A deep dive into strategies from the Spanish Grand Prix
A deep dive into strategies from the Spanish Grand Prix
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  24 May 2011   |  12:34 pm GMT  |  124 comments

This year’s Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona was widely heralded as one of the most exciting largely due to the way strategies played out, meaning that an intense battle for the lead developed in the final third of the race.

Also we saw the pole sitter Mark Webber dropping to fourth place, Fernando Alonso, the leader on lap one, finishing in fifth place a lap down on the winner and the recovery of Jenson Button, from tenth place on lap one to finish on the podium thanks to a bold strategy variation.

Tyre engineers plot data (Red Bull)

Pre race Strategies
On paper going into the race if a driver had new tyres to use, a three-stop strategy was four seconds quicker than a four-stop.

But few drivers had the luxury of new tyres, most had one new set of softs at best. On old rubber, a four-stop was showing to most strategists as being 10 seconds quicker. So there wasn’t much in it, which is why you saw drivers doing different things and ending up in pretty much the same place, with the exception of Button.

The overriding consideration for engineers and drivers was that the new hard tyre was a lot slower than the soft. The gap between compounds was around two seconds per lap in practice and that came down to just over a second as the track rubbered in. So the stints on hard tyres were quite compromised. Drivers wanted to spend as much time on soft as possible.

But the degradation was such that by half distance some cars, like Webber and Alonso had already made three stops and so were destined to spend the second half of the race on the hard tyre.

Photo: Darren Heath

The importance of new tyres
Once again we had several graphic illustrations of how new tyres make a massive difference. We saw some key positions change due to the ‘undercut’, where a following driver pits a lap before the car in front and gets ahead of him.

Sebastian Vettel used the undercut to pass Fernando Alonso for the lead. Vettel pitted early, on lap 18 and his out lap on new tyres was so much faster that when Alonso pitted a lap later, Vettel was through to lead the race. It was crucial for Vettel to get past Alonso in this way as Lewis Hamilton was running longer stints and was looming as a challenger for the win as he was on tyres which were four laps younger than Vettel’s.

By pitting early on lap 18 and getting clear of Alonso, Vettel was able to stay ahead of Hamilton at the third pit stops on lap 34/35, when the drivers switched to hard tyres. We have observed Red Bull always tend to pit on the early side, before the tyres start to really lose performance, it is built into their tactical thinking. McLaren in contrast, are willing to run a little longer on the tyres and it brings them very close to Red Bull. In Spain by running a few extra laps they managed to keep their drivers in clear air, where in contrast Red Bull compromised Webber’s race early on by bringing him out in traffic after his first stop on lap 10 (see below)

Another clear illustration of how much new tyres count was Nick Heidfeld who started at the back of the grid after a problem in qualifying and managed to use new tyres all race and almost passed the Mercedes in 6th and 7th places at the end. This is what Mark Webber did in China and Kamui Kobayashi did in Turkey. It won’t work so well in Monaco where traffic will slow down such progress.

Hamilton shadows Vettel (Red Bull)

Could Hamilton have used strategy to beat Vettel?
Some people have questioned whether Hamilton might have passed Vettel at the third stop had he stayed out on soft tyres a lap or two longer when Vettel switched to hards.

The analysis shows that in the laps from 34 to 36 Vettel’s in laps to the pits and out laps were two seconds faster than Hamilton’s. Their pit stop times were almost identical, but Vettel’s first flying lap on new hard tyres was fast enough to make the difference at 1m 28.563. Hamilton had been doing 1m 30.0s on his worn softs, so he would not have passed Vettel by staying out at that pace.

However in a comparison of McLaren and Ferrari, McLaren knew that Hamilton’s pace was better than Alonso’s even on worn tyre so they nursed tyres and literally shifted everything toward the end of 2nd stint.

The worn soft tyre on Hamilton’s car was faster than the fresh soft tyre on Alonso’s car between laps 19 and 21.

Hamilton’s soft tyre showed a degradation rate of 0.1625sec/lap in the first stint. But McLaren were 0.5sec quicker than Ferrari on soft tyres in the race trim so going longer than Alonso was marginal, but worked for him.

