Playing with fine margins: A deep dive into race strategy from Nurburgring
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Posted By: James Allen  |  26 Jul 2011   |  9:05 am GMT  |  130 comments

The German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring featured three drivers in different cars closely matched on performance. As the winner Lewis Hamilton observed, it was all about being perfect and not making mistakes and this was as true of the strategists and the pit crews as it was of the drivers.

In the end it came down to some inspired driving and finely balanced strategy calls. But further down the field we saw some varying strategies making a difference to the race result, particularly in the case of Adrian Sutil, who finished sixth ahead of the Mercedes and Renaults.

The key consideration in deciding the strategy in Germany was the performance on the slower medium tyre. If you were getting a difference between the soft and medium tyre of around 1.5 seconds then two stops was the way to go. If the gap was larger then three stops would be the answer with a short final stint on the medium tyre.

Tyre life turned out to be better than expected in Friday practice, so for many teams two stops looked a good option. But then heavy rain on Saturday night cleaned the track and that might have pushed some people towards three stops in the race believing that the track was very green. In the Bridgestone days this would have led to tyre graining, but that didn’t happen with the Pirellis in Germany. Instead what happened was that the track had less grip so the lap times were slower and this took less life out of the tyres, but the green surface didn’t damage them.


The battle at the front

Bearing all of this in mind, even the three-stoppers at the front ran almost a two-stop race in terms of stint lengths. Webber for example, did 26 laps on his third set of soft tyres. They didn’t want to put on the prime tyre, so they stopped as late as possible. Two cars pushed it to the extreme – Vettel and Massa – they pitted for medium tyres on the penultimate lap!

Among the leading trio Webber, who lost the lead to Hamilton at the start, was able to undercut Hamilton at the first stop by pitting first on lap 14. Webber was 0.5s behind the leader Hamilton when he made the stop. A very fast turnaround by the Red Bull crew, plus two very aggressive out-laps by Webber got him into the lead. He pushed hard to open a gap but Hamilton was faster in sectors one and three and Webber knew then that it wasn’t going to be his day.

Having pushed his tyres too hard early on, Webber’s pace wasn’t good at the end of the second stint. He tried the undercut again, but it didn’t work out. Hamilton and Alonso, on option tyres that were two laps younger, were able to increase their pace when Webber pitted. Webber’s second stop was 0.8s slower than his first stop and the end result was that he was down to third.

As for Hamilton and Alonso, they came in together for the first stop but Hamilton pitted a lap earlier second time around. Alonso’s in lap was 0.7s faster than Hamilton’s and the pit stop was 0.4s faster. What was interesting was that Hamilton’s out lap on fresher tyres hadn’t been significantly faster than Alonso’s on worn tyres, which defies the principal of the early stopper having the advantage.

Alonso came out of the pits in front but the Ferrari’s weakness in not warming the tyres up straight away meant Hamilton was able to pass him in Turn 2. So the strategy had worked for Ferrari on paper, but not in reality.

Webber had managed the undercut at the first stop but stopping first didn’t work for either Webber or Hamilton at the second stop. This can partly be explained by the damage the extra duel weight does to the tyre in the first stint, which diminishes by the time of the second stop and by the durability of the Pirelli soft tyre.

As for the timing of the final stop to the slower medium tyre, that was all about looking for evidence and it came in the form of Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi. Maldonado had gone to the medium early on lap 35 but his lap times were inconsistent. When Petrov went to mediums on lap 46 and started setting personal best sector times on his second lap on the tyres, and Kobayashi went faster than his team mate who was still on old soft tyres, it was clear to McLaren that the time had come to take the medium tyre.

Webber was out of the picture by now, 8 seconds behind second place Alonso. McLaren pitted Hamilton on lap 51, but Ferrari did not react, leaving Alonso out there for two more laps, Ferrari was more concerned about its pace on the harder tyre. Hamilton’s pace was good straight away on the medium and the race was in the bag. Webber tried to stay out longer and jump them but he was coming from too far back and he couldn’t get close.


Sutil vs Rosberg

One of the highlights of the race was the performance of Force India with Adrian Sutil. He put together a perfect weekend and the strategy team got it just right. The result was he finished in sixth place, ahead of both Mercedes. He qualified 8th, two places and 0.8sec behind Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes. To beat him from there is quite an achievement.

Sutil vs Rosberg was a good example of two stops working out better than three. Force India were one of the teams for whom the simulator said that two stops was as fast as three and with one less stop to make there was less risk of losing time in traffic or with a poor stop.

