The Bahrain Grand Prix was one of the most exciting races for many years, featuring wheel to wheel battles throughout the field and lots of interesting strategy work, which affected the outcome. There was a Safety Car, which is a rare occurrence at this circuit and it made for a thrilling climax after the restart, with cars using a mixture of different strategies.
But even without the Safety Car, this was a fascinating race from a strategy point of view and here we will analyse and explain some fundamental details which led to the race turning out as it did.
The Mercedes duo were significantly faster than the rest of the field once again, but Mercedes’ strategy team split the strategies, giving both drivers and equal chance of winning the race. Although the Safety Car played more to the strategy of Rosberg, Hamilton was able to hold on to win the race.
Before the race, the teams were evaluating whether to make two stops or three and the Friday practice session was an important part of deciding this. With this year’s event taking place at night under floodlights, the conditions in the evening were quite different from those in the daylight and from what the teams had experienced at the pre-season tests.
Long run data and data from high fuel running were vital in establishing tyre degradation and this was a crucial factor. There was a significant disparity between the teams, with Mercedes and Force India enjoying low degradation and Williams and Ferrari quite high degradation.
However Williams didn’t really learn this as they did very limited mileage in Friday running – just over half the laps Force India covered, for example. This cost them in the race as their degradation was high and they were forced into doing three stops, with very early stops for both drivers in the first stint.
This meant that they were not able to capitalize on the pace of their car in Bahrain. Having qualified third and seventh, they finished seventh and eighth.
Also suffering were Ferrari. Unlike Williams they had done extensive Friday long run homework and knew they were in trouble – they also had a deficiency of straight line speed, with Alonso 21km/h slower than Massa’s Williams through the speed trap. Alonso pitted on lap 12 and Raikkonen on lap 13, committing the pair to a three stop strategy and so, forced to play a defensive strategy throughout, they could not compete with the Mercedes powered cars and the Red Bulls, finishing 9th and 10th.
In the end analysis two stops was around five seconds faster than three.
Mercedes duo battle for the win
The duel at the front between Hamilton and Rosberg was a real highlight, with close racing at three stages of the race as the team gave the drivers free permission to race.
For Mercedes the race was a clear two stopper; they had good tyre performance and no fear of degradation.
After losing the start to Hamilton, polesiter Nico Rosberg sat back and saved fuel and tyres for an attack at the end of the first stint. Rosberg was actually slightly faster on the day than Hamilton and had slightly less tyre degradation, but losing the start was the decisive moment in his race. Had he won the start he would probably have been able to use the slight pace advantage to hold on and win.
As it was, he challenged Hamilton for the lead on laps 18 and 19 and briefly got ahead, before the Briton retook the lead.
At this point Mercedes decided to put Rosberg onto a Plan B strategy, whereby he would take the slower Medium compound tyre at the first stop and run a long middle stint. The idea here was for him to have the faster soft tyre in the final stint so that he could mount an attack on Hamilton at the end of the race, when the Briton would be on the slower medium tyre.
The middle stint then was all about managing the gap. The difference in performance between the two tyres on the Mercedes was 6/10ths of a second. Hamilton’s crew worked out that they needed 10 seconds in hand to be sure of holding Rosberg behind in the final stint. He had nine and a half when the Safety Car was deployed for Gutierrez’ rolling the Sauber after contact with Maldonado.
Both cars pitted straight away, the gap between them proving useful as the team could service both of them without losing time queuing in the pit lane.
But Hamilton’s lead had been wiped out and Rosberg was now sitting behind him with faster tyres on his car and no gap to make up.
On paper this should have handed the race to Rosberg, but he still had to pass his team mate. He knew he had to do it straight away while the soft tyres were at their best and Hamilton’s medium tyres were still warming up.
But he couldn’t make the pass stick, despite several bouts of racing side by side.
As his tyres overheated he dropped back and settled for second place. The battle between them had also featured some sophisticated use of the Energy Recovery System, with both drivers managing the discharge of energy as an attacking or defensive tool as the need arose. This was mirrored throughout the field and definitely gave an extra dimension to the battles between cars.
Vettel does something different
It wasn’t a vintage weekend for world champion Sebastian Vettel, who still seems to be coming to terms with the new hybrid turbo formula and who has had a series of problems with reduced power.
He made a mistake in Free Practice 3 on Saturday morning and spun off, damaging the turbo wastegate in the process. This needed changing for the race. It affected his qualifying performance and he missed the cut for the top ten. But the upside was that he had two new sets of soft tyres for the race.
Starting from 10th on the grid, knowing he would be in traffic for the first stint, he chose the slower medium tyres and took the losses at the start. The idea was to then use new softs for the second and third stints and to make progress on a clear track. He did a good job to keep the pace in the opening stint and then switched to new softs on lap lap 16. He was forced to move aside to let Ricciardo through before then, as the Australian was on the faster tyre and Vettel team mate would have held him up.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, made good progress from 13th on the grid in the opening stint and then went to the medium tyre at the first stop for a 17 lap stint. This was a team tactic, to get the medium tyre out of the way to minimize the race time loss and so that both the cars would be on the faster soft tyre in the final stint.
This played out well for them, as the safety car closed the field up it brought the Williams and Force India cars within reach, all of which were on worn medium tyres, so Ricciardo was able to cut through them and finish 4th.
Force India goes second in Constructors’ championship
The feelgood story of the day was the performance of Force India, with Sergio Perez getting on the podium, Nico Hulkenberg moving into third place in the drivers’ championship and Force India grabbing second place in the Constructors’ table after a strong first three races.
Force India’s race was all based on thorough research of the tyre degradation and set up on Friday which meant that they had very low degrdadation. The car had plenty of pace too and, unlike Williams who were just as fast, they were able to translate this into results on a two stop strategy. As last year here in Bahrain, they played to their strengths on strategy and got a fine result. THe Safety Car could easily have derailed their careful plans, by closing up their rivals on fresher tyres, but it was all the more impressive that they still got the result, despite the Safety Car.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is prepared by James Allen and Mark Gillan with input and data from several leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli
Race History Chart, kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge
The number of laps is on the horizontal axis, the gap behind the leaders is on the vertical axis.
Note the gap between Mercedes and the rest, particularly after the restart from the safety car. The field was held back by Perez who was on used tyres, the Mercedes were on new tyres, but nevertheless a huge difference.