As in Melbourne the renewed importance of race strategy was highlighted in Malaysia on Sunday. The tyre degradation was much worse than Melbourne and so reacting and making quick decisions and correct decisions was vital.
“A lot of it is getting the strategy right, which is up to the team but also the driver,” said Jenson Button after the race. How right he was.
With the data from Melbourne to work from, the strategy for Malaysia worked out pretty much as the simulators said it would. We had a mix of two, three and four stop strategies. Those doing four stops like Mark Webber, used five sets of tyres in the race, when the total allocation for qualifying and race is six sets.
The total time for a pit stop was just 21 seconds, which is 7 seconds less than Melbourne. So if you could run unimpeded then three stops was the fastest way to go in Sepang. But only race winner Sebastian Vettel really had that luxury. For most other drivers, making three stops inevitably meant coming out of the pits in traffic at some point. Being able to overtake a car on older tyres was crucial at such moments to making the strategy work and we saw a lot of that, for example Hamilton on Petrov on lap 26.
The three podium finishers all did subtle variations on the same strategy with three stops, using soft tyres for the first three stints and then hard tyres for the final stint. This was the winning strategy, but there were plenty of significant variations.
At its hottest the track temperature was 54 degrees on Friday and that did two things; it skewed people’s attitudes towards tyre degradation, pushing some of them into planning shorter stints and more pit stops and it also made them believe that the hard tyre wouldn’t last much longer than the soft and that it was a second a lap slower. However Mark Webber’s long run on Saturday morning provided a counter argument for those willing to gamble on making a set of hard tyres last 18 laps or more.
Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi managed to do the race with just two stops, making a set of soft tyres last 19 laps and a set of hards last 20 laps. Williams was also planning two stops for both its cars. To contemplate it you needed to be able to do a minimum of 18 laps on a set of tyres. Not everyone can do that.
Lewis Hamilton questioned some of his McLaren team’s decisions after the race. He felt that he was brought in prematurely for some of his stops and it contributed to him being forced to make a fourth stop, at his request, just four laps from the end. Had he been able to stay out a little longer on his first two stints, that could have been avoided. The team argued that he used up his tyres in pushing hard in the opening phases of the race to catch Vettel. It shows how finely balanced the decision making is and how an extra couple of laps on the early stints can make all the difference at the end of the race.
Hamilton was also the victim of a slow pit stop on lap 37, which cost him a place to his team mate Jenson Button. What could have been a second place ended up being 8th place.
Hamilton lost a place at the start to Nick Heidfeld. He was unable to repass as the Renault had the fastest car through the speed trap.
Running third in the opening stint he pitted relatively early on lap 12. He took a second set of soft tyres at this point and managed to undercut Heidfeld, who stopped two laps later. Now in second place, Hamilton began closing on race leader Vettel, bringing the gap down from 9 seconds to 3.9 seconds by lap 23. The team appear to have felt that he took too much out of the tyres in this quest, which hurt him later. One could argue also that it was a vain quest anyway, as Vettel was clearly not pushing his car at all and could have gone faster whenever he needed to. But Hamilton is a racer and that’s the way he chose to play it.
Still catching Vettel he came in for his second stop on lap 24, prematurely he felt and looking at the lap times you’d have to agree. He was put on the hard tyre.
Why did they do this? Several reasons; Hamilton had flat spotted a set of soft tyres in qualifying, so had less soft tyres available than others. But also the team was looking at the example of Adrian Sutil in the Force India, who was running on hard tyres at this point and was going slightly faster than team mate Paul di Resta who was on softs.
Also for those who noticed it, Webber had done a long run on hard tyres on Saturday morning which was very fast. So the hard maybe wasn’t such a bad idea.
It was clear that Hamilton was trying to make a three stop plan work, but he lost time at that second stop and then struggled with the balance of the car on hard tyres and started losing ground. A collision with Fernando Alonso damaged the floor of the car. Having pitted on lap 37 he felt unable to make his hard tyres last 19 laps to reach the finish. Although he was lapping in the 1m 43s, he felt that he had to stop again and in doing so he lost track positions to Heidfeld, Webber, Massa and Alonso. A costly decision.
In contrast Button managed to make his set of hard tyres last 18 laps and they were still fast at the end.
Mark Webber did something different from the rest in Melbourne; stopping three times when the winning call was two stops. In Malaysia he was at it again, despite driving the fastest car in the field. So why is he having problems with strategy while team mate Vettel is cruising at the front?
In Melbourne it was down to him being harder on the tyres than Vettel. In Sepang there was more to it. Webber’s race was compromised by a poor start due to a clutch problem and then no KERS to help him. Once they hit 100km/h after the start (the point at which they can use KERS) the cars behind him shot past; Massa, Alonso, Heidfeld, Petrov and Schumacher. From third on the grid he was ninth on the opening lap and 10th on lap three when Kobayashi passed him.
Without KERS to help him pass cars, he and his engineer were forced to think outside the box. If they did the same as everyone else, went the thinking, they would end up ninth. So they decided at the end of lap one to switch from a three to a four stop strategy. This allowed him to push hard in four of the five stints; he lost a lot of time in the opening stint behind Kobayashi, who was two seconds a lap slower than the leader, Vettel. Such is the pace of the Red Bull however that, once in clear air, Webber was able to progress.
It paid off in the sense that he was able to recover and finish fourth. The strategy, giving him either clear track to run on or new tyres with which to pass cars after his stop, helped to get him ahead of Kobayashi, Schumacher, Petrov and Massa. He pulled off some great moves on new tyres. But he was also helped by Hamilton and Alonso’s problems.
Kamui Kobayashi: Sauber makes tyres last again
Kamui Kobayashi pulled off quite a feat on Sunday. He managed to be racy, overtaking cars in spectacular style, whilst at the same time managing to make his tyres last long enough to get away with a two stop strategy. And that was quite impressive.
Mindful of Sergio Perez’ performance in Melbourne , where he gained track positions by stopping only once, it was in the minds of a number of teams to do the minimum and stop twice in Sepang. The tyre degradation was too severe to contemplate one stop. The lap times would drop off suddenly and that would be costly. Kovalainen, Glock and Alguersuari managed it, but the most effective was Kobayashi who got a 7th place finish from a 10th place start.
However this was more of a survival strategy by Kobayashi than anything else. Looking to go to lap 17 on his first set of soft tyres his pace was not great in the opening stint. On the soft tyre again in the middle stint he was racing against Michael Schumacher, who was on a three stopper. Kobayashi did well to make his final set of hard tyres last 20 laps. He made it work and got ahead when Schumacher made his third stop. He also gained a place when Lewis Hamilton was penalised after the race.
Graph 1 – Race History showing gaps behind leader The zero line is simply the race winner’s average lap time (total race time divided by the number of race laps). This is why his curve can go above the line if he’s lapping faster than his average, and below the line if he’s slower than his average or doing a pitstop.