Among F1 teams this week, the word has been going around that Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix will make an ideal test case to use in future on new race strategy engineers coming into the sport. The teams will show them the videos of the race and all the real time data playbacks and ask them, “What would you do in this scenario?”
As these Strategy Reports have shown countless times, decision-making is the nub of F1 races and Sunday’s event, with its changeable conditions and two safety cars, was full of fascinating scenarios, which teams had to decide on quickly.
With the benefit of hindsight, there are decisions that would probably have been made differently, but hindsight isn’t one of the tools at your disposal when you are making split second decisions.
Here we will analyse some of the most talked about scenarios and look at how the decisions were arrived at.
Could Mercedes have played it differently with Hamilton?
As interest in, and understanding of, the strategic side of F1 racing grows, many fans have questioned whether Mercedes played the wrong card with Lewis Hamilton, putting him on the slower medium tyres at the second stop on lap 38, with 32 laps to the finish. Should he not have gone for two stints on the softs from that point?
This decision led to the intersection of Hamilton and Rosberg around lap 50 as the German on a three stop strategy came up behind his team mate who was running to the finish on his medium tyres. Hamilton refused to let Rosberg through, as he did not wish to lose further points to his teammate in the championship.
This team order was both unnecessary and unhelpful to team spirit, as the team has since acknowledged. The pair are racing for a championship, so why should one move over, even if it is common practice in a “two-stopper ahead of a three-stopper” scenario?
We’ll come onto the messy start to Rosberg’s race later, but Hamilton’s strategy was dictated first of all by passing Vergne quite easily (something Rosberg had failed to do) and then by running in clear air until the end of the tyre’s life. This took him to lap 38.
It was Alonso’s stop on lap 38, which Ferrari did because they didn’t want to be undercut by Hamilton, which triggered Hamilton’s second stop. Mercedes pitted Hamilton a lap later, to maintain track position over Rosberg, who was was coming through and getting close to being inside the margin for Hamilton’s pit window.
So why did they put him onto medium tyres? They did this because Alonso had put on new softs, so there was little point in doing the same plan, as they felt Hamilton would not be able to overtake him.
In practice sessions and the race to that point, no-one had done 32 laps on a set of softs, which is what Alonso would need to do in order to make it to the finish without stopping. From practice the predictions ere 21 laps maximum. Factor in cooler temperatures and you could push it to 25 laps. Add in some skilled tyre management by the driver and you might get to 28-29 laps. But 32 laps was hard to imagine. It highlights what an outstanding drive it was by Alonso.
Mercedes certainly didn’t think that they could reach the finish on softs, but they could on mediums. So the strategy, which gave Mercedes the widest range of options with Hamilton, was to go on the mediums; that way he would beat Alonso when the Ferrari most likely stopped again and rejoined behind him. Failing that he could try the undercut if he was in his slipstream and do a final stint on the softs to finish ahead of him.
Hamilton wasn’t going to win the race at this point, Ricciardo already had it under control in a superb drive which featured an ideal blend of patience, waiting for opportunities and boldness, taking the opportunities to overtake aggressively when they occurred. The strategy was perfect, helped by the first Safety Car, which vaulted Ricciardo ahead of Rosberg, Bottas, Vettel and Alonso. Ricciardo did the main damage to Mercedes with his pace between the Safety Car periods and he was also helped by Vergne holding cars back.
If Mercedes had pitted Hamilton for softs and then again later for softs he would still have been beaten by Ricciardo. So he was racing Alonso and Rosberg for second place.
He beat Rosberg, but of course, it transpired that Alonso and Ferrari decided to go for it and tried to make the finish on the same set of softs. This wrong-footed Mercedes and Hamilton, who due to the pace offset from soft to medium, could not pass Alonso.
With hindsight, it was a mistake, of course. Had they known that Alonso was going to go 32 laps to the finish on the softs, Mercedes would have put Hamilton on softs on lap 39 and asked him to attack Alonso, whom he would have passed easily in the final stages.
Hence why the 2014 Hungarian GP will be a case study for future F1 strategists – what would you do in that scenario, knowing what you know at the time, not what you know in hindsight?
