A deep dive into the strategies from the Chinese Grand Prix
A deep dive into the strategies from the Chinese Grand Prix
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  19 Apr 2011   |  11:33 am GMT  |  143 comments

So much happened in the Chinese Grand Prix, it’s important to take the time to examine exactly how and why things worked out as they did.

The overriding observation is that strategy was the difference between winning and losing on Sunday.

While we have seen some interesting mixtures of strategy in the first two races, the podium finishers in both Melbourne and Sepang all did the same strategy. The Chinese Grand Prix was the first race to show variations on this and to illustrate how finely balanced some of the decision making is in F1 this year.

Another interesting difference from the first two races is that we had four fast cars out of their normal position on the grid; Webber 18th, Heidfeld 16th, Schumacher 14th and Petrov. This meant that the two Toro Rosso cars and the two Force Indias were in and around the top ten, but staying there proved difficult as the overtaking aids and the Pirelli tyres gave the faster cars the chance of come through the field.

The strategic thinking started in qualifying, where Lewis Hamilton decided to do only one run in Q3, saving a set of new soft tyres for the race. What exactly did this give him? In comparison to a set which has been used in qualifying, a new set will give an first lap performance boost, then it will last two to three laps longer than a used set, which have done that much already. On top of that the degradation on a used set means that every lap in the stint will be about 1/10th to 2/10ths of a second slower than the new set through the stint. And finally there is another benefit, which is that you delay taking the hard tyre an extra couple of laps and that tyre is around a second a lap slower. So it adds up to quite a gain.

Photo: McLaren

Why Hamilton beat Vettel

Computer simulations showed that two stops would be faster than three by around 3 seconds over the race, but this was reliant on running in clear air. Vettel went with a two stop plan, but found himself behind the McLarens after a poor start. His KERS wasn’t working properly at the start. It only gave him 30bhp instead of 80bhp, which is why the McLarens got the jump on him.

At this point Red Bull had the chance to do three stops. But as he pitted only lap 14, the same time as Button and a lap before Hamilton and came out ahead of both, they decided to stick with two stops. They no doubt thought that their car was fast enough to make the strategy work. Had they followed a three stop plan from lap 14 onwards he would have won the race.

But what none of the simulations predicted prior to the start was how little the tyre life would improve during the race. Previous experience with Pirelli in the first two races had shown that the tyre wear is 25% better in the final stages of the race, compared to Friday Free Practice, when most teams do their long runs of 18-20 laps. But crucially, this time the circuit did not rubber-in, which meant the surface didn’t come to the hard tyre for the final stint, as is normally the case. This is why Vettel and all the other two stoppers, like Ferrari, couldn’t keep the pace up and Vettel got caught in the final laps by Hamilton, whose tyres were seven laps fresher. It is also the reason why Webber’s strategy worked out so spectacularly, as we will see.

Lewis Hamilton won the race, by getting the strategy exactly right. Saving a set of new tyres played its part in making the three stop plan work, as did making crucial overtakes such as the ones on Button, Massa and Rosberg.

Photo: Red Bull

How did Webber go from 18th to 3rd?
“What this race has proved,” said Mark Webber after the race, “Is that qualifying isn’t as important as it used to be. You don’t want to be qualifying 18th every weekend, but you’re better off saving tyres for the race than wasting a new set in Q3 for a one-place gain on the grid. Monaco would be the only exception to that rule, of course.”

This is true and we may see some of the faster cars doing what Hamilton did and limiting themselves to using just two sets of soft tyres in qualifying, because the benefit in the race is so significant.

Webber ran the three stop race strategy, but in reverse, starting on the hard tyre and them using three new sets of soft tyres, which he had saved by not doing Qualifying 2 and Qualifying 3. Webber was the only driver on the grid not to start on softs.

The three stop plan gave him plenty of free air to run in and at the end he was running on new soft tyres when all the other drivers were discovering that the track wasn’t improving and that the degradation on the hard was therefore worse than expected. New soft tyres gave him a huge pace advantage as proved by his fastest lap, which was 1.4s faster than anyone else!

