The Belgian Grand Prix was one of the most interesting races of the season from a strategy point of view, with the top four finishers using four different strategies. Most of the practice was run in wet conditions, so no-one had any tyre data and therefore raceday was a voyage into the unknown.
How long would the soft tyre last? How much slower would the medium tyre be than the soft per lap?
What was known after qualifying, as a result of most drivers doing up to six laps in Q3, was that the soft front tyres were blistering, even on low fuel. This meant that several drivers, including both Red Bull drivers, were faced with having to make a pit stop very soon after the start of the race to get rid of their damaged qualifying tyres. How they managed that and the decisions they made about how to run the race from there dictated the outcome and it’s fascinating to look in depth at what happened.
Vettel: Risk, opportunity and reward
Sebastian Vettel started from pole, briefly lost the lead to Rosberg then regained it. It was a good decision to stop early on lap 5. It’s never easy to make such an early stop when you are pulling away, but the tyres didn’t have much more in them (having already done 6 laps in qualifying and now 5 in the race). By coming in on lap 5 and rejoining in seventh place, just 10 seconds behind the leader, Vettel was now on fresh tyres while all his rivals were still on their old qualifying rubber. His pace during this seven lap stint is what set up the victory for him.
It effectively gave him a free pit stop when the safety car came out on lap 13, because he had built a sufficient margin that he could pit and lose track position only to Alonso. From there he could manage the race, dividing the remaining 20 laps into roughly equal stints on the softs and then finally on the mediums. By the time he took the medium tyre on lap 30, the team already had a lot of data about it from Mark Webber’s car, the Australian having done most of the race on it.
So Vettel’s strategy was all about coping with risk initially, then being bold and stopping early, then taking the opportunity of the safety car and from there on he had track position and it was just about managing the tyres.
No. Many fans have suggested that Ferrari’s strategy was flawed, but it wasn’t. They made the right decision to leave him out as it maintained track position ahead of Red Bull and this gave Ferrari and Alonso a shot at the win. Even though Alonso had tyres that were 5 laps older than Vettel he was better off staying out because a) Ferrari’s tyre wear was good and b) a stop under the Safety Car would have dropped him behind Webber.
With Webber, on medium tyres, slower than Alonso after the restart, this would have resulted in Alonso being even further behind Vettel prior to making his last pitstop.
The only thing that Ferrari might have done differently is to spend less laps on the medium tyre which may have given Button less of an opportunity to close the gap, but they were trying to do one less stop than Vettel and Alonso probably needed fresh rubber when he pitted for mediums after 21 laps on his soft tyres. This season with the Pirellis you are constrained into windows in which you have to change tyres simply because of the tyres going off.
Alonso’s laptimes on the medium tyres remained consistent so it is debatable whether the extra laps on the medium cost him the position to Button, but most likely he would have lost it either way.
Whatever decision Ferrari made at the Safety Car moment, Alonso would ultimately have lost out to Webber, either by failing behind under the Safety Car and then not having the pace advantage to repass, or by staying out as they did.
Going into the race the talking point was the blistering on the soft tyres, which risked a failure if the tyres were pushed for too long on a car heavy with fuel. Mark Webber clearly felt that he couldn’t be competitive using the soft tyre and opted to run mainly on the medium tyre, which hurt his ultimate pace, but it got him a second place.
Many teams seem to have had the confidence that once they had got rid of the first set of soft tyres, they would be able to manage the blistering issue on the second set. They didn’t have much information about how the tyres would behave at Spa, although they do generally have a very good knowledge of the tyre, having raced it at every event this year. There was also a reluctance on most people’s account to use the medium tyre because they believed it to be 1.5 secs or more slower than the soft.
The teams who didn’t didn’t qualify in the top ten didn’t get to run slick tyres in qualifying and so had no idea what would happen with blistering on their car. It’s important to recognise that blistering doesn’t harm lap time particularly, it is not the same as degradation. The problem is vibration and ultimately if pushed too hard, there is the risk of a failure.
Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button did the same three stop strategy; a short early stint to get the slower medium tyre out of the way, pit early and then divide the rest of the race into three flat out stints on soft tyres. Both drivers were starting out of position; Schumacher 24th after a crash in qualifying and Button 13th after a bad strategy call saw him sitting in the pits when the track was at its fastest in Qualifying 2.
They came through the field brilliantly using strategy as well as car and driver pace. Button finished third and Schumacher fifth, ahead of his team mate Rosberg, who qualified fifth. When both made their final stops around lap 30/31 Schumacher was just five seconds behind Rosberg. But crucially he was now on new soft tyres and Rosberg on the slower medium tyre.
It would not have been possible without the safety car on lap 13, as Schumacher was 20 seconds off the lead at that stage and Button 21 behind. The safety car took away that time gap and made a comeback possible. Also the track allows it; not only is Spa a good track for overtaking, but with the adjustable DRS rear wing, a fast car and new soft tyres, passing was very easy on the Kemmel Straight. This was all factored into Button’s and Schumacher’s strategy.
The way Button in particular came through the field from 13th place after the Safety Car restart was very impressive. He went through Perez, Petrov, Sutil, Massa and Rosberg and then bridged the gap to the leading trio. But it was a consolation prize; he believed that he had the car to challenge for pole position and the race win in Spa, but that strategy mistake in qualifying cost him that chance and gave Vettel one less rival to deal with.
And this race was an opportunity for Button to beat Vettel because there was so much variation on strategy, if he had started alongside him on the front row.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Note the safety car period, Button’s progress after it and the fact that everyone stops for the final time within a lap or two of each other.