How Webber’s strategy was compromised early on
Mark Webber started from pole position, looking for the win which would kickstart his season. But he ended the race in fourth place. How did that happen?

Webber’s strategy was compromised at the start when he was passed by both Alonso and Vettel into Turn 1. Webber’s starts this year have been a problem; in five Grands Prix he has dropped a total of 10 places, so an average of two per race.

To compound the problem by losing position to Vettel, it meant that Vettel had first call on pit strategy so he came in first on lap 9, with Webber forced to wait until lap 10. When he rejoined he was in traffic behind Petrov and Button and this allowed Hamilton who pitted on lap 11 to undercut him, dropping him to fourth.

After that his problem was being unable to pass Alonso who stayed in front of him after the second stops on lap 19. From being four seconds behind Vettel at that point he went to 11 seconds behind in 10 laps.

He was pitted very early next time around – on lap 29 – and had the tactical advantage of being behind Alonso, so he could surprise him by diving for the pits when it was too late for Ferrari to react.

But the element of surprise was lost; Ferrari read it and pitted Alonso at the same time. Red Bull’s Dr Helmut Marko has since claimed that Ferrari were listening to Red Bull’s radio which he claims is the only way they could have known the plan, but this has not been confirmed.

It was the right thing to do, to try to undercut Alonso. But it was a sacrifice, as that was Webber’s only new set of soft tyres and they had only done ten laps. They could easily have gone on for another five or six laps (as Vettel’s did on that stint). It had a knock on effect on the rest of his race and cost him the podium to Button.

From Ferrari’s point of view they burned through their soft tyres very quickly, covering other people’s strategies. The result was that Alonso had no soft tyres left from with 37 laps still to go. In contrast McLaren managed to get Hamilton six laps further and Button only went to hards with 18 laps to go.

Button: From P10 to podium (McLaren)

How Button went from 10th to the podium on three stops

Jenson Button had a disastrous start from fifth place on the grid and was 10th at the end of lap one. He passed Buemi for ninth.

McLaren decided to stop him just three times and on a used set of soft tyres he managed to get to lap 14, the ideal window for a first stop on that plan, dropping around 8 seconds to the leaders by doing the extra four laps. But it was the platform for his successful strategy as he managed to carry the advantage of being on newer tyres than his rivals through the race. He came in seven laps later than his rivals at his second stop and 13 laps later for his third.

The delayed first stop tactic brought him out in sixth place, having jumped Massa, Rosberg and Schumacher, who had lost time behind Petrov.

He got 16 laps out of his new soft tyres (compared to Webber’s 10 laps)

By stretching it out like this without losing too much time, he was able
to go to hard tyres at the same time as Webber, so was not in danger of attack. Also the McLaren turned out to be faster than Red Bull on hard tyres so he was home and dry on the podium.

* The UBS Strategy Report is prepared with input and data from several of the strategists from leading F1 teams.

The graph below is the visualisation of the FIA’s official Race History data sheet.

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. The rest show how gaps between the other drivers grew.

Graph 2 – Spanish GP lap times

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I have posted a number of replies to this thread but they have not got through!!

I am struggling to understand how the Spanish race unfolded — Was Vettel sandbagging for the whole race??

If you look at his laptime on lap 21 – (3-4 laps after pitstop) it was 1 second faster than the lap before or after; and much much quicker than the times anyone else set at that point. Infact Vettels lap 21 time was not beaten until lap 50(Webber) – and only 5 drivers set a time faster than this over the whole race!!

So, if the FIA were to take action to even things out (as they did in the Schumi years), then perhaps it would be that the championship leader :

1) Could not use DRS during the race

2) Would not use KERS over the race weekend.

3) Would carry 45 laps more fuel than the opposition….

Then, we might have a championship that lasts beyond august!!



No he was not sandbagging!!


It appeared that Hamilton was faster than Vettel in the last 1/3 of the race….. But we know from qualifying that the Red Bull (under Vettel) is >1 second faster than anyone in low fuel configuration. Where did that advantage go in the last 1/3 of the spanish race??

There defiantly is something to be understood here:

1) Does Red Bull have a qualifying switch which buys them 1 second in qualifying??

With the Parc Ferme rules, I cannot believe that this advantage is purely down to a software qualifying mode!!

