The Hungarian Grand Prix was one of the best races of the season so far and once again race strategy was the key to the outcome. The timing of the pitstops and an ability to cut through traffic were the decisive factors in the outcome with Mercedes’ straightline speed advantage a key factor.
Since Monaco Mercedes has raised its game in managing the thermal degradation of the tyres in the race – with the exception of Germany on those one-off Pirelli tyres – and is now in line with the field average for degradation. Hamilton set his fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap, showing that there was still plenty of performance in the tyres despite track temperatures of 50 degrees. Mercedes would never have managed that a year ago!
For the second year in a row in Hungary, Lotus managed to beat Red Bull by using one less stop in its race strategy. As last year Raikkonen qualified behind but finished ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
Pirelli brought the new specification soft and medium tyres to Hungary and before the race the expectations were that most runners would do three stops with some likely to try two, particularly Lotus and McLaren.
Both McLaren drivers had the option to start on medium tyres, as did Mark Webber who set no time in Qualifying 3 and was 10th on the grid. All three took that option and it worked for Button and Webber. Perez lost time behind Hulkenberg in the middle stint and Maldonado in the third.
No-one was sure what effect the very high track temperatures of 50 degrees plus would have on the racing. In fact they seemed to help everyone rather than hinder them. The medium tyre, which will be used at many of the remaining races of the season, showed itself to be very durable.
Friday practice had appeared to show that Mercedes were not particularly fast on long runs, but close observation revealed they had been doing work on lifting and coasting into corners to cool the engine, which masked their true pace.
Red Bull had apparently dominant race pace and Sebastian Vettel, starting second on the grid behind the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, was expected to win.
But that is not how it turned out and here we will explain why.
Hamilton plays to Mercedes’ strengths
Lewis Hamilton was surprised when he took pole position, but nothing like as surprised as Vettel and Red Bull. Their strategy, as always, was based on qualifying in pole position and then building a gap at the start to manage the race. Starting behind Hamilton complicated this. Vettel started well enough from the dirty side of the track to run second in the opening stint and from there Red Bull’s strategy was to run longer first and second stints than Hamilton and then attack him at the end on fresher tyres. To set this up, Vettel stopped two laps later first time and three laps later second time.
But what ruined his strategy was that he came out of the pits behind Jenson Button, not once but twice. So he wasn’t able to use the performance of the new tyres as he was held up. He had tried to stay out as long as he could in the opening stint to build a gap to clear Button, who was on medium tyres and set to run a long first stint. But he lost time on the way into the pits. The gap was marginal to Button on lap 11 at 19 seconds, but Vettel felt the tyre performance going away rapidly and pitted. His in-lap was one second slower than Hamilton’s and he came out behind Button.
This cost him a shot at victory as he could not pass Hamilton’s former team mate for the 13 laps until Button stopped. During that time Hamilton was a second per lap faster than the Red Bull driver and the winning margin was established.
The key to Hamilton’s win was that he spent as much time as possible in free air, maximizing the potential of the tyres – something Red Bull and Vettel normally manage to do – while for once Vettel was on the back foot and couldn’t do it.
Part of the reason for this is that his car continues to be set up with a deficit on straight line speed. This is not normally a problem as he uses the better performance of the Red Bull in the corners to clear the DRS detection zone of one second in the opening laps.
However in Budapest, in the opening laps before DRS was enabled, the Mercedes was 5-7km faster on the straight than the Red Bull and that delta carried through to when the DRS was enabled. Vettel also had to sit a reasonable distance behind the cars in front so as not to overheat his engine and tyres; this did not help when trying to pass.
When passing the Mercedes-engined McLaren of Button, Hamilton had enough to get the move started, whereas Vettel simply did not. Hamilton was able to play to the strengths of the Mercedes, in other words. Everything came together on the day.
