Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix was one of the best races of the season from the point of view of wheel to wheel combat.
But because of the unique nature of the Monza circuit, it also featured some fascinating decision-making by teams on race strategy, not just in terms of tyre strategy and pit stops, but also in terms of how to set up the cars, particularly wing level and gearing.
With top speeds reaching 350km/h, one of the key decisions was how to balance the use of the DRS wing (giving a 6-8km/h speed boost) while not hitting the rev limiter which is set at 18,000 rpm. How teams like Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes in particular chose to tackle this had a huge bearing on the outcome of the race.
The battles at the front
It was widely known after qualifying that Sebastian Vettel had chosen to use a shorter top gear than his rivals. This gave him the advantage of a smoother acceleration out of corners like Lesmo and Parabolica, even if he was sacrificing top speed. It also allowed him to use the DRS exactly how he wanted to. Vettel was clocked at just 327km/h, the slowest of any driver and 22km/h off the fastest, but he was on pole by half a second, so the tactic worked.
But it made him vulnerable if he lost track position in the race as he would not have the top speed to overtake on the straights. When he fell behind Alonso at the start, he had to make a very bold move in the Curva Grande to pass him for the lead. He was then able to use his pace advantage to break the tow and pull away.
Meanwhile McLaren thought that they had got the balance right, but hadn’t counted on finding themselves behind Michael Schumacher, who had his car set for high top speed and proved very hard to pass after another fantastic start put him in the race at the front.
Schumacher qualified 8th, but got a great start, running third after the first corner, but dropping back behind Hamilton by the end of the lap. The safety car was deployed for the accident in Turn 1 and at the restart, Hamilton wasn’t sharp and Schumacher repassed him, staying ahead for the whole of the first stint. Mercedes pitted him on lap 16, putting him on the new set of softs that the team had saved in qualifying by doing only one run in Q3. Hamilton stayed out for two more laps to try to build a gap. His stop was 0.7s faster than Mercedes, but Mercedes tyre planning for the race paid off and on new tyres Schumacher was fast enough to stay ahead of Hamilton. Mercedes top speed without the DRS was equal to the McLaren’s top speed with DRS so Hamilton couldn’t get ahead.
After a warning from Race Control about blocking, in the end Schumacher lost the place by making a late upshift when the engine was on the limiter and this lost momentum and allowed Hamilton to pass.
In the battle for second place between Button and Alonso, the Ferrari driver had good pace on the soft tyre, but once again the Ferrari’s weakness on the first laps on the medium tyre cost him a position. Button came in on lap 33 and his outlap was 1.5 seconds faster than Alonso’s when he pitted a lap later. Button passed him on that lap. Button’s second lap on the tyre was a 1m 28.0, while Alonso’s was a 1m 29.3. This has now cost Alonso important positions in three races, including Germany, where he lost the lead to Hamilton is similar fashion to the way Button took him at Monza. Ferrari acknowledges it is a weakness they must address for 2012, as it holds them back strategically.
Mercedes thinking differently
Another important reason why Schumacher was able to compete at Monza was that the soft Pirelli tyre turned out to be more durable than expected. The blistering was not as bad as at Spa, due to strict camber levels imposed by Pirelli and enforced by the FIA. And the degradation was not as bad as in Friday practice because the track improved. Mercedes have struggled this season with wearing out the soft tyres more quickly than their rivals, but Schumacher was able to do 21 laps on his second set of softs.
Knowing that they didn’t have the speed to do better than 7th and 8th in qualifying, Mercedes strategists had been focussing on the plan for the race. To this end Rosberg had qualified on medium tyres, which meant that he fell behind Petrov and Schumacher, whom he would normally outqualify. The thinking behind Rosberg’s strategy was to avoid starting the race on blistered soft tyres, to run a long opening stint and then two fast stints on new soft tyres. Part of this was due to the fact that Mercedes had high degradation on the soft on Friday and also because the difference in lap time between the soft and medium wasn’t as great as at Spa. Here it was more like 0.7s to 1.2s, with Mercedes and Red Bull on the lower end of that.
Sadly we never got to see what Rosberg might have achieved as he was eliminated in the first corner accident. But it is worth noting that as the durability of the soft tyre was better than expected on race day, all Rosberg’s rivals were easily able to do the race in two stops only, so it’s unlikely that he would have finished higher than Schumacher did in fifth place.
Strategy brings midfielders strong results
Rosberg’s decision to start on mediums was not unique and caused a ripple effect. Senna did not set a time in Q3 so he could have the choice of which tyre to start on and sitting behind Rosberg on the grid he went for medium, reasoning that there was no point being on the faster tyre if Rosberg was going to be slower ahead of him in the opening stint on mediums. He lost five places in the opening lap chaos and pitted under the safety car on lap 2 to soft tyres and did a three stop strategy from there. Arguably he would have been better to stick with the original plan to run mediums and stop twice. It might have left him closer to Alguersuari in the middle stint.
But the Spaniard had great pace in that second stint and this set him up for his career best seventh place. His start was good, coming from 18th to 11th and because he had been eliminated in Q1, he had new tyres for the whole race. The Toro Rosso is very kind to its tyres, like the Sauber, and the general pattern seems to be that they qualify poorly but can race well. In previous years with durable Bridgestone tyres this would have led to no points, but they’ve played the Pirelli card very well.
Alguersuari’s result makes it seven consecutive races – and nine in total out of 13 – in which a driver eliminated in Q1 scores points.
It’s all down to strategy and this has been one of the most refreshing aspects of the 2011 season.
Behind Rosberg and Senna several drivers outside the top ten (and therefore able to choose their starting tyre), went for medium tyre too. These included both Saubers and Sutil, their target being to do the race in one stop only. Again, regretfully all three retired so we never got to see what they might have done.
Perez was looking very good, though. He made up seven places at the start to 10th and was running 8th in the opening stint, with Alguersuari. He was in a very good position with good pace on the medium tyre. When the Spaniard pitted on lap 20, Perez could have switched to a two stopper and come home just ahead of him in P7. But sadly the gearbox failed and he retired. This proved significant in the championship as it allowed Di Resta to score four points, which moved Force India into 6th place in the Constructors’ championship, ahead of Sauber.
The UBS Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from strategy engineers from several F1 teams
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Note Vettel’s pace after the restart on lap 4, which astonished rival teams. Note also the way Alonso’s pace drops off relative to the McLarens after switching to medium tyres on lap 34.