2)Is Red Bull much much slower on the hard tyres?? If they were, why was Vettel running on his 3rd set of soft tyres by lap 18 of 66 lap race?? Why run for half the race on the slower hard tyre??

3)Vettel sandbagging.

Given the evidence, I believe that #3 is most likely.

I see Vettel has matured massively this year…

Remember in previous years he was suffering badly from mechanical failures…. to the extent that he was nearly robbed of the title last year.

Despite the engine freeze rules, I expect Vettel to have much less engine failures this year – as he is not asking any more of the car than he needs!!


Thanks James, I really appreciate the race history graph. It is interesting to see how Alonso’s performance was a flat line after the last pitstop. Massa’s line is similar to Alonso, but for the slower pace. Mercedes too doesn’t seem to have any increase in performance, just a flat line, even though they ought to be improving simply with the reduction in weight from fuel consumption and the rubbered in track. Yet Red Bull has a strong up turn in performance after the last pit, and this performance is mimicked by Mclaren, similar to the way Ferrari followed the same pattern as Red Bull in Turkey.


finding it hard to work out where button would have been if he hadn’t bogged down at the start

he was still in 10th at the end of lap 4 ….does anyone have a record of how far he was behind the leader then ?

and he change onto primes on lap 48 …how far was he behind at the end of lap 47 …anyone got the gap then ?


The best article around the world after every GP as ever!

Thank you James!!!


Although he wouldn’t have come out of his 3rd stop in front of Vettel, if Hamilton had stayed out 4/5 laps longer than Vettel he would have had much fresher tyres and a car that was (supposedly) quicker on the hard tyres at the end of the race. That might have been enough to get him past if/when he caught up to the back of Vettel again.


oops I meant 4th stop…

Thomas in Adelaide

Something needs to be done about qualifying ASAP. Q1 is virtually pointless and Q3 is quickly becoming a non event. I cannot accept that this is the optimum format for entertaining and relevant race qualifying.

My suggestions would be either;

9 cars knocked out of Q1. 10 Cars knocked out of Q2. Top 5 shootout.


12 cars knocked out in Q1. 12 cars in Q2. No Q3.

Right now I can’t see why anyone would attend the track on a Saturday.


I don’t agree with that at all, personally I still find the qualifying format exciting. Alonso’s reaction after Q3 on Saturday showed it wasn’t a non-event for him.

Q1 isn’t irrelevant either, even if a top-18 runner has problems like Heidfeld in Spain. Although I admit the significance becomes more subtle: who can get through Q1 on hard tyres. With two seconds between the two tyre compounds and Lotus closing in on the back of the midfield, it’s tough for most teams to safely clear Q1 without using a set of options.

Matt Cheshire

James, the new frantic F1 makes it essential to have some clear contemplation afterwards. A GP isn’t finished now until we’ve got the JAF1 strategy report. It should have its own show.

I’m interested in Webber’s race and your stats on his starts ring true. Unfortunately its looking like his lost skill with starting may be the first sign of him loosing his game. Frustrating to watch.

Conversely I think you’ve missed Red Bull’s appalling. Strategy gaff. When Button overtook, Webber was told it was not a problem, but they had him wasting those options on Alonso. MacLaren new that Alonso was no threat, why didn’t RB?


THanks for that


You wrote, “When he rejoined he was in traffic behind Petrov and Button and this allowed Hamilton who pitted on lap 11 to undercut him, dropping him to fourth.”

I’m assuming you meant the opposite, since Lewis pitted one lap after Mark.



Regarding the strategy, In Your race preview You mentioned that Schumacher had the option to start on hard tyres (had he finished the “fast lap” in Q3). Do You see anyone from Mclaren, Ferrari or Mercedes going for this sort of tactics in Q3 deliberately (one really fast lap on soft and the other one on hard) in future races?


What on earth has happened to formula 1..i dunno how others feel but i for one am now usually completely lost after about lap 5….i have absolutely no idea what the hell is goin on…the whole charade has become far too complicated…the only time i understand whats happening in the race is about 10 laps from the end..if it wasnt for schumi id have switched of a long time ago ; )


It’s become essential to set up the laptop next to the TV for live timing data this year, in order to follow the race easier. But lets face it, all of this action is a good problem to have!


