The Italian Grand Prix was an interesting race, if not a thrilling one and in some ways it was a perfect illustration of why Red Bull is currently on top of Ferrari, not just in the pace of the car, but in the way it goes racing.
It also put paid to the title hopes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, who were both compromised in qualifying and also in the race. Both were very quick on race day on a forced variant strategy, but it wasn’t enough to recover the ground that had been lost.
Pre race expectations
Before the race, the strategists were briefing that the performance gap between the medium and hard tyre was likely to be negligible, with the medium a slightly faster race tyre. The prediction was for one stop for most of the field, which simulations showed was up to 10 seconds faster than two stops.
Ferrari trying to be too clever?
The major strategy talking point of the weekend happened on Saturday in qualifying, when Ferrari tried to use their second driver Felipe Massa to give lead driver Fernando Alonso a tow on the straights in his qualifying lap to save a couple of tenths of a second. It’s a notoriously hard thing to pull off and Ferrari did not manage it on this occasion.
The Ferrari was the fastest car other than the Red Bull this weekend and if Alonso had focussed on getting the perfect lap, there was an opportunity to qualify third and have a crack at pole sitter Sebastian Vettel off the start. Instead Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg qualified third, while Alonso ended up fifth behind team mate Felipe Massa.
Alonso managed to recover in the race and finished in second place, but the chance to finish ahead of Vettel and reduce the points gap by seven points, rather than see it increase, disappeared on qualifying day.
On race day they also played into Red Bulls hands, by pitting both Massa and Alonso later than their rivals with the result that Massa was undercut by Mark Webber, while Alonso fell further behind Vettel.
Ferrari had painful memories of last year’s race at Monza, where they ran out of tyre performance in the final stint, which would made them vulnerable and cost them places, to Sergio Perez pushing hard in the Sauber. So they ran a little longer this year on the opening stint.
In contrast Red Bull was very aggressive with its strategy; with an 11 second gap between Vettel in the lead and Webber fourth at the end of the opening stint, they went for a double pit stop on lap 23, servicing both cars in sub three seconds. Webber’s stop was actually a shade faster than Vettels!
This impressive work by the strategy and pit crews showed their confidence as a team and their desire to attack. By having Webber follow Vettel into the pits, where the mechanics were already in place, it concealed preparations for Webber’s stop and it wrong footed Ferrari, who were unable to bring in Massa – who was less than a second ahead of Webber at that point – until the following lap.
Webber’s out lap was very fast – faster than Vettel’s – and when Massa rejoined, Webber had jumped him. Having outqualified his team mate and got the better start – from fourth to second – Massa sadly ended up where he started. But the pit stop was only the final act. Massa missed the podium because his pace, once he had allowed Alonso past on lap eight, dropped off and this opened the door to Webber to close and jump him at the stops. He was between 2/10ths and half a second slower than Alonso each lap.
Alonso meanwhile had managed to pass Webber early on with a brilliant move on track and then was gifted second place by Massa. But he could not close the gap on Vettel, despite the German suffering from a flat spotted front tyre after a mistake at the start.
Once Vettel had stopped, the decision by Ferrari to leave Alonso out for another four laps sent a signal to Red Bull strategists and to Vettel that Ferrari didn’t think they could compete, so were going for the safest option for having a strong end to the race. From this point onwards, Vettel could measure the 10 second gap and comfortably respond to whatever Alonso tried. He didn’t have to push too hard and potentially run out of tyre performance at the end, which he might have done had Alonso been on his tail in the second half of the race.
Strategy wise, then, it was a busy race, even if most teams only made one stop, because the hard tyre didn’t warm up quickly and the tyres did not degrade. Wear was the only restriction.
Hamilton and Raikkonen pacy but lose ground
The races of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen were compromised by a poor qualifying session. Hamilton made a mistake early in Q2 and then was blocked by Adrian Sutil, while Raikkonen couldn’t unlock the single lap performance from the Lotus on medium tyres.
Both drivers started on the hard tyre, aiming to repeat the strategy of Sergio Perez from last year which took him from 12th to sedond place.
Both were forces to make two stops in the race, in other words travelling the 25 seconds down the pit lane twice, which cost time and track positions. In Hamilton’s case it was due to a puncture.
Although the track didn’t suit the Mercedes as much as recent races, both it and the Lotus were arguably podium contenders, but whereas the race pace was very strong, the qualifying pace was poor and Raikkonen was 11th on the grid.
Qualifying in midfield, like this, has a knock-on effect as it increases the risk of a collision at the first corner and that is what happened to Raikkonen, who lost his front wing and had to pit on lap one.
When he rejoined he was 37 seconds behind Vettel and he was a similar amount behind the world champion at the end, which means his race pace was identical.
However in mitigation, Raikkonen did do the whole race on the slightly faster medium tyre, one set of which was new. And he pushed the whole race, because he had to, whereas Vettel was pacing himself once Alonso made that late stop.
Lotus once again had the best tyre life, with Raikkonen doing the longest stint on mediums at 29 laps and Grosjean managing to do 33 on a set of hard tyres.
Hamilton was very fast after his puncture on lap 13. He fell to six seconds behind Raikkonen, but came through strongly in the final stint and beat him by five seconds. Even starting outside the top 10, with the pace he had on Sunday he could have finished fourth or fifth without the puncture.
Hulkenberg stands out
Last year Sergio Perez got a second place result in the Sauber which springboarded him into a McLaren seat a few weeks later.
This year Nico Hulkenberg, on the list of candidates at Ferrari and Lotus, sprang a surprise with third place in qualifying and fifth in the race.
The young German is something of a Monza specialist, as in 2010 with Williams he outqualified and outraced his team mate Rubens Barrichello (who himself had won three times at Monza). He had plenty of experience of qualifying strongly and defending a position there, which he put to good use this year in holding off Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg.
This result was also helped by the introduction of the new specification Pirelli tyres. On the original 2013 specification used up to Silverstone, Hulkenberg averaged 12th place on the grid. With the new ones introduced in Hungary he has averaged eighth place, an improvement of 34%.
It is clear that Sauber has gained significantly from the change back to the 2012 tyre constructions.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists, from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan and from Pirelli.
TYRE STRATEGIES – ITALIAN GRAND PRIX
Vettel MU HN (23) 1
Alonso MU HN (27) 1
Webber MU HN (23) 1
Massa MU HN (24) 1
Hulkenberg MU HN (24) 1
Rosberg MU HN (26) 1
Ricciardo MU HN( 22) 1
Grosjean MN HN (20) 1
Hamilton HN MN (13) MU (38) 2
Button MU HN( 21) 1
Raikkonen HN MN (1) MU (30) 2
Perez MU HN (22) 1
Gutierrez HN MN (27) 1
Maldonado MN HN (24) 1
Bottas MN HN (25) 1
Sutil MU HN (24) 1
Pic MN HN (17) HN (38) 2
V der Garde MN HN (18) HN (39)
Bianchi MN HN (22)
Chilton MN HN (23)
M = Medium compound
H = Hard compound
N = New compound
U = Used compound
RACE HISTORY CHART
Courtesy Williams F1 Team
The zero line is simply the race winner’s average lap time (total race time divided by the number of race laps). This is why his curve can go above the line if he’s lapping faster than his average, and below the line if he’s slower than his average or doing a pitstop.
The vertical axis is the gap behind the leader, the horizontal axis is the number of laps.
Note Massa’s pace drop off after he lets Alonso past on lap eight.
Note also Hamilton’s pace relative to Raikkonen’s after the Mercedes’ pit stop for a puncture on lap 13.