Sutil stopped on laps 22 and 48, Rosberg on laps 14, 36 and 53. Their lap times were pretty similar in the first stint, but thereafter Sutil had the measure of him. The Mercedes is heavier on its tyres and Sutil closed the gap to Rosberg from four seconds down to nothing by the time Rosberg made his first of three stops. The Mercedes is a faster car, as was proven in qualifying, but their hands were tied by the heavy tyre use and Force India were able to beat them with 10 seconds to spare at the end.

Sutil was very impressive all weekend and he managed to find good consistency from the medium tyre. He was straight onto the pace after he went to mediums and set his fastest lap of the race when they were nine laps old. Many teams found it hard to get temperature into the medium tyre in the cool temperatures.


Getting the fuel load right
The possibility of rain on race day had quite an influence on fuel strategy in this race. A lot of people under-fuelled their cars in the belief that it would rain and that forced a lot of people to save fuel late in the race. That’s why Alonso eventually finished four seconds behind Hamilton, before then running out of fuel on the slow-down lap.

After making that mistake and under-fuelling Hamilton at Silverstone, McLaren didn’t make the same mistake twice!

(The UBS Strategy Report is produced with input and data from the strategists of several F1 teams.)

Race History Graph
Below is a graph showing the race history. It shows each car and the time delta between them and the race leader. So the laptime is encapsulated in it, but it also shows progress at different stages during the race because a cars slope will change if it goes faster or slower. You can also see when someone is clearly being held up in traffic.

The zero line is simply the race winners’ 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.

LAP TIMES GRAPH

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1

I feared in the end of the Race that Mclaren would ruin Hamilton’s race on strategy, as they seem to do that more often than usual.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, but I do hope they get their act together on this department.

If not having the quickest car isn’t enough, they always seem to come up with something in either Qualifying or Race than no-one understands, and ultimately is pure nonsense, especially with Hamilton. Button makes his own decisions more often, and Hamilton should also do that to.

He let’s the team do that to show them he trust’s them, but they have let him down many times in the last few years. Maybe it’s his engineer?

2

Well stated MikeBoy. I too have been puzzled by some of the late race decisions of his engineers begining from early last season, when they chose to bring him in late in the race while he was in P2 and closing down on Button.

Often times a shake up of the engineering team tends to light a fire under everyone.

3

No worries, it’s one of the few sticking points I have with the BBC commentators, they always seem to overlook this when driver’s pit for tyres and end up misleading people about the relative merits of old and new tyres, whatever the compound.

4

I am interested in the comment that Alonso ran out of fuel on the warm down lap – did he run out or switch off to save the litre of fuel the FIA require? If he ran out – why no penalty?

5

Red Bull seem to continue messing up Webber’s races, this time with slow pit stops and leaving him out too long. They obviously do not wish to finish 1 2 in the drivers championship. If Vettel can not win they do not seem to care what happens.

6

Alonso came out of the pits in front but the Ferrari’s weakness in not warming the tyres up straight away meant Hamilton was able to pass him–

So James do you feel it was Alonso’s cold tyres responsible for the fact that Lewis breezed past him on the outside or would you grant Hamilton a smidgen of credit for his precise move around the long way.

The way you worded that part had a dismissive tone that lacked any recognition of the fact that Lewis blitzed Fernando around the outside,I saw a different turn 1 exit angle from LH that setup a perfect wide turn 2 entry & FA obliged perfectly by sleepily hanging on the inside,cold tyres be damned.

7

I’m not sure how much tyre warming the Mclaren could of done relative to the Ferrari driving down the pit-lane and one corner which they barely had to brake for.

8

IIRC Ham pitted a lap earlier on that one, so his tires had a lap’s worth of heat in them when Lonso came out of the pits.

9

If Fernando had had the tyres warmed, Lewis couldn’t have passed him. Lewis did well, but the tyres temperature did the biggest part of the move.

10

Credit where it’s due, Hamilton did brilliantly. It says that quite clearly in the piece.

11
Seán Craddock

what happened to Chandhok’s lap times? He was keeping up with the Virgins, but then dropped off dramatically!

12

You always seem to ‘miss’ Kobayashi’s amazing drives.

13

Question for James:

Pirelli has said they want to have a test day in the days following a GP. Personally, I can’t see how the teams would want that, as they would have likely tested any new parts on the Friday before the race to gain a possible advantage that weekend. It’s not like many parts would not be ready for Friday, but be ready for Monday or Tuesday.

If anything, I could see a Thursday open test happening at four or five races, because then at least teams could test parts for the race happening on the weekend.