Webber did exactly the right thing by running the prime early on, while stuck in traffic and unable to exploit the pace of his car. Had he started on options, he would have had to use the hard tyre at the end of the race and it would have been much harder for him to make progress.

Photo: Red Bull

Nico Rosberg: The one that got away
Nico Rosberg was very upset after the race as he felt that he could have had a podium and at one stage looked like he might even get his first win. The reason he didn’t was a miscalculation of fuel consumption.

Rosberg was fourth on the opening lap, then thanks to a great piece of of strategic thinking by Mercedes early in the race, they brought him in on lap 12 just as he was about to hit traffic. This brought him out in clear air. He was able to run unimpeded at this stage of the race and he was in the lead by lap 17, doing impressive lap times on his second set of soft tyres. After his second stop he came out in front of both McLarens and he must have thought he was on for a podium.

The Mercedes team thought they were going to win the race at this point.

But then it became clear that they didn’t have enough fuel to complete the race at competitive speeds and so he had to save fuel and the race got away from him.

In fairness to Mercedes this is an incredibly hard thing to predict. All sorts of things can upset predictions, like atmospheric pressure, track conditions, tyre conditions, meaning you use more fuel than expected. Rosberg’s Mercedes was much faster in race trim in China than it had been in Malaysia and this used more fuel. In Malaysia they had to open the bodywork up to keep it cool, whereas in China they could run the car in its optimal aerodynamic configuration.

All teams run at a fuel deficit at some points in the race, aiming to save fuel in the final stint. Mercedes clearly fuelled the car expected a lonely race in fourth place, keeping the Ferraris at bay, but the chance arose there to do something much better and they couldn’t take it, for want of a few more kilos of fuel in the car.

Ferrari: Wrong strategy

After the race, Fernando Alonso said, “You need to keep focussed on your own strategy. And in the end when you have a quick car, any strategy is good, as Webber showed today. When you have a slow car, everything is more difficult.”

Ferrari made the same mistake as Vettel in running a two stop plan, which was a shame because Felipe Massa looked the most competitive he has for a long time and on a three stopper could have been on the podium.

Both Ferraris were held up by Rosberg in the first stint. The drivers probably thought they could run quicker in clear air, so they stayed out when Rosberg pitted on lap 12. Massa briefly gained a place on Hamilton, but he and Alonso got split up.

Alonso had been behind his team mate after losing the start to him. He stayed out one lap longer than Massa at the first pitstop and that allowed Massa to stay ahead. Alonso then came out behind Schumacher and he lost a lot of time. It was somewhat surprising that Ferrari stuck so doggedly to two stops with both cars, you would normally split strategies in that situation.

It’s worth remembering that the difference in lap time between old and new rubber, when combined with the fuel load always getting lighter, means it’s no longer an advantage to run longer than someone prior to pitting. If the first person to stop does a strong out-lap from the pits, he’ll always make time on the person who’s stayed out on old tyres.

Graph 1 – Race History. 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.

Graph 2 – Individual lap times and gaps

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I’ve been tinkering with various views over the laptime data and have come up with some views that I think make it easier to see what was happening with particular cars… For example: lap time by lap – Webber’s charge [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/psychemedia/5669357832 ], and another view of lap times by driver [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/psychemedia/5666595401 ]

Any thoughts on what other views might be useful, please let me know:-)


James, I just re-watched the Chinese GP (what better to do on a cold Easter Saturday on Melbourne) and I have 2 questions: 1) On David and Jake’s grid walk, VET was too busy putting tape inside his helmet to talk to them. I am curious to know if he may have damaged his mic which then caused him problems in the race, and 2) Despite many people’s first impressions, WEB’s strategy worked pretty much to perfection. Is it conceivable that someone could/would employ the same strategy from qualifying within the top 10? Ie qualify 10th on hards, start on them, (and not loose too much in the first stint), swap to softs and power though the rest of the race? Do you think this might be a strategy option we might see from now on?


1. You think Jake caused the problem? That would be a good tale!
2. The difference between soft and hard is too great. A fast car qualifying 11th might do it, but only a car which should be at the front


Thanks for such incisive analysis James. I have a question regarding fuel loads/fuel usage/fuel saving modes.

