The Canadian Grand Prix was an absolute thriller this year with drama, excitement and strategic tension right to the finish.
Daniel Ricciardo won the race, the first non-Mercedes victory of 2014, but any one of four other drivers could have won – the outcome was decided by strategy, as we will find out in our UBS Race Strategy Report.
Mercedes hit reliability problems with both cars, although Nico Rosberg did an astonishing job of managing his fuel and brakes to nurse the car to the finish.
This race was always going to be touch and go on the fuel consumption, with only 100kg allowed for the race. But the long safety car period early on for the accident involving the Marussia drivers, let everyone off the hook, as they saved fuel for seven laps at low speed.
Simulations showed that there was little to choose between one and two stops in race time although a two stop was preferable if you could run in clear air, as the Mercedes could at the front.
However driving one stop required a more careful approach. This was another factor against Mercedes going that route as they knew that the drivers would be racing each other hard and that would damage the tyres too much to do the race on one stop.
Pirelli were confident that many other teams would stop once. But with temperatures soaring to 50 degrees on track before the start of the race, which takes its toll on the tyres, most teams were geared up to make it a two stop race, the exception being Force India, which had planned all along to do one stop – even before qualifying – and they set the car up specifically in qualifying to make a one-stop race strategy work.
The soft tyre was by far the preferable race tyre and very durable; to do one pit stop, you needed to get to lap 20 at least. For two stops, the pit window for the first stop was around lap 12.
One of the key considerations, however, was that the soft tyre took some time to warm up, at least a lap, so in a close battle that delay in getting up to speed could be decisive.
Red Bull aggressive at the expense of Williams
Daniel Ricciardo was a very popular first time winner, with most rivals rushing to congratulate him on getting his maiden win. Even his team mate Sebastian Vettel was very magnanimous; it was hard on Vettel because he had the chance to win the race, but it didn’t work out for him on strategy.
Vettel started third on the grid and Ricciardo sixth. They stayed in those positions for the opening stint.
Although there were seven laps of safety car, which got many strategists thinking about extending the first stint length, Red Bull were extremely aggressive and pitted Ricciardo on lap 13, more or less when he would have stopped without a safety car. They did this because they knew that they would easily be able to do the rest of the race (57 laps) with two stints on softs and they tried to undercut the Williams cars of Bottas and Massa.
Bottas covered Ricciardo’s stop a lap later and retained position. However his team mate Massa, behind Bottas on the road, was badly compromised by this turn of events. Had he stopped on lap 14 he might have stayed ahead, but as Bottas was the lead Williams car on track, he had the stop priority.
So Massa came in on lap 15 knowing that he’d lost position to Ricciardo, but then to make matters worse he lost 4.5 seconds with a slow stop and also lost positions to Vergne and Alonso.
Without that, he would have been fighting for the win, as he was ahead of Ricciardo in the first stint, remember, and had good pace for the rest of the race, unlike Bottas.
Williams were caught out by Red Bull’s extreme aggression. If they had been similarly bold, from 4th and 5th on the grid and been really aggressive and had really gone for it, they would have pitted Massa on lap 12/13, even though he was not the lead Williams car, knowing that they would be able to cover Ricciardo with Bottas. But the safety car clearly made them think longer term and there is also an anxiety the strategists talk about in being the first to stop. Red Bull had no such qualms and this aggression won Ricciardo the race.
In Williams’ defence it wasn’t clear at that early point that Massa had more pace on the day than Bottas. But by doing this at least they would at least have held Ricciardo behind them and given both drivers a strong platform to challenge for the podium or even better…
Bottas lost pace later on with overheating in the MGU-K part of his hybrid system and slipped to seventh at the flag.
The second stops were decisive in deciding which Red Bull driver would win the race.
After his first stop, Vettel had lost time behind the one-stopping Hulkenberg, who was managing his tyres, but also was hard to pass because of his straight line speed advantage. This brought Vettel back towards Bottas and Ricciardo.
When it got to lap 34/35 and there was still no sign of Hulkenberg taking his stop, Vettel asked for the team to help him “do something on strategy” to get him ahead of the Force India. What happened then was that Red Bull made a mistake, bringing Vettel in on lap 36, because he went back out into traffic on his out-lap.
Vettel’s in-lap to the pits, behind Hulkenberg, was 0.9s slower than Ricciardo when he pitted a lap later and Ricciardo’s stop was a fraction faster, with the result that he cleared the world champion, moving up into position behind the one-stopping Perez.
This was the defining moment of the race, as far as deciding the winner was concerned.
From there on, Hamilton retired, Perez and Rosberg hit reliability issues too and Ricciardo was able to pick them off in the final laps before the flag to win his first Grand Prix.
Force India decides the outcome of the race
Force India always planned to do one stop in this race, even before qualifying and their race affected the outcome of the Grand Prix, as we have seen above, with Hulkenberg holding Vettel back so Ricciardo could catch him.
Force India found on Friday that they had great race pace but didn’t have the single lap pace in Montreal. So before qualifying, they decided to set the car up for the optimum race with less downforce and more understeer. This protects the rear tyres and means that you can run much longer stints at a good pace.
Inevitably this compromised their qualifying performance, with Hulkenberg 11th and Perez 13th, but it gave them a great chance in the race, as it is easy to overtake in Montreal and they had good straight line speed.
Perez is another driver, along with the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers and Felipe Massa, who could have won in Canada. He was all set up to capitalise on Mercedes’ reliability issues; he was perfectly placed behind an ailing Rosberg, following Hamilton’s retirement, and ready to pounce, when he suffered a sensor failure which compromised his brake performance. Without that he would have closed into the DRS zone behind Rosberg and passed him for the win.
Perez had no problems with the tyres and was even able to make his initial set of super soft tyres last 34 laps. With only 36 laps to do on the softs in the second stint he was in good shape, before the brake problems hit. Hulkenberg did more defending, which took more life out of his tyres.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan.
Race History Graph – kindly supplied by Martini Williams Racing [ click to enlarge image]
Look at how close the two Mercedes are on pace throughout the race until their reliability issues kicked in – and how much faster they were than the rest of the field, once again. It will take a long time until the others close up that performance gap.
Lok at the relative pace of Massa (black line) and Bottas (dotted black line) in the second and third stints; Massa is quite a bit faster as Bottas struggles his car.
Also look at how Hulkenberg (brown line) maintains strong pace at the end of the long first stint on soft tyres. Note the strong second and third stints from Button (solid black line), which set him up for a strong finish, passing four cars at the end, when others hit problems.