Making the right decisions at the right time is crucial to success in F1. The race unfolds in a blur and it is very easy to make a bad decision.
As we saw in Abu Dhabi last year a bad strategy call can cost a world championship and with so many new variables this season, the opening round of the 2011 World Championship, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne was something of an experiment for all the teams in terms of race strategy, with the tyres being the dominant factor. We had no safety car this year in Melbourne, another important influencer on strategy.
The most important factor in strategic decisions this season is the fact that the new Pirelli tyres degrade much more quickly than the Bridgestones used in recent years and that when they start to go off the performance drops very quickly and severely. So managing that process and making quick decisions was the key on Sunday.
All indications before the weekend were that several pit stops would be needed to complete the race. But it turned out not to be the case in Melbourne, partly because the track surface is smooth.
From a strategy point of view Melbourne was interesting because it had plenty of variety; in the top seven finishers we had one car which stopped just once, two cars stopped three times while the podium finishers all stopped twice.
On race day, the simulations showed that two stops was the ideal and the variations we saw were due to brave gamble on the one hand (Perez; 1 stop) and a forced change of plans on the other, due to setbacks (Alonso and Webber; 3 stops).
The key to navigating through was flexibility and willingness to change tactics.
Meanwhile at the front Sebastian Vettel showed that when you have a dominant car you can make the strategy bend to your will.
The 21 year old Mexican, on his debut, was the talk of Melbourne with his bold strategy of stopping just once. After winter testing this seemed almost inconceivable, but the Sauber is the most gentle car on its tyres and Perez drove expertly to make a set of soft tyres last 35 laps.
Having qualified outside the top ten he had a free choice of tyres on which to start the race. He was the only one to opt for hard tyres. This meant that he would run a longer first stint than everyone else. He was 14th on the first lap. His pace on the hard tyres was over a second slower than his team mate Kobayashi on the soft tyres. When the cars in front made their first stops, he moved up the order and was 7th when he made his stop on lap 23.
At this stage he was put onto soft tyres, with the intention of stopping again for another set of softs later in the race. The expectation was that this would give him 10th place at the end.
As he drove he found that he could manage the tyres and that contrary to expectations, the track was rubbering in, which punished the tyres less. The team strategists decided to try to get him to the finish without stopping again, targeting a better finish than 10th thanks to being able to save the 25 seconds it takes to make a pit stop.
But it was a very risky tactic – at any moment his tyre performance could suddenly drop off by two seconds or more, ruining his race. He managed the process brilliantly and was even faster than the cars in the top three at around three quarter distance. As his rivals, like Kobayashi, Buemi, Sutil and Di Resta went for their second stop he stayed out and moved into seventh place, which he held to the flag. Sadly the Sauber’s rear wing was found to be illegal and he was disqualified from the results. The team has decided not to appeal.
Perez’s bold gamble has nevertheless made strategists realise that they should have spent more time doing a long run on the soft tyre in Friday practice to learn about it, rather than just testing it out briefly at the end. They were thinking that the hard and soft would behave as they had in the Barcelona test in terms of relative degradation, but it wasn’t the case. We will see all teams doing a long run on Friday in Malaysia as a result. And we could see more drivers “doing a Perez” as the year goes on.
Testing had indicated that the Ferrari was the second fastest car behind the Red Bull, with Ferrari competitive on long runs. But in Melbourne the car proved to be harder on its tyres than its rivals and this pushed them down the road of having to stop three times. They will have to get on top of this problem quickly if they are to compete for the title this year.
Alonso started fifth on the grid, but lost four places at the start. He passed Rosberg and Massa and gained another place when Button was penalised for an illegal overtake. But the Ferrari was proving hard on its tyres and he suddenly lost performance around lap 10/11. He had to stop on lap 12, coming out behind Petrov. Despite his setback at the start he was in the hunt for a podium against Webber and Petrov, who was only going to stop twice. Normally when you have a bad start you try to stop less often than your rivals, to regain track position, but that wasn’t an option for Ferrari.
The three stopper did allow him to push hard in each stint and it got him ahead of Webber at the final stop.
Renault could see what Alonso was doing, but did not react and stuck to their plan to stop twice. Alonso pushed hard, closing the gap to Petrov to 19 seconds, when the Russian pitted for the second time on lap 36. Alonso’s plan at this stage was to pit again leaving him enough laps at the end to catch Petrov using the advantage of new tyres against old ones. First he had to jump Webber and he managed that by staying out one lap longer before the final stop on lap 42.
Alonso then caught Petrov at over a second a lap in the closing stages, but the plan didn’t work because the soft tyres on the Renault held up well enough now that the car was running light on fuel and the track was rubbering in and being kinder to tyres. Petrov held his nerve and Alonso ran out of laps in which to pass him.
Webber: strategy call didn’t work
Mark Webber left Melbourne with much to reflect on and analyse. Driving the same Red Bull RB7 car as race winner Sebastian Vettel, Webber finished fifth, a full 38 seconds behind his team mate. The reason was that he was very hard on his tyres and the team made a call at his first stop which didn’t work out.
Third on the opening lap, he nevertheless clearly had the pace in the car to get ahead of Lewis Hamilton through strategy. But his tyre wear was savage; he was the first to pit on lap 11 after his tyres suddenly lost two seconds of performance on lap 10. Switching to the hard tyre his plan was to run a long middle stint and then a final soft tyre stint. This was also an evaluation exercise for the team so they would have some advance information on the hard tyre for Vettel’s last stint.
But it proved the wrong decision for Webber as the hard tyres were degrading as much if not more than the softs, were hard to warm up and had no pace. It set him up to be jumped by Alonso later in the race. Webber did just 15 laps on the hards and then two more stints on soft tyres.