Surely Mark Webber must have saved fuel in the first half of the race to have run the way he did, as there appeared to be no commands from the pit to conserve fuel at the end. Or at least such commands weren’t selected for broadcast, and one would expect the broadcasters to have given out such a pitbox command to add to the drama of his progress.

Has any analysis of fuel saving capabilities of cars in traffic early on in a GP been done or even worth doing? I have been wondering (prior to MW’s efforts at China) if there’s an advantage at most tracks to burying yourself in the pack early on, very specifically save fuel, and have a flat out car at the end with grip and control rather than track position, fuel saving, and tyres that may catch you out a hefty amount thanks to their late race condition/degradation?? Or would a usual GP with Safety Car periods (even just one) completely throw this concept out??


A “little bit” of that could happen this year. Unlikely though.

Next season, definately.. as the teams will have prior experience from 2011 to help them. However, I hope Pirelli make some changes to the tyre to counter this.

People might see it as artificial.. I see it as a comprimise to comepensate for the lack of a tyre war. During the tyre war the tyres were always new, and unpredictable and “on the edge”. I enjoyed that element.

Pirelli has done a good job of having the advantages of the tyre war, without the disadvantages (cost, wastage etc).


There has been lots of uncertainty on strategy and thus excitement in the first 3 races. .

When the teams get a fuller understanding of the tyres does anyone else think we’re just going to be back to all the teams running the same strategy (whether that is an optimum 2 or 3 stops on a given circuit)?

I guess I’m arguing that the only reason the first 3 races have been so exciting is that all the teams are frantically trying to get to grips with the new rules and tyres.

What do people think?

If you agree I guess this suggests that we should change the rules every year to keep the teams guessing at the start of every season!


So, up till now, there are 3 methods to race. Do a ‘Perez’, do a ‘Hamilton’, or do a ‘Webber’ 😀

Anybody wanna add? 😛


Do an Alguersuari?

Probably not going to win with a strategy like that though …. 😉


– OFF TOPIC (a bit)

James, have you seen today’s Guardian, talking about a potential F1 take-over bid by Carlos Slim and Rupert Murdoch? Any chance of an article on that and how it might work or happen?


Hi James,

I believe that FOTA might need to look at the rule that requires drivers in Q3 to start the race on the tyre that they set their grid position lap on.

This was bought in last year in an effort to spice up strategies and increase pit stops however failed miserably as a result of the durability of the Bridgestones.

Surely now with degrading tyres leading to increased pit stops and a myriad of strategy variation this rule again does nothing to improve the GP’s and in fact hampers racing.

There is also a real danger of seeing a lack of running through Q2 and especially Q3 with drivers already stating that it is better to do one run and preserve their tyres for the race. Surely then its not good to have an empty track for 7 minutes in Q3.

Last year if you made Q3 and were likely to qualify 9th or 10th there was no downside to attempting 1 or 2 runs in Q3 to attempt to improve your position. This year if you make Q3 and are likely to qualify in 9th or 10th (Torro Rosso, Sauber etc) then why take 2 or 3 laps out of a set of tyres when the guys starting in 11th and 12th etc have a fresh pair of boots.

In this scenario we could likely end up with 6 maybe 7 cars in Q3 doing 1 one lap run.

Qualifying in the top 10 should not come with disadvantages but should be rewarded.


This is an interesting point, Dave.

Would you propose that instead of the top 10 starting on the Q3 tyres it should change to top 6, top 8? The downside with that is that the numbers eliminated in Q1 and Q2 would have to be increased to make Q3 a top 8 or top 6 even. But then the question is, why go for top 6/ top 8 if the person starting 7th/9th is on fresh boots. It could go on and on!

If the runners in Q3 are reduced – you would lose that sense of ‘scalp’ as at the moment a Toro Rosso, Force India, Sauber might ‘scalp’ a bigger team (like Mercedes) but reducing it to top 6 effectively ‘relegates’ those teams to a lower order of racing.

It would be the same old, same old top 6 barring some serious qualifying problems.= vs. ‘the rest’ I’m not sure if fans would welcome that.