We know Pirelli’s point of view, but do you know how the teams feel about when and where tests should be?

14

Fascinating graph, it’s clear to see that Jenson’s line was on quite a steep incline and improvement before his failure. If he would have followed Sutil’s strategy (which I presume he was) he would have been very close to Massa and Vettal near the end of the race.

Such a shame he had another breakdown as we were robbed of an exciting finish.

15

Have there been any developments in the legal case against Sutil?

16

Hey James Allen, great analysis as ever, thanks a lot.

17

Why no penalty for Alonso? After Hamilton ran dry some races back, the FIA stated that all cars must be able to drive back to the pits. If they couldn’t, they’d be penalised.

18

I think Ferrari made Alonso stop the car to keep fuel in the car for the FIA to take a sample. I think that is the reason for the rule since there was no fuel left to sample in Hamilton’s car.

I do speak under correction. James, can you maybe just shed some light on it?

19

Cars can stop on the track after the finish line, there’s no law against that. Webber parked the RB after the finish line in Melbourne.

They just have to have 1L of fuel on board for a post-race fuel sample.

Hamilton ran dry, whereas Alonso was ordered to stop the car so there was sufficient fuel in the tank to be analysed.

20

Thats for qualyfing… And the incident you’re talking about was at last years Canadian GP.

21

I think Hamilton got a fine during an ultra light weight qualifying lap.

Why not a “drug test” pre-race of a pre-determined volume then it gets rid of this whole requirement?

22

That rule only applies to qualifying, as far as I know.

23

Is it me or races are less and less dramatic. I don’t see drivers struggling as much on dying tyres nor seamless overtakes anymore.

The situation is fast converging towards the Bridgestone era.

24

They are starting to learn how the tyres work.

Pirelli needs to make something like 8 types of tyre degration, and stop telling them which ones are medium, soft, hard and supers soft. It will all be closed in the blankets, and they just randomly choose the ones to feet and prey that are good ones.

Than we sit back and watch them all panic 😛

I think the for us to have real big excitement is to call back the in race refuelling. That with tyres and we all can see the strategic side of the f1 come back again, not that i enjoyed much last time i saw Mclaren able to choose too many strategies. In the early 00’s it was like helping Schummy, like he needed…

25

That’s right

26

I used to love the action these tyres gave. Now I also think that they appear to be huge equalizers.

Once the teams figure out the amount of mechanical work that can be applied to the tyres before they become useless the game is over. The cars are then engineered to provide the most efficient tyre usage. The net effect all the big teams will end up driving the same speed and not needing to maximize their mechanical components. It is to the point that I couldn’t remember the last mechanical failure and then in this race there was a puff of smoke and a hydraulic failure. But anyway I agree the gimmick appears to be wearing off.

27

Thanks for that.

I note you said McLaren not making the same mistake twice. If only.

I assume that if they’d fueled Alonso for another couple of laps then he’d have had problems staying with Hamilton in the rest of the race and, of course, he might not have been second on the grid nor got away so quickly.

What is it with Alonso’s starts? All of a sudden its as if his lights go out earlier whereas I can remember him struggling, and not so long ago.

I can’t remember a modern race (no going back to the 71 Italian GP) where the top three cars, from different teams, were so close for so long. I am certain others will point out I have a poor memory. As you say, Webber dropped back to 8 sec behind and he seemed out of the race. Yet we’d have been saying ‘he could make that up’ any other time.

I’ve just watched the race again. The lap 16 incident where Hamilton was overtaken and then repassed is still exciting.

Great race and made all the more interesting with your explanation of tactics. Thanks.

28

JA- you have been on song in your last 3 articles on the German race- not that your standard wasn’t exceptional in the first place. Great work.

29

Thanks very much..

30

It looks like Vettel’s pit box is before the start finish line. If so, could he have pitted on the last lap, changed to prime tires, and taken the checker on pit road?

31

To be honest, that’s is what i thought Red Bull were building up to do with Webber. I think there was 5 laps to go with an 11sec margin over Hamilton. Bring him on the last lap, change tires and roll over for the chequered flag. Perhaps somebody could shed some light on that?

32

Nice review!

But how about Vettel vs. Massa battle?

Strangely, none of them wanted the prime tyre – to the extent that they postponed their pitstops to the last lap!

And that’s seeing that Petrov and Hamilton were setting their fastest laps on it.

Neither one tried to undercut. Could it be a mistake?

