A glance at the grid for the Austrian Grand Prix and then at the race result suggests that Williams was unable to match its impressive qualifying pace in the race. But this would be to oversimplify the situation.
In fact the Williams cars of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas were very competitive on race day and although they came away with the highest team points score of the year outside of Mercedes, in fact it could have been better if they had been a bit more bold on the strategy, as we will demonstrate.
The race also saw some strategic thinking outside the box from Force India and Ferrari, which contributed to strong results for Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso
Mercedes vs Williams: Could the result have swung Bottas’ way?
An all Williams front row of the grid on Sunday spoke of a fantastic performance by both Massa and Bottas, but also of Mercedes errors. Lewis Hamilton, desperate to reverse the recent trend of success for his team-mate Nico Rosberg, pushed too hard in both his final runs in Q3, while Rosberg was strangely cautious on his first run and his second was spoiled by Hamilton. Only Williams got the maximum out of the supersoft tyres.
Williams also topped the speed trap figures at over 320km/h, so passing them on track would be difficult and this meant that the start and then the strategy would be decisive for Mercedes to win. While the actual strategy was clear; two stops with a first stint on supersofts and then two stints on soft tyres, the timing of those stops was the key.
The fact that Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles was sent up to collect the trophy on the podium speaks volumes for what kind of race this was.
The key to Mercedes’ strategy here was aggression; they pitted early to get off the supersoft tyres, knowing that Williams had suffered from high tyre degradation during the long runs on Friday and therefore would not be confident of running two long stints on the soft.
Williams knew this was coming but chose not to react when Mercedes pitted Rosberg and Hamilton early. The inevitable happened; they lay first and second in the opening stint, but after the first stops they were second and fourth.
On one level this is understandable; they had their data and they knew that they would be exposed later in the race if they pitted too early now. Also, they didn’t know how quick the Mercedes was at this stage, as the Silver Arrows had been behind the Williams.
But when it happened again during the second stops, to Bottas, there was plenty of evidence that Mercedes were not much faster and so there was definitely an argument for trying a bolder approach and covering the undercut from Hamilton by pitting first, around lap 39.
Mercedes executed the perfect undercut on Williams at the first stop, stopping, on Lap 11 with Rosberg and Lap 13 with Hamilton. Williams reacted slowly, stopping Massa on 14 and Bottas on 15 but Massa ultimately lost three places due to a slower out lap warming up the soft tyres.
Rosberg was only fractionally quicker on the in and out laps and on the new tyres, but it was enough. Williams did the fastest stop of the day for Bottas, who was also helped slightly by the fact that Perez was now in front having inherited the lead by staying out on Softs. So he held Rosberg up for 10 laps otherwise the damage could have been even worse.
In the middle stint, after Perez had stopped, Rosberg lost pace for a while, after going off track just before half distance. So approaching the second stops, Bottas’ Williams was only two seconds behind Rosberg, quite remarkable considering how dominant the Mercedes has been this season so far.
On lap 39 came the undercut attack from Hamilton on Bottas. At this point Bottas had done 24 laps on a set of soft tyres. There were 32 laps to go to the finish. Again Williams didn’t cover Hamilton’s stop, because they weren’t confident of making the tyres last to the end and Bottas was duly undercut, losing the place to Hamilton.
So could Williams have been bold and pitted Bottas pre-emptively to block Hamilton and retain second place to the finish? We believe so.
One clue lies in the performance of Bottas’ tyres in the closing laps, which showed no signs of a significant drop in performance. From lap 48 to the end, the gap from Rosberg to Bottas stayed the same, so the tyres were fine.
His last lap, the 30th lap on that second set of softs, was a 1m 12.800, in line with the laps before. So he could have chanced his arm and pitted two laps earlier in the hope of staying second?
After all, what was the risk? Third place was guaranteed anyway. Alonso was the only threat, but he was 12 seconds behind Bottas and covered by Massa in fourth. So if the gamble didn’t come off, worst case was that Hamilton might have passed Bottas in the closing laps for second and Bottas would still have finished third.
Additionally, it was known from radio traffic after that dip in Mercedes’ pace around lap 32, that both Silver Arrows cars were managing brake temperature issues. So staying ahead of Hamilton might not have been so hard after all; indeed, running in Bottas’ slipstream might have further hurt Hamilton’s brakes, further reducing the risk of attack.
Williams has done a brilliant job to turn around the team and the car and the pit work has improved massively this season, as shown by the fastest stop in Austria.
But now that they are racing at the front again they need to be more bold, learn to be more pre-emptive rather than reacting to strategy moves from others. If they do that, the win might well come.
Perez impresses again on a counter strategy
The strategy team at Force India are used to thinking outside the box to get strong results. With a midfield car, which lacks pure pace in qualifying, they often come up with a counter strategy to the norm, which gets either Hulkenberg or Perez into the top six.
Here they did it again, lifting Perez from 15th on the grid after a disappointing qualifying and a five-place grid penalty, to sixth at the flag.
He had a superb start, gaining four places, which put him ahead of Button, who was on the same strategy. This was crucial. Also crucial later in the race was the co-operation of team-mate Hulkenberg, who let Perez through as the Mexican was on fresher tyres and the German poised to make his second stop.
The simulation for Perez’ strategy shows that the best lap to make a second stop was lap 59, but he stopped early on 55. This gave him less scope to attack on fresh supersofts at the end. He passed Magnussen, but Ferrari had seen Perez’ tactics and had run a long middle stint with Alonso so he would not be too vulnerable at the end. He was comfortably ahead of the Mexican at the flag.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing
Look at the relative pace of the Williams and Mercedes cars, especially in the final stint comparing the gap between Rosberg and Bottas. Also note ALonso’s long middle stint and how that worked for him.