I like the top 10 format, it’s always good to see different guys up there and ‘bigger’ names starting down the pack.

Secondly,a 1 lap run does run risks. Think back to the Renaults in Malaysia, they made a 1 lap run work beautifully in qualifying to save the tyres – and helped Heidfeld get to the podium.

However, in China, the same logic saw Heidfeld stuck in the pack after Petrov’s failure. The 1 lap run was compromised and the Renault couldn’t penetrate the order like Webber did. (strategy)

‘Saving’ tyres in Q3 only works if everyone in front didn’t – that’s your advantage. If you make a mistake in Q3 but others also also on a single run and you’re behind them -you have no advantage other than ‘covering’ people behind you.


I think you may have missed my point. It is not about changing the structure of qualifying or reducing the number of runners in Q3 however removing the rule that requires them to start the race on the tyre they set their fastest lap on.

With having fresh tyres a priority why disadvantage those that have made Q3 by having them start on a set of tyres that have had the 3 best laps of life taken out of them?

My point was it is conceivable that you will have 3 or 4 cars not willing to lose this life out of their tyres if they are more than likely going to qualify in positions 7-10 anyway. The remaining top 6 or 7 aren’t going to bother doing more than one run so it is conceivable that in Q3 there could be no track action for 7 minutes and then only 6 or 7 cars doing one flying lap.

Removing the tyre rule allows all cars to feel comfortable with doing at least one timed lap and still starting the race on fresh rubber.


Ah right, I am with you now.

I am personally in favour of the rule, I presume it was designed to give the mid-field teams more of an opportunity to sling shot into the top 10 during the race, thus to an extent ‘levelling’ faster cars against ‘slower cars’ with fresher boots?

However I see the argument that it might reduce Q3 to silence save for the last couple of minutes given the tyre situation this year. But then it’s a case of trading off a ‘quiet’ few mins in Q3 for a more action-packed race.

The rule as it stands offers the opporunity to go for track position or strategy – at tracks like Monaco, Hungary, etc. – perhaps track position will be worth putting a few laps on a set of softs.

Would you be happy removing the rule for the top 10 and then not offering a compensatory regulation for those who ‘lost out’ ?(P.11-)

If we have to sacrifice a few minutes of Q3 and not have the fastest-possible laps then it’s a sacrifice I’d make for the sake of having a more eventful middle-order with drivers coming through.


I would just point out that if one studies the last chart, and look specifically at Webber and Hamilton, it is interesting to note:

1st set of tires – Ham (S), Web (H) Mark loses about 24 secs to Lewis.

2nd set of tires – Ham (S), Web (S) by the end of the stint, Mark is still about 24 secs back of Lewis.

3rd set of tires – Ham (S), Web (S) by the end of the sting, Mark is about 26 secs back of Lewis.

4th set of tires – Ham (H), Web (S) Mark whittles the gap to Lewis from 25 secs to about 8 secs.

So,while Mark had a fantastic race, in terms of race pace the two middle stints where both Mark and Lewis were on the same Soft tires, they were running essentially the same pace. The obvious differences were in the 1st and last stints where Mark and Lewis were on different compounds and Mark faced more traffic on his first stint.


And that he had no KERS in the second half of the race, on a track that really rewards it.


Yes, Jon, Mark is wonderful. Having said that, okay, so he had no KERS, what’s that worth? 3 tenths or so a lap? And, how much are fresh softs, vs scuffed softs worth? About 2 or 3 tenths a lap? Okay, let’s just call it mostly a wash, shall we?


Really interesting post, Ken.

So Webber lost -24 seconds first stint, -0 second stint, +17 third stint.

Pit stops:

Hamilton: (started S) S (15) S (25) H (38)

Webber (started H) S (10) S (25) S (40)

Webber did 2 fifteen lap stints on the soft plus another 16 stint and pace wise didn’t gain or lose to Hamilton, who managed 15 laps on the first softs, 10 on second softs and 13 on third softs.

Clearly Webber could make the soft tyre last – the issue was where the pit stops fed him out in terms of traffic.

I had previously thought Webber was quite brutal on the tyres, but in China this didn’t seem to be the case.