It is also worth noting that the leading cars had a more significant pace advantage than we have seen at some races this year. This meant that even with a short first stint on soft tyres, they were able to clear most of the midfield cars when they came out of the pits from their first stops. Hamilton rejoined 8th on lap 9 and was 4th by lap 13. The field spread was significant, creating gaps for the leader to exploit.
This is a pattern we are likely to see for the rest of the season, now It is clear how the new specification Pirellis work.
Alternative strategies bear fruit
It was a day when there were quite a variety of strategies in play, contributing to the diversity of the racing. Last year Lotus beat Red Bull in Hungary by using two stops to Red Bull’s three and they did it again this year, playing to Lotus’ strengths as a gentle car on its tyres.
Raikkonen’s plan was simple enough- to put him ahead of Vettel when the German made his third stop – but it required him to do a long final stint on medium tyres and hope that he had gained enough ground on Vettel to manage to stay ahead. It was touch and go and the Red Bull was much faster at the end, but Raikkonen defended brilliantly.
However the Lotus is capable of winning races, if one driver puts it all together. Grosjean qualified third, Raikkonen sixth. If Raikkonen had started third and run there in the opening stint he might have challenged Hamilton for the win. Instead he was forced to lose time after his stop as he dropped to 10th place behind Massa and Sutil in the middle stint.
Jenson Button was happy with seventh after a poor qualifying session put him 13th. His two stop race featured the longest stint on medium tyres of anyone at 33 laps and McLaren got the soft tyre out of the way in the middle stint, which was interesting, rather than the end, as Webber did it. Unusually McLaren did it with both cars, rather than split the strategies. This is not the fastest way to do the race, according to simulations, but they lucked out with Button to a certain extent due to the gap in performance to the midfield runners and some mishaps for others, like both Force Indias struggling and Massa damaging his wing. If they had been in a closer fight they might well have split the strategies.
Williams makes its point
The Williams team has been struggling for form this season and was without a point from the first nine races of the season. But Pastor Maldonado gave the team some breathing space from the Marussia and Caterham teams by finishing tenth. They were helped by both Force Indias and Nico Rosberg dropping out, but they beat the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo which had qualified 8th. In the race the Williams strategy team got it right to beat them and the Sauber of Nico Hulkenberg with three stints on medium tyres, after an initial burst on softs, the middle stint being the longer one. The Williams had better pace than the Sauber in the final stint, as the table below shows.
Hamilton:SU MN (9) MN (31) MN (50) 3
Räikkönen:SU MN (13) MN (42) 2
Vettel: SU MN (11) MN (34) MN (55) 3
Webber: MN MN (23) MU (43) SN (59) 3
Alonso: SU MN (12) MU (34) MN (48) 3
Grosjean: SU MN (13) MN (25) DT (37) MN (47) 4
Button: MN SN (24) MN (37) 2
Massa: SU MN (11) MN (31) MN (48) 3
Perez: MU SN (23) MN (38) 2
Maldonado: SN MN (9) MN (28) MU (51) 3
Hülkenberg: SN MN (11) MN (35) DT (40) 3
Vergne: SU MN (8) MN (30) MN (50) 3
Ricciardo: SU MN (10) MN (38) 2
Van Der Garde: SN MN (8) MN (27) MN (44) 3
Pic: SN MN (13) MN (38) 2
Bianchi: MN SN (20) MN (33) MU (46) 3
Chilton: MN SN (21) MN (34) MU (50) 3
Di Resta: SN MN (9) MN (26) MU (48) 3
Rosberg: SU MN (10) MN (29) MN (48) 3
Bottas: SU MN (10) MN (33) 2 NC
Gutierrez: MN MN (23) 1 NC
Sutil: MN 1 NC
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the team’s strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Courtesy of Williams F1 team
Note Raikkonen’s final stint; it’s long but the tyre degradation is minimal. Note also the comparison with Hamilton’s final stint, with much newer tyres, illustrating that the Mercedes driver was not having to push in final stint.