The German Grand Prix was another in a series of 2014 races, which have featured close racing through the field but where strategy was central to the story. To understand the results it’s important to understand the strategies that the teams were employing and how some changed as the race went on.
It was a familiar story at the front with Nico Rosberg dominating in the Mercedes from pole position. An untroubled race for him with two calm pit stops and only the sixth fastest race lap, showed how untroubled he really was.
However behind him, the rest of the results were directly affected by strategy and in many cases by decisions made on the hoof, as once again teams found that conditions on race day were not as expected from practice, largely due to the track temperatures being up to 20 degrees cooler.
Throw in the great unknown of how the cars would perform over 67 laps without the FRIC suspension for the first time and you had a lot of unknowns on race day.
It was the first race in 2014 with no FRIC suspension on the cars and coupled with the relatively aggressive Pirelli tyre choice of soft and supersoft tyres the teams were monitoring their tyre degradation data even more closely than normal to ensure that they choose the optimum race strategy. The left front tyre turned out to be the restricting factor, due to the higher energy corners being right handers.
The much cooler race conditions looked set to make the Supersofts less likely to degrade as quickly as expected, the question however was, with the loss of FRIC would it be a default 3 stop strategy, or could you stretch out the tyre life to make it in two? A few drivers came unstuck trying to do that and lost ground, Alonso and Button most notably.
The Startline accident and the Safety Car
For once Valterri Bottas did not have a great start compared to the cars around him; Magnussen and Massa. As they approached the first corner Massa was unaware that Magnussen had gone up the inside of Bottas and as he took the racing line for Turn 1 he was tagged by Magnussen – the heavy contact rolled Massa’s car. Ricciardo, starting fifth, did well to avoid the incident but found himself back in 15th place on a recovery strategy.
The Safety Car was deployed, but only briefly until the end of lap two. Magnussen meanwhile pitted for a set of soft tyres and went for a long second stint to try to get himself back in the game.
Hamilton’s fight through the field
After crashing in qualifying due to a brake disc failure and a forced gearbox change, Lewis Hamilton was once again on damage limitation mode. He progressed more slowly than expected to start with, perhaps because he was on the soft compound tyre, which proved to be around a second a lap slower than the supersoft.
But, around laps 12 and 13 there was some great wheel to wheel action as Ricciardo, Raikkonen and Hamilton fought over 8th, 9th and 10th positions. The constant close quarter attacking for position put a lot more energy into their tyres, reducing their ability to go as long in the race as they would in clear air. Hamilton lunged up the inside of Raikkonen and Ricciardo, clipping Raikkonen’s front wing endplate and was very lucky not to pick up a puncture.
By this stage it was clear that the supersoft tyres were graining badly for some runners and Alonso was the first front-runner to pit on lap 12, on schedule for a three stop strategy. Ricciardo pitted on lap 13 and Vettel on 14, also three-stop plans.
Rosberg and Bottas both stretched it out and pitted on lap 16, which was in the window for two stops and took the soft tyre, aiming to divide the remaining 51 laps into two relatively equal parts on a two stop plan.
All eyes therefore were on Hamilton, who had started on the soft tyres, to see how long his tyres would last as this would give the cue to the others on how to manage their race.
When Bottas pitted, Hamilton was able to move up to 2nd position without overtaking Bottas on track.
Hamilton stayed out as long as possible as there was a chance of rain at this time, with some spots falling. As his tyres began to fade, he let Bottas past on L20 having being told that it was not critical to maintain position in terms of the long game of beating him to second at the flag,
Hamilton pitted on Lap 26 for a second set of soft tyres, coming out in 8th place racing on a clear two stop strategy. This clearly gave McLaren and Ferrari the feeling that, with lighter fuel loads later in the race, they could manage a longer stint on the soft. It backfired on Button who pitted on lap 31, leaving him 36 laps to the finish. His tyres faded and he had to make a late third stop on lap 61, six laps short of the end.
Button was a protagonist in the Hamilton story as he and his former team-mate collided as Hamilton tried to overtake, damaging the front wing of the Mercedes. This compromised Hamilton’s strategy as the imbalance meant he had excessive front left tyre use and his team was forced to change strategy, splitting the rest of the race into two 12 lap stints on the supersoft, with the aim still of beating Bottas to second place. They did not change the front wing, as it would have lost them a minimum of 10 seconds, more if the wing didn’t come off easily.
Meanwhile on Lap 41 Bottas stopped for another set of soft tyres, aiming to do the race on two stops, giving himself 26 laps to do on the softs.
Hamilton’s strategy was revised again when Sutil spun on lap 47. With his car blocking half the circuit and marshals running on to remove it, Mercedes reacted to the likely safety car and brought Hamilton in, but it was five laps earlier than planned.
This was the correct thing to do, as a safety car would have wrecked his plan, but strangely the Safety Car was not deployed and this left Hamilton with too many laps to do to the finish on supersofts to be effective against Bottas at the end, especially as the Williams has the best straight line speed in the field. He could not pass him.
Fernando Alonso meanwhile had also tried to do two stops, but switched to three, the same as the Red Bull drivers against whom he was racing for position.
The problem for him was that there was indecision about when to take the third stop and he ran too long in the penultimate stint. He was undercut by Vettel, but still managed to fend off Ricciardo.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategies, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan.
Race History Graph, Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing
Compare Bottas’ final stint pace and consistency with the other cars that tried to do a long final stint on soft tyres.
Look at Button’s third stint, the team was trying to be aggressive, but the tyres couldn’t hold for those last few laps.