The Japanese Grand Prix was different from recent races in so far as Sebastian Vettel did not drive away from pole position and control the race. He had to come through from third in the opening stint and needed race strategy to take the victory, in the face of a particularly strong performance by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean.
Red Bull split the strategies, putting Mark Webber on three stops and leaving Sebastian Vettel on two. Here’s our in depth analysis of why they did that and whether Webber or Grosjean could have won, looking at several defining moments in the race.
The start goes wrong for Red Bull
The start of the race was important for defining what kind of race it would be; both pole sitter Webber and front row starter Vettel got away badly, allowing Grosjean to nip through and take the lead, with Webber second and Vettel third.
Lewis Hamilton’s rear tyre touched Vettel’s front wing, which gave Hamilton a puncture and also took a little performance away from Vettel’s car, but not a significant amount.
During the first stint, Vettel sat back around two seconds behind Webber from very early on, to protect the tyres. Webber, in contrast, pushed Grosjean for the first six laps, then dropped back a little. But his tyres were losing performance when he pitted on lap 11. The Lotus had been quick on the medium tyres in the first stint and at this point Lotus was still in with a chance of winning.
Grosjean pitted on lap 12 to cover Webber, who was now on a virtually new set of hard tyres. Lotus had the luxury of seeing what tyres Webber chose and went for the same choice. Arguably, as the race played out, it would have been better with hindsight to choose another set of mediums at this point and this might have given them enough pace to get second place. Because Grosjean’s pace on hards wasn’t as good as expected and this is what Red Bull spotted early in the second stint and it decided their strategy from here.
Vettel stayed out until lap 14 and then pitted for new hard tyres. The top three were in the same order as the second stint began.
The second stint – the decision is made
Once Red Bull’s strategists saw that Grosjean’s pace was not so hot on hard tyres, they decided that they would be able to win the race with Vettel on a two-stop strategy. But based on Webber’s first stint and his track record on the Pirelli tyres, it was unlikely that he would be able to beat Grosjean by staying on the same two stop strategy. This is the key to what happened next.
The only possibility for Webber to win would be to try to run close to the limit of the tyres in the second stint and then try to undercut the Lotus around lap 28/29, which would leave 25/24 laps to the finish. But the victory would hang on being able to pull off the undercut. If Lotus reacted and pitted Grosjean at the same time, Webber would have had to pass Grosjean on track wit tyres of the same age. Had they been thinking solely of what was the best way to get Webber to win the race, that’s what Red Bull would have done.
Rather than that, the team looked at it from a team point of view. The race was winnable, Webber would not be able to get the tyres to last as well as Vettel to pull off a winning two stop strategy and the German is faster.
The key to it was to pull Lotus in two different directions and play to the strengths of their drivers; give Vettel the best two stop possibility and try to use a three stop plan for Webber, which meant he could push the whole way and not worry about the tyres and make bold passes in the closing stages, which he has done many times in the past.
There is no doubt that this strategy disadvantaged Webber at the outset, because it meant that he would be behind his team mate in the final stint. That was a given.
The risk for Red Bull, given the history between the two drivers, was that Webber would come steaming up to Vettel in the closing laps and there would be a clash as he tried to pass him.
But they were prepared to take that risk – or believed they could control if it happened – because they knew from Grosjean’s pace on hards that Vettel would beat him if he ran his fastest two-stop plan. And that’s exactly how it worked out.
Moving Webber out of the way, by pitting him on lap 25, allowed Vettel to close up on the back of Grosjean. The speed with which he did this – the gap went from 3.4 seconds to 1.3 in two laps – showed Lotus that they weren’t going to be able to beat Vettel, who had too much pace.
From lap 28 onwards it is possible to get to the end of the race on a set of hard tyres, so this was the trigger point for Lotus to bring Grosjean in, to prevent Vettel undercutting him.
This was a difficult decision for Lotus, because if they had stayed out, they would have had more chance to fight Webber for second place at the end on fresher tyres, but the win would definitely have been lost.
In that scenario, Vettel would definitely have beaten them by undercutting.
However if they pitted and cut that route off, Lotus gambled that they might be able to hold him behind them to the finish, as they almost did with Webber. In other words, they gambled for a long shot at the win, rather than to protect second place; for 10 possible extra points, rather than three points lost.
However Vettel was too strong; he was managing the tyres well and was able to run another eight quick laps after Grosjean’s stop. The undercut had been covered off, so now the route for Vettel to win was to stay out longer and then attack the Frenchman in the closing stages on much fresher tyres, which is exactly what he did.
After his stop he cut Grosjean’s three second lead to nothing in two laps and then passed him decisively. Job done.
Webber loses the win but takes second place
Most strategists in the F1 pit lane agree that Red Bull did exactly the right things strategically in Suzuka and all would have done the same thing in their shoes.
They gave their fastest driver the best chance to win the race and got their other driver into second place. As a team, you cannot do better than that.
What did not happen was Webber did not challenge Vettel in the final laps, because it took him too long after his third and final stop, to pass Grosjean. Webber not only had fresher, softer tyres than Grosjean, he also had a straight line speed advantage from running slightly less rear downforce. He should have been able to go through Grosjean in a lap or two, as Vettel did. But he couldn’t make the pass until late in the day.
The reality of the situation is that, apart from the delay in Webber passing Grosjean, this race turned out exactly as Red Bull expected it to from the moment they took a team decision around lap 20-25 to split the strategies.
Yes it is tough on Webber, who had been ahead of Vettel in qualifying and on the road in the first stint and yes, it does undermine the team agreement that the lead driver on the road gets first call on strategy. They overruled that protocol because as a team they saw the best way to get the team victory.
This is the hard reality of F1, which is sometimes hard to take for fans of particular drivers. They race for a team and their contract terms oblige them to accept that the team will make decisions in the interests of the team.
To split the strategies any other way on Sunday would not have brought the team victory with certainty.
The way they did it had the best chance of success and duly achieved the best result for the team.
And at the end of the day Formula 1 is about doing the best job as a team, rather than taking chances in order to favour one of your drivers, even if observers on the outside read it that you have favoured your lead driver, who was behind on the road.
That is the pragmatism of Formula 1.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists, from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan and from Pirelli
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Kindly supplied by Williams F1 Team
Horizontal axis: Number of race laps
Vertical axis: Lap time (in seconds)
Note the drop off in performance of Webber’s tyres around laps 9-10, compared with Vettel’s. Note also the pace differential between Vettel and Grosjean in the second stint, when it became clear that the Lotus wasn’t as fast relative to the Red Bull on hard tyres as it had been on mediums.