May be Formula 1 want you to buy the 25 pound Ipad app which is pretty neat!

I wonder how this Tyre change-a-thon will help F1 put up a “Greener face”


There will soon be graphics showing what tyre each car is on, which will make it easier to follow. Depends what country you are in and how aware your commentators are about what they are seeing. Certainly in the UK Martin Brundle and David Coulthard read it very well


Generally yes, but this week-end they lost the tyre count


I agree totally.

After 4 strops they were calling the strategies SSHH — even though the drivers were on thier 5th set of race tyres!!


I agree, perhaps they need someone to keep track of tyre usage for them. They shouldn’t have been surprised to see Webber and Alonso changing onto hards when they’d already done 3 stints on softs!


James, brilliant stuff from you today. Great article. I would like 2 ideas :

Webber inability to overtake wrecked his race because Vettel managed to overtake Button & Massa as if they weren’t there which was critical to him being able to overtake Alonso something Webber wasn’t able to do. Without that Webber might have finished ahead of Button.

I wonder if Button’s start was decent with Alonso holding the 4 stoppers, do you think that a Button victory could have been possible ?


By decent you mean, if he’d led the race with Alonso holding the others? Maybe. But that’s why we talk about the starts in the strategy considerations because even with DRS and these tyres it still has a massive effect on the outcome


by decent I meant if he was behind Hamilton after the start


Sorry meant Q2 and Q3


James, have any teams considered using the same set of soft tyres for Q2 and Q1 sacrificing pole to gain an extra set of new softs in the race? Would it give an advantage?


Well, RedBull and McLaren did not run softs in Q1 so it’s moot for them. Ferrari ran softs in Q1, so it’s certainly possible that they could try running those same softs again in Q2, holding back a 2nd set of softs if their times came under threat.

I would think the teams mostly likely to think about this idea would be Sauber and Force India. Sauber, because they seem to be rather gentle on their tires. Force India, because they seem willing to try a different strategy as they did this past weekend, when they sacrificed grid position to save 2 sets of new softs for the race.


They were giving up half way around the second lap. And sadly the Q2 is the more demanding lap than Q1 so that would be hard to pull off.


Is the raw data used to produce these graphs available publicly?


Yes on FIA website under timing data>race history


I guess that requires FIA accreditation… (password required)


No, no password needed, but you need to be quick to get the PDFs that are posted after the race. I think perhaps, since Monaco is just a few days after Spain, that they’ve already hidden the links to the Spain reports.

The lap chart is still available, but the rest, you need to get a little quicker:



What I don’t like is qualifying: Red Bull dominate, so they can save tyers in qualifying and are by consequence faster in the race (even if their KERS doesn’t work)

Red Bull can do whatever they want with these tyers, that’s why the fight for the championship will be a lot less exciting.

The Pirelli’s make some races more entertaining but the championship less entertaining.

Something should change in qualifying, for instance: using sets of tyers in quali that they can’t use in the race… (or something like that).

Also to make Q3 more exciting again with drivers who are on the limit!


Nothing stops the other teams from saving tires. McLaren saved tires and so did Force India, this race. Schumacher saved a set.


Just a reflection: despite all the fuss about too much action on the track, many used to say that cars were so perfect that drivers didn’t make much difference. This season, it looks like drivers’ input is finally one of the decisive moments – the difference can be as big as 1 sec. per lap. It’s one of this season’s greatest achievements, IMO.


In recent years, the deciding factor hasn’t been the drivers. This year, as tires are so important, the driver’s ability to manage them has become critical, thus, drivers are more important. We’ve always seen a bit of upheaval when the tires change. When the tires acquired grooves, some teams and some drivers adapted well and some didn’t. I recall the Williams was an incredibly difficult to drive, understeering car. One year later, it was beautifully balanced. When the tires switched manufacturers, some teams and drivers adapt better. The Ferrari has had a difficult time getting the hard tire to get enough heat to work in its proper range. All of last year, Massa had difficulty getting heat into the tires. Tires have long been the greatest differentiator for drivers ever since we saw grooved ones.

