The German Grand Prix was a thrilling tactical battle between Red Bull and Lotus that led to a nail-biting finish.
This was brought about by upgrades to the Lotus making it close on performance with the Red Bull and by Pirelli bringing tyres, which encouraged some experimentation with strategy.
It wasn’t as interesting a tactical battle as it might have been had the safety car not been deployed after 24 laps, but it was still one of the best of the year.
The weather was good on Friday during practice allowing teams to evaluate the new specification Pirelli rear tyres, brought to this event as a response to the failures at Silverstone the week before.
Practice showed that the soft tyre was faster than the medium by up to 1.5 seconds per lap, but it degraded much more quickly. Estimates for the first stint of the Grand Prix were around 6-8 laps on the soft before they would need changing.
Ferrari went a different route from its rivals, choosing to qualify – and therefore start the race – on the medium tyre, as it felt it did not have the pace to challenge for the front of the grid in qualifying.
It was set to be an interesting race, with strategists facing a real challenge to manage the stop times and the use of the two tyre compounds.
Lotus challenges and almost beats Red Bull
The main battle in the race was between Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull and the Lotus pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
All three were starting the race on used soft tyres from qualifying. The temperatures were high, which slightly favoured the Lotus and when Romain Grosjean played himself into contention with a long opening stint of 13 laps on the soft tyres, he was ready to challenge Vettel for the win.
Lotus’ plan was to try to undercut Vettel; to force the Red Bull driver to stop earlier than he would normally want to, extending his next stint length so that his tyres would lose performance. The Lotus is known to be able to maintain tyre performance for longer stints, especially on hot days.
The plan was thwarted by the deployment of the safety car on lap 24, due to a Marussia that had rolled back across the track, having been abandoned.
This forced everyone into stopping immediately – once a safety car has been deployed a driver has to stop (unless he has just done so) as the others all will, so he will never get away from cars behind him on fresh tyres.
From then on, it was a three stop race for everyone and Vettel was able to manage his stint lengths and not run into tyre trouble. Grosjean pitted a lap before him on Lap 40, but unfortunately he had dropped off Vettel by a second at that point and so he wasn’t able to undercut.
Meanwhile Raikkonen was also in play for Lotus. He had stopped earlier than Grosjean, on lap 8, as Lotus felt his tyre performance was dropping off but it cost him as he got stuck behind Rosberg in the Mercedes. Raikkonen fell back from three seconds to 13 seconds behind Vettel in the second stint.
However he was given a second chance to attack by the safety car, which closed the gap up again. Lotus considered letting Raikkonen run to the finish on the same set of tyres. With 12 laps to go he had a 15 second lead over Vettel after the German’s third stop. But his tyres were already 16 laps old and there were 19 laps to go. 35 laps on a set of tyres seemed too much.
Painful memories of China last year, where Raikkonen ran out of tyres in the final laps and failed to score points, meant that they didn’t feel inclined to gamble and have him fall behind Alonso.
They left him out for eight laps after Vettel’s stop, to get into a window where he could use the soft tyres for an 11 lap late race attack. Lotus felt that this was the only possibility at this stage, as the softs were much faster than the mediums. Making him do any more than 11 laps on the softs at the end was a risk, given his performance in practice, where he had suffered worse degradation than Grosjean.
He lost a little time getting past Grosjean, who accepted that his team mate was on a different strategy and so let him past. But Raikkonen didn’t have enough pace on the soft tyres at the end to pass Vettel.
Safety car ruins it for Lotus
In fact, although on the face of it the safety car helped Raikkonen, allowing him to make up the time lost behind Rosberg, it actually hurt his race strategy, as it did Grosjean’s. Lotus’ strategists were planning to get him through the race on a two-stop strategy, so he would have come into play later in the race.
The safety car took away all the flexibility in the race and pushed most people onto the same strategy, taking away the element of surprise Lotus was planning.
Ferrari zig while others zag
Faced with another qualifying session where they were likely to end up on the grid behind Mercedes, Red Bull and even Lotus, Ferrari opted to try something different. The idea was to qualify – and start – on the medium tyre, run a longer first stint than their rivals on soft tyres, who would have to pit early and come back out into traffic. Ferrari would then take advantage of the laps where the Red Bulls, Mercedes and Lotus were cutting through traffic to build a margin and then jump some of them at their first stop.
This strategy was based on the theory that the soft tyre would fall apart quickly and the medium would be quicker over the stint.
It didn’t work, mainly because the Ferrari couldn’t get the medium tyre warmed up at the start and Alonso fell to 8th, behind Ricciardo in the opening stint. Massa got himself into a better position, sixth, but went out of the race on lap four. Alonso pitted on lap 12, which was a lap before Grosjean who was on the soft, so the plan was in trouble from the start.
Alonso was fast in the final stint of the race on new soft tyres and kept the Lotus pair honest, but in reality the Ferrari strategy was made to look more effective than it was by the safety car intervention. Before it intervened, Alonso was almost 20 seconds behind the leader Vettel.
When a car doesn’t have the pace, its unusual for gambles like this to work. Red Bull tried it with Vettel in China, where he didn’t have the pace and it didn’t work there either.
A word on Williams
The Williams team went into the German Grand Prix still without a point after eight rounds of the championship – an unprecedented situation for the team.
Although the car didn’t have much pace, which is why they qualified 17th and 18th, they tried a two-stop strategy, which required the drivers to manage the tyres while maintaining a strong rhythm and they almost pulled it off, with Maldonado in the points before his final stop. Sadly what let them down were the pitstops themselves where a persistent wheel gun problem lost both drivers time.
Unlike Alonso, the Williams drivers were able to stay out on their medium tyres at the start until laps 21 and 22. Bottas lost 13 seconds in his first stop, which dropped him back into traffic, while Maldonado was running seventh prior to his final stop, where the wheel gun struck again and he lost 16 seconds.
Had the stop been normal, he would have come out into a battle behind Hulkenberg, with Di Resta and Ricciardo, for the final points position with fresher tyres.
Vettel: SU MN (7) MU (24) MN (41) 3 stops
Räikkönen:SU MN (8) MN (24) SU (49) 3
Grosjean: SU MN (13) MN (24) MU (40) 3
Alonso: MU MN (12) MN (24) SN (49) 3
Hamilton: SU MN (6) MU (22) MN (45) 3
Button: MN MU (21) SN (47) 2
Webber: SU MU (8)MN (23) MU (38) 3
Perez: SN MN (7) MN (24) 2
Rosberg: MN MU (16) MN (24) SN (48) 3
Hülkenberg MN MN (17 ) MN (37) SN (49) 3
Di Resta: SU MN (4) MN (24) 2
Ricciardo: SU MN (5) MN (18) MN (40) 3
Sutil: SN MN (5) MN (24) MU (43) 3
Gutierrez: SN MN (6) MN (22) MU (41) 3
Maldonado: MN MN (21) SN (50) 2
Bottas: MN MN (22) SN (54) 2
Pic: SN MN (4) MN (24) MN (34) 3
Van Der Garde: SN MN (5) MN (19) MN (38) 3
Chilton: SN MN (8) MN (20) MU (26) MU (37) 4
N=New; U=used; S=Soft; M=Medium
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 CHART
Kindly provided by Williams F1 Team
Note Raikkonen’s trace (in solid yellow) and compare it with other two stoppers like Di Resta and Perez – had Raikkonen tried to stay out on his second set of tyres, his performance would have dropped off and he would perhaps have been caught by Alonso.