Off topic, but looking at the Ferrari drivers their gloves are red, according the FIA regulations shouldn’t they be a different colour to the car so they can indicate if they have a problem at the start?

Mike from Medellin, Colombia

Hi James. Sorry, but this is off topic.

Has the FIA evr considered permitting a 3 cars per row grid format at circuits that would be wide enough to handle it.

Would there be too many safety implications?

I ask this because the key to the Chines GP being interesting was mixing the order after the start. Maybe a 3 cars per row grid would make things more exciting?

Best wishes from Colombia.


This is interesting stuff, especially Webber’s comments about about quali position.

How about you just push into Q3 then use hard tyres for Q3 and safe the softs for the race.

I hope Turkey will be as exciting.


Hi JB,

Your example works with 1 front-runner doing that, or maybe a Renault opting for that for a crack at the podium (Heidfeld, Malaysia)

If qualifying this season adopts the course that ALL the Red Bull/Ferrari/McLaren/Mercedes drivers save tyres in Q1/Q2/Q3 the advantave in saving tyres for the race is lost if you’re behind someone who’s done the same thing.

As predicted by Martin Brundle on the BBC Online F1 preview, tyres ‘falling off the cliff’ can and will affect the race result in the last few laps dramatically.

If you’ve got one guy in front with tyres degrading and someone behind on fresh rubber saved from qualy, fair enough.

When you’ve got top 3 all having fresh rubber to hand – your potential benefit has gone.


Hi James,

You mentioned something that I was thinking exactly. In the last two races at least, I don’t really recall the first race, why on earth have Ferrari been running Alonso long at the first stint? In Malaysia and China it was like they wanted him to run longer and be one of the later competitors to pit…but despite running long, unlike previous years, he always ends up coming out from the pits far behind everyone else. In virtually every race this season, he has lost places at the start (I think he is driving very cautiously, avoiding contact and lifting, losing places along the way, except for China) and then they seem to revert to a run as long as you can strategy. This makes no sense this season. Thoughts? I know in this race they did it for a 2 stop strategy but the guy was already trapped behind multiple cars, and you can see from the gap times that he’d come out well behind the people he overtook…



Thanks for your insightful analysis as usual. I’d like your take on Hamilton’s overtaking maneuvers

on Jensen, Massa, Rosberg and Vettel. Just a technical analysis. Do you agree with Martin Bundle’s glowing assessment of those being a “masterclass” in overtaking techniques for a single seater racer?. Also, its nice to see that most now recognize the importance of his “gamble”- conserving his tires and doing a single lap in qualifying- that some thought hadn’t paid off before the race.


Just a few thoughts…

as Vettel likes to focus on the stats and enjoys taking pole, might he put himself at a disadvantage at certain points in the season by sticking to the qualifying strategy of last year where pole was a race winning position?

Will we see pole battled out on primes from all of the top teams perhaps?

I don’t think the tyres are creating artificial racing although I feel the DRS is a bit of a stretch. Could we see the DRS gone next year?

Either way the racing is pretty awesome right now, feels like F1 just exploded out of a cocoon all bright and colourful!


“Could we see the DRS gone next year?” – I don’t think so Greg. At the moment the teams are understanding the tyres – they have no previous data to work with, so we teams choosing different strategies because everything is still unknown. Next season they will have more Pirelli tyre data to work with and thus will know the best strategy to use… thus the teams will be closer together in terms of tyre usage i.e., pretty much everyone will be doing the same strategy. So DRS may actually be more important in facilitating over-takes.

Pole Position: is still king though! I’m sure Mark Webber would rather have qualified high in the top ten than be in 18th.



A quick question why are the hard tyres labelled the prime tyre? I would of though that given the grip levels and the speed advantage this gives that would be the prime and the option the hard?


That’s a very good question. I too would be interested to know why is that…


James, your website is amazing for getting different perspectives on the racing this year, no body else covers things in such detail.

Could someone please explain to me the differing DRS systems that teams have developed. Each team seem have devleoped a slightly different mechanism for activating it(ie mclaren have what looks like a vetically mounted hook that activates it). Are there any superior systems or should they all produce the same level of drag reduction. Martin Brundle mentioned that mercedes had a ‘very efficient DRS’ at the weekend at that got me thinking..