This year has seen the biggest change in tires since grooves were introduced, so we see bigger changes on the track between teams and drivers.


Good point.

It seems that with all the variables such as tyres, KERS and DRS (but mainly tyres) the gap between the good and the great drivers has grown.

Whereas in recent years you’d maybe see a couple of tenths difference between team mates (at the most) this year it can be well over half a second.

It’s making some drivers look pretty ragged.


That’s an interesting observation. I’ll put that to some engineers for a view


Just as an idea James, could you put the graphs up on Google docs or something so we can actually manipulate them to see the lines we actually want to look at.

Cracking analysis as always.


You wrote, “The analysis shows that in the laps from 34 to 36 Vettel’s in laps to the pits and out laps were two seconds faster than Hamilton’s. “

I’m not sure that’s what you mean. Vettel’s inlap on Lap 34 was 1:32.6. Lewis’ inlap on Lap 35 was 1:32.9, a 0.3s difference. As you note, actual pitlane laps were about the same, 1:46.5 for Seb and 1:46.3 for Lewis, a 0.3s difference, cancelling out the prior small gap. Finally, on the outlap, Seb did 1:28.7 on Lap 36, while Lewis did a 1:28.5 on Lap 37, 0.2 to the good for Lewis.

So, in total, the inlaps, pitlaps and outlaps, Lewis was about 0.2s faster.

Rather, I think you are referring to Seb’s post-pit pace, in comparison to Lewis’ pace if he had stayed on his last set of softs for a few more laps. In that case, it seems likely Seb was lapping about 1 sec quicker than Lewis on his used softs.

The point being made isn’t that Lewis would have made a pass at this point, but rather, by shortening the time he would need to be on the hard, he might be able to make the pass on a fresher set of hards than Seb. Say, Lewis runs a few more laps on the softs and loses a few secs. When he pits, his hards will be 4 laps fresher than Sebs. When the next round of stops occur, again, his hards may be 4 laps fresher, or thereabouts. We’ve seen previous races where a set of tires that are as little as 4 laps fresher have given a driver a decided advantage.

What seems to puzzle is why not try this, as the other approach had no chance of putting Lewis in the lead. There’s little risk, as Lewis had time in hand to Alonso. Seems like an opportunity wasted.


I’ve just heard that Aldo Costa has been relieved of his role, but is sticking with Ferrari, with comments about other senior members possibly going.

I had heard that Marco De Luca may have left the team last week, so perhaps that is true after all.

I do not and will never support the kind of trigger finger decisions that Luca seems to make so freely.

Success is built (in any line of business – F1 being no different) through hiring good people, good leadership and direction and having faith in everyones ability/let them innovate).

Ferrari show no understanding of innovation and the need to take risks, which probably led to a car lacking innovation

Can you imagine Ferrari taking a MCLaren approach of completely redesigning a sidepod approach. No, because the designers know they’d get sacked if it didnt work (straight away). And what you got was a car so conservative that its nowhere near the front.

How many scapegoats will there be at Maranello. Dyer, De Luca, Costa. Absolute lunacy, and to make it even worse, its quite often the fans who are driving this…

Whos to blame next I wonder.

Yours, bemused from London….


I think it has to do with the culture. In Football, English managers stay quite a long time even without trophies (Wenger). In Italy, Spain or France they’re sacked pretty quickly when results don’t match expectations even mid-season.

It might not be wise, but that’s the way it is.

Like Football success is hardly guaranteed, but there are few people who make the difference : Newey (Messi) & TODT (Mourniho without the charisma and the physique)


I’m sure Carlo Ancelotti might disagree with you Jo 😉


You wrote, “Can you imagine Ferrari taking a MCLaren approach of completely redesigning a sidepod approach. “

Somehow John Barnard’s name is ringing a bell. Remember the Ferrari F310 in 96?



Thats exactly my point Ken, that in the current regime they dare not make decisions.

The current regime without Brawn, Todt, Byrne are currently under a cloud.

There were other issues around the barnard setup, like he setup his design shop in UK.


Two things, one, cars are often developed in 3 year cycles. Last year’s car was virtually on-par with the RedBull by season’s end, so Ferrari may have felt that they were on the right design path for this season. And, two, the team made significant improvement during the season last year, with the main problem being getting heat into the tires. This seems to be a problem this year too, but they are probably confident that they can cure it just like they did last year.

