The Hungarian Grand Prix has developed a reputation as a bit of a dull race over the years, although there have been some races where due to strategy reasons, the race has been enthralling.
One that springs to mind was the 1998 classic, when Ferrari’s Ross Brawn switched Michael Schumacher on a three stop strategy, which required him to knock out 20 laps of qualifying level intensity to beat the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.
He was 12 seconds behind race leader Sebastian Vettel when the safety car came out. If he had pitted that lap he would not have had to queue for service behind Vettel, so that was not a factor in his decision. But it’s interesting to note that, since Valencia, where Felipe Massa lost a lot of time and track positions, it’s been established that queuing cars in the pit lane under the current safety car rules is a bad idea, unless it’s raining.
Interestingly, Massa followed Alonso into the pits again this weekend and was only three seconds behind him on the lap when the safety car came out. Having suffered at Valencia and to avoid queuing, he backed the pack up by a further four seconds on the way into the pits. But this backfired as he lost a place to Jenson Button in the stops!
After the restart on lap 18, Webber knew that his task was to open up a big enough gap over Fernando Alonso to be able to pit and retain the lead. This would need to be in the order of 20 seconds. Even at a second a lap, this would mean taking the super soft tyres to lap 38 and taking a lot out of them to achieve the lap times.
Bear in mind also that the tyres which start the Grand Prix always take an extra pounding from carrying the extra fuel weight at the start.
So Webber’s and the team’s decision to adopt this strategy was very bold. But he made it stick.
When you look in detail at the race lap chart, you realise that it only just worked out for him. By lap 37 he had 19 seconds lead, then by lap 40 he had it up to 22 seconds, but then the performance of the tyres began to go off and from doing high 1m 23s laps, he did two high 1m24s laps. Any more of that and his margin would have gone, so he pitted and got out ahead of Alonso. But there wasn’t much in it and this is a credit to Alonso for making him work extra hard to build the gap.
The performance of the tyres on Webber’s car in the first stint shows how safe a tyre this super soft is and the temperature had a lot to do with that. Tonio Liuzzi did 55 laps on it as a second stint, having started the race on the hard tyre. It was clear that the soft was the fastest tyre last weekend, the question was whether to try to spend most of the race on it.
It was interesting therefore to compare and contrast the decision of Barrichello and Williams to start on the hard tyre from 12th on the grid and with Kamui Kobayashi starting 23rd on the super soft.
There are two tactics to starting the race on hard, one is to do a short first stint and then spend most of the race on the faster tyre, as Liuzzi did. But this only works if you can pass cars, which isn’t easy in Hungary.
The other tactic of starting on the hard and running a long first stint hasn’t helped anyone gain places this season in a race, except Kobayashi in Valencia, where the safety car removed most of the cars in front of him.
Here Barrichello lucked into a safety car too, which moved him up to 6th place and after staying out to lap he ended up fighting with Michael Schumacher over 10th and 11th places. But Schumacher had started 14th on the grid on the soft tyre, so his strategy would seem again to be the better one.
Bearing in mind that Barrichello and the other cars around him on the grid all gained three places from the retirements of Rosberg, Hamilton and Kubica. So by starting on soft and following the herd, Barrichello would have finished at least 9th.
But then we wouldn’t have had that awesome battle with Schumacher at the end of the race to savour….
Contrast that with Kobayashi who started 23rd, got a great start and was up to 14th place on the first laps. He then pitted a lap later than the majority, to avoid having to queue behind De La Rosa – he was six seconds behind on the road. He nailed Schumacher at the restart and was in the group that moved ahead of Barrichello when he made his late pit stop. He finished in the 9th place that should have been Rubens’.
The other key decision which made for a real talking point on Sunday was the release of Robert Kubica from his pit box into the path of Adrian Sutil. The Renault team was penalised for this unsafe release, which was clearly affected by the chief mechanic being distracted by the loose wheel from Rosberg’s Mercedes coming down the pit lane. No-one can blame him for that.
However the normal protocol when it comes to releasing a car is if in doubt don’t release it. That is the safest way. But here the approach seemed to be to let the car go and deal with it afterwards, which is disturbing.
This is an area where the thinking behind split-second decision making needs to be realigned back to a ‘safety first’ mentality.
Renault are among the fastest at pit stops this year, along with Red Bull. while Mercedes have been the fastest in general, partly thanks to an ingenious front jack, which pivots sideways when the car comes back down to allow it to drive away immediately.