Some teams have a gone for a big main plane and a small flap on the rear wing; while others have a smaller main plane and a larger flap, which means less of a change in angle to achieve the 50mm gap. I don’t know which would be better but I can imagine the difference being significant.


I’m doing a piece on this shortly


I admit there was plenty of action in the race, but I’m finding it very difficult to follow the progress of drivers I’m interested in, because everything is chopping and changing all the time and it’s not until toward the end that I start to see a patern. I accept that Pirelli have done a good job in supplying the type of tyrs they were asked to, but I’m not sure the result is holding my attention. It just seems wrong for a slow car to be holding up a fast car, or a slow car passing a faster car just because of having better tyres on at the time then getting passed again as his tyres go off.




I think it is interesting how the leaders don’t appear to be stretching away from the field like they used to. This made what webber did possible. Early on everyone is trying to protect their tyres rather than streak away, so perhaps this does make running the lesser tyre more appealing in this first stint. I wonder how long until a top team does q3 on the primes?




I think it depends on the track in question. If it is an overtaking track, then Yes it might be a way to go. If not, then no, since qualifying position is “nearly” everything. Monaco springs to mind with regards to the later.

As mentioned previously, I am just wondering how many stops will be necessary in Canada. If it was 3 or 4 stops last year, could it be 5 or 6 this year. Will they run out of tyres, or maybe even resort to using Intermediates, because they’ve used all the normal dry tyres?


This time last year I was really annoyed and frustrated despite my team winning races. How the FIA keep dicking up the rules and going one step foward, two steps back.

This year I love the racing. Don’t think I’ve complained on here once. Feels good to have something worth waiting for in between races. It’s nice to have the enthusiam for F1 being “repayed” by the satisfaction of watching good racing this year. It’s a bit artificial (in some ways) but 1000 times better then the last 3 or 4 years. I see the artificialness as a comprimise for the inevitable aero turbulance, the rev limits on the engines, the lack of tyre war and all the other changes that have taken place.

Haven’t enjoyed F1 races so much since 2006. Yes, that was when you were calling the races James. 🙂


Thanks for that. A gee the racing is entertaining this year


James – i think it’s worth pointing out that lewis got no benefit from his fresh set of softs as he only used them for 10 laps on his second stint.

Rather than being the key to his wn it actually nearly cost him as he qualified behind his teammate and therefore got second dibs on strategy…with his tyres gong of a cliff that cost him 2 places and several seconds.


great analysis as always!

one thing to the “used” and “fresh” tires …

wendlinger talked about it, an said, that it’s not only the 3 laps the really fresh tire was not used in qualifing. He meant its a big difference if the tire was used at all. As soon as the tire once was really heated up – when its used a second time (throughly heated up a second time) then it’s degreation is even worse ..

thats should be one of the reasons marks really fresh tires performed on a higher level




Might I suggest one of the key reasons for Rosberg’s improved showing at the satrt of the race was the lack of fuel in his car that eventually compromised his race!


A quantity of 5 to 6 kgs was quoted.


Good point but the amounts aren’t that significant!


It can’t be both ways though. If it was only lighter by a small amount then he wouldn’t have had to save much fuel which means he wasn’t hampered much in the latter stages. It’s can’t be both.

The win was never on offer IMO. Very solid performance though.


The race history graph really emphasises how Lotus are now getting onto the tail end of the established teams, while Virgin and HRT are still way behind.


Why does being behind 3-stoppers on the first stint of a 2-stopper mean your race is compromised?


I see your point, though you must remember fuel is equal now so it’s not as though you would necessarily expect the 3 stoppers to be faster than a two stoppper at the start, pull away and not comprise the two stopper’s pace. They all try to make the tyres last as long as they can really in each stint.

The real compromise was that Vettel couldn’t romp into the lead for the first 3 laps, then control the gap and his tyres from there and react to others.

If Vettel aimed for a two stop all along, he have stayed out another 3 laps or so than the McLarens in the first stint. He wouldn’t have left his hards having to do so much work then.

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