Lastly, with tunnel calibration issues, they not only have to correct the problem, but they probably have to check much of their prior work, so things get delayed while they correct the problem. I wouldn’t give up on Ferrari right now, there’s still a long way to go.


Great writeup, thanks James.

The graph really shows how Ferarri really struggled on the hard tires in the second half of the race.


I think Ferrari made a huge mistake in qualifying, when they sent out Alonso in Q1 on a new set of softs. I am nowhere near being an expert on these matters, but even I could see from the live timimng that Alonso was pretty safe to get to the top 17 w/ the time he had set until then, with only one run to go for some of the slowest cars. As it turns out, he indeed would have advanced easily. Mercedes made the same mistake. But Ferrari has been making tactical mistakes since early last year (capped by that tremendously stupid call that cost Alonso a championship in Abu-Dabbi). So I question that team’s tactical competency. Even if they had a quick enough car, and despite having the best driver at their disposal, they won’t win anything unless they address their tactical issues.


Agreed. It’s hard to fathom why they sent out the Ferraris again in Q1. WIth Nick out, they only had to beat the 6 new cars to get into Q2, and it was obvious that anything faster than 1:26 was likely to work.

For a team that needs to save its softs for the race, it was a wasted bullet.


Not so. At the time Alonso went out again, he was far from safe. Kovalainen was the man they would have felt they had to beat, and he had set a 1:25.8 on his first run. Alonso had set a mid 1:25 on his hard tyres, and could have been vulnerable if Kovalainen had run again. In Q2 he showed the Lotus was capable of 1:25.4.

In hindsight, neither Kovalainen nor Barrichello made a second run, but at the time Ferrari needed to make the decision, they couldn’t have known that would be the case.


if Hamilton has delayed his pit stops so that he could have had much fresher tires near the end, would he have been able to catch vettel, and then with new tire been able to pass when vettel’s tires were much slower?


I wondered about this, too.

Judging from his pace in the last stint, Hamilton could easily have stayed out another couple of laps on his last set of softs and then caught up with Vettel after the stop, even if he had lost three or four seconds in those extra laps.

A bigger differential in wear between his and Vettel’s last set of tires might just have allowed him to follow close enough in the corner before the straight to pull off the pass, but it’s by no means certain.


Hello mr. Allen.

I just have a simple question.

Why was Mercedes slower this past weekend in comparision to the tests in March in the same track?



Great question. I think they would like to know the answer too? It’s curious how competitiveness changes. Look at Ferrari compared to the winter. Also look how much performance Red Bull lost in the race compared to the qualifying. It’s all making 2011 very hard to read, even for the engineers!


They also used the super soft tyres during testing.

Michael Prestia

When Schumacher did not set a lap in Q3 I was thinking there is a problem with the tyre rules. More teams will for-go challening for pole if a brand new set is worth that much. All teams have to know they can not beat RB to pole so they should all sit out Q3 and challenge them in the race with new tires. The order from 3 to 10 is decided in Q2! 🙂 Otherwise Redbull have the advantage of pole and teams ruining their tyres trying to chase an unrealistic dream of beating them to P1 or P2.

I think we need a tyre war in F1… it would be great for Bridgestone and Michellin and Pirelli fighting for supremacy.

Nice job on the Analysis James… FYI Ferrari have moved Aldo Costa out of the way. I think they need to make more moves starting with Felipe. If he can’t come close to Alonso then Ferrari are hindering their chance at the constructors title.


“in contrast Red Bull compromised Webber’s race early on by bringing him out in traffic after his first stop on lap 10 “

And in contrast when the same happened with Seb he cleared the traffic in a little over a lap and a half with some very authorititive overtakes. His team mate couldn’t. That was a real difference between the two.


Well, the RB car is the quickest car by a hefty margon (OK, they can’t run at that pace for an entire stint as the tyres would be destroyed, but it can be exploited for pulling vital overtakes on the out lap). Remember Vettel only had to pass people on very old tyres, so had a hefty advantage (and made impressive use of it, it has to be said).

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