33

James, what about the age-old McLaren strategy on Saturday, alluded to by Hamilton in the post-qualifying interview, running on light fuel to improve grid position? That enabled him to jump Webber at the start, get in front and maintain position. I don’t want to discount a great team effort and tremendous drive by Lewis, but I question whether there’s anything in the rules that equalizes the fuel load for the teams in qualifying. Grid position is still a huge factor in a race, especially this week at the Hungaroring, despite the DRS zones and so-called tire strategy.

34

THey don’t carry race fuel in qualifying any more. Everyone is light in qualifying

35

It was a fantastic race and I cant remember a race where 3 guys were so closely matched for such an extended period.

As someone who has to look at graphs and graphics for a living, I can never bring myself to look at them for home purposes too much 🙂

James,

I was reading today that Mercedes GP are going back on the recruitment drive (reversing the impact of the brawn changes in 09 presumably).

Have you ever done something on the headcount of the bigger teams? I know that around 400 + is the top team level, but am always interested whether you can see a link between the performance and the people no’s (i.e a lot of people I’ve spoken to said Williams tech team has been too stretched for some time – finances lead on that obviously).

Thanks

Andy

36

I’ve not but it’s a good idea. Thanks

37

Perhaps overlaying headcount and points would be a really good analysis, to show who gets the biggest points per head.

38

Excellent analysis as always, thanks James. I would be interested to know if anyone can shed light on Vettel’s performance. He had a spin and flatspotted the tyres, fair enough, but he didn’t seem particularly interested until the final pit stop got him 4th place.

Driving for points rather than wins from now on?

39

He was warned about rear brake temps somewhere in the middle of the race. And was given the go ahead to race right toward the end.

40

“Alonso came out of the pits in front but the Ferrari’s weakness in not warming the tyres up straight away meant Hamilton was able to pass him in Turn 2”

Is one corner enough for the weakness in tyre heating of the Ferrari vs. other cars to really make a difference?

41

I felt Brundle’s comment on Alonso was caught napping was rather unfair.

Ferrari’s weakness are the mediums, worse on a cold track. But they’re catching up race to race.

42

Yep

44

Of course, the effect is weaker the longer the car is out on track i.e. the tyres warm up. It would have been harder for Hamilton to pass Alonso a lap later as the Ferrari would have been quicker through turn 1 and between turn 1 and 2 (this is where the pass was really made).

45

Of course all cars heat their tyres over time and eventually they all get up to temperature. However, that doesn’t mean that the difference is maximised after one corner. I’d have guessed that you’d need half a lap at least before the difference was significant.

This chart shows how I imagine it: http://postimage.org/image/2uv8py2x0/

What I’m suggesting if Alonso had been in, say, a McLaren, his tyres would still have been stone cold one corner after exiting the pits. So the fact that his tyres were cold is simply because he’d only just come out of the pits, rather than because the Ferrari hadn’t heated up its tyres as much as another car would have by that stage.

46

Off topic here.. Did anyone find the race coverage to be the worst we had this year. While we had an exciting battle for the lead, the producer kept focusing on Vettel in 5th place or any other random German driver. I know its the German GP but to not show Webber last pit stop and where he would end up compare to Hamilton/Alonso was extremely frustrating. Still it was a nice race, cant wait for Hungary and hopefully a Vettle DNF(for the championship sakes of course)

47

I totally had the same frustration all throughout this race!! I was about to perform a fatality on my TV, but then finally they showed us the battle for the front.

The TV director is more than likely obligated to show any home drivers as much as possible, but me thinks they took it a wee bit too far this race.

48

It does make you wonder whether it would be a good idea to tweak the tyre usage rules in a race.

E.g. Put the pit lane speed limit down to 40kph to make pit stops damage times more and then if start on the soft tyre, you HAVE to use the hards later. But if you start on the hard tyre, there’s no need to move to softs, you could pit once for another pair of hards.

The men with the data could analyse it properly but what I would want is for a car completing a race distance to be able to do it about as fast on 2 pairs of hards as any other tyre combination.

49

James, did you gather any info about whether Button could have really finished 4th ahead of Massa and Vettel had he not had the hydraulic issue. Whitmarsh and Button said they could have, but it’s difficult to tell if that’s wishful thinking or was a realistic possibility.

50

I think it is certain that Button would have been 4th. He would have been closer to Webber if he hadn’t lost 30 seconds being held up by Petrov.

Clues are looking at his performance increase after Petrov pitted, Rosberg’s very slow second pit and Hamilton’s performance on the prime tyre.

Button would have passed Massa and Vettel when they took their final pit.

51

I felt he was on for that, but who knows?

52

The Williams was hard on the tyres and slow. Quite an engineering feat!

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