in his pit box and when he went back out he had fallen behind the two Red Bulls.
Title contenders – trying to win?
In Tour de France cycling, when there is a breakaway of riders who are not in contention for the Yellow Jersey, the race leaders don’t generally react.
It was a bit like this with the Monaco Grand Prix. With Rosberg ninth in the table on just 22 points, it seemed that the title contenders were more focussed on getting points and moving on to the next race, rather than challenge him.
With Vettel now in second place, after Hamilton’s safety car error, with 47 laps to go and the Mercedes likely to be marginal on tyres in the closing stages if pushed hard, the surprising thing was that he did not seem to make any attempt to challenge Rosberg for the win. Like several of the championship contenders he was thinking of the points, rather than the glory. By staying in second he would extend his points lead over Raikkonen and Alonso and Rosberg would still be 62 points behind him.
Alonso too demonstrated risk-aversion all afternoon. Having started from an unpromising sixth on the grid, he yielded a place having tried to avoid an accident with Sergio Perez, then was caught napping by Adrian Sutil and by Jenson Button. The Ferrari looked better on the soft tyre than the supersoft, but they chose to put him on the latter for the final stint after the red flag, which was surprising; that is when he was caught by Sutil and Button. In mitigation, his car did pick up some debris, but it was still a below par performance.
Kimi Raikkonen had made an early stop for tyres on lap 26 hoping it would cause some of his rivals to react and cover him, thereby taking the risk of running out of tyres with a 50 lap second stint. No-one reacted and they all got a free pit stop under the safety car instead. Raikkonen had settled for fifth place until Perez forced the issue and Raikkonen resisted, damaging both cars. Raikkonen ended up 10th.
Force India surprise
As surpising as the poor performance of Ferrari was the strong result for Force India. Adrian Sutil finished fifth (thanks to the collision between Perez and Raikkonen) but had a very strong afternoon despite racing with a broken front wing for the first 45 laps. It was changed when the race was red flagged and he was able to make passes on Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. Force India are battling McLaren at the moment and the silver cars were a shade faster in Monaco, but Force India came away with 12 points to McLaren’s 8.
This was also partly due to Paul di Resta’s result. After a disaster on Saturday where he and the team got the tyre choice wrong at a critical moment and he qualified only 17th, he went for a different strategy by pitting early on lap 9. The team took advantage of the fact that the pace was being managed, to run as much as possible in clear air. At this point the team was playing it by ear, but well placed should there be a safety car or red flag. As it transpired we got both and di Resta gained significantly, moving from 17th to 9th at the flag.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Courtesy Williams F1 Team
The extent to which the pace was managed is very clear from the race history graph. In the first stint Mercedes controls it, in the second stint and third stint it is Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.