There were other decisions like this, such as Williams decision to do two stints on medium tyres with Massa. This was probably due to a lack of confidence as much as anything.
Massa was second behind Ricciardo on lap 23, when both pitted. This gave them 47 laps to the finish, which Ricciardo did on two sets of softs, the ideal strategy. Williams have not always enjoyed the best tyre management, although there have been some notable exceptions this season, especially with Bottas.
The reason Massa pitted was that Raikkonen was entering the pit window gap behind him, so his hand was forced into pitting earlier than he would have liked; just 15 laps into the stint on softs, rather than the target 22 laps.
From there Williams were not confident of making it to the finish on two sets of softs so they went for mediums. This worked against Massa as he wasn’t able to rebuild the gaps after the second safety car. In practice though he would probably have still finished behind Rosberg in fifth place.
How did the top four cars at the start miss out on pitting under the safety car?
F1 teams have very sophisticated video and data technology, which allows them to stop and replay real time data from races, down to milliseconds to analyse sequences of events.
The scenario which occurred at the end of lap 8 was highly unusual and it caught out the leading four cars at the time; Rosberg, Bottas, Vettel and Alonso.
When Ericsson crashed, the leader Rosberg was in Turn 13, close to the end of the lap. A yellow flag icon was shown by Race Control for Turn 13, but teams don’t pre-empt Safety Cars based only on that.
It was a few seconds later that the TV image was shown of the damaged car and it became likely that a Safety Car would be deployed. At this point, Rosberg was already past the pit lane entry, so he was committed to another lap. Bottas, Vettel and Alonso were 10 seconds behind him at this point – the Mercedes had been extremely fast on intermediate tyres. They just about had time to react, but didn’t react quickly enough to make the call to pit.
The bad luck part was that, unusually, the Safety Car itself went out on track very quickly and actually picked up the leader, Rosberg, who failed to get through by a few metres. It therefore also caught Bottas, Vettel and Alonso in its wake. Normally the Safety Car goes out at such time as cars that have missed the pit entry are able to go around at the official 80% of race lap speed and make the stop the next lap.
The problem for the leading four here was that the Safety Car itself only travels at 55% of the race lap speed, so they lost tonnes of time behind it and by the time they had made it in and out of the pits, Rosberg had dropped to fourth, Bottas to 11th, Vettel and Alonso to 7th and 8th.
This was very unfortunate as the Safety Car is basically and equalization metric; the cars are meant to all do the same pace, but here that did not happen.
After criticism of the Race Director’s decision not to send out the Safety Car in Hockenheim last week, it looks as though he was a bit more responsive this weekend and whereas Rosberg benefitted in Germany, he clearly lost out here. Leaving aside the human decision making side, the sequence of probabilities is such that this scenario is unlikely to happen again for a long time.
Rosberg was now in a different race, mixed up with cars on a variety of different tyre specifications and on a track where it is hard to overtake cars on similar tyre specifications unless you are prepared to be very bold.
To compromise him further, he was passed by Magnussen, and when he tried to repass, he lost ground and let Alonso and Vergne past him. He then could not pass Vergne, who had good straight line speed in the Toro Rosso and was very sound on the damp but drying track.
With some issues on braking, making no headway between the two Safety Car periods, and seeing that Ricciardo was making tremendous progress in clear air during this time, Mercedes feared the chance of a podium was slipping away and decided to change strategy and bring Rosberg in for a set of softs and send him back out into clear air so that he could use the performance of the car.
They pitted him on lap 32, which was 23 laps into his stint on the soft tyres and 38 laps from the end. This committed him to another stop later in the race and put him on course to stay behind Ricciardo until the end of the final stint. At this point Rosberg was 20 seconds behind Ricciardo and both had one more stop to make, with the Red Bull race pace pretty strong.
Despite a wobble when his ERS had a problem, it was already fairly clear that Ricciardo was going to win the race at this point. Rosberg was fighting Alonso and Hamilton for a podium.
The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
RACE HISTORY CHART, courtesy of Williams Martini Racing
Look at Ricciardo’s pace (curve heading upwards) which from mid race onwards was a match for anyone in the field, note also how he built the winning advantage between the two safety car periods.