Complex decision making: A deep dive into race strategies from Italian Grand Prix
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Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  13 Sep 2011   |  11:34 am GMT  |  90 comments

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.

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1

hard to believe this was back in? 2010

2

how about alonso being 2nd in the championship again this year.

3

But as we are the 60% and British or English speakers , why should we have to do a conversion? Let the other nationalities do it or better still, put both down if it’s not too difficult!

Thanks.

4

Hi James,

Very good article, but please, please put the speeds down in MPH as we are British and. I presume, this is a British web site!

Bruce

5

It’s easier to multiply (estimate) by 1.6 than to divide. So James, please keep it at KPH. Thanks!

6

60% of the audience is international

7

I do a bit hard to remember, but the graphs can go above the 0-line at rain or savety cars.

Imagine a race starting at sun, then rain and ending with savety car.

So the first part of the race would have better lap times than the average for the whole race. I think i saw such ‘positive’ graphs a few times?

8

Yes Monaco with the late stoppage would be an example.

A similar plot from back in the refuelling days would also be likely to go above 0 as lap times remained fairly even through the race.

9

Hello James, it did cross my mind at the time but I did not pursue it any further, but according to Martin Brundle this was the first time since the 1970 Mexican Grand Prix, that 5 World Champions have filled the top 5 positions.

10

Actually, I have just checked the results for this race and it couldn’t have been. Any suggestions as to what race it could have been; if ever?

11

At one point in the race the 5 world champions were in the first 5 positions, I think that was what Martin was commenting on. I suspect it will have been the first time that’s happened. I can’t of any other race this year – Schumacher has not been in the top 5 very often, and non-champion Webber has. The South African and Spanish GPs of 1970 are a couple of others where it might have been a possibility.

12

Isn’t it amusing how Schumacher could get away with what he did! I’m sure if James had committed a crime and was seen doing it by the police that even though his mommy pinched him on the ear and scolded him for the police to see that he would still have been charged for that crime!!! I remember LH being given a drive through for forcing a driver off track in Hungary and a reprimand for moving more than once in the braking zone earlier….ever consistent stewardry?…

13

Can somebody explain to me, how is this possible that EVERYBODY, I mean engineers were so sure that the decision that RBR took with Vettel was wrong and yet he completely destroyed the field?

14

Vettel is in a totally different level completely, thought his straight line speed was hampered with his set up. Gotta be his unique driving style not just the car. Vettel is the new Senna I guess.

15

Hi James,

Been musing about the different gear ratios that Vettel used, and the advantages vs disadvantages the strategy had.

My understanding is that the only advantage would be quicker acceleration (more time within the peak torque/power band), at the expense of top-end speed (due to the rev limiter).

With the overall understanding that according to Red Bull’s simulations, the extra acceleration from the start and after corners would more than made up for the lack of top speed at the end of the straights, over the full race distance.

It also helps that the top-speed would only come up perhaps 2 times per lap (the main straights), whereas the acceleration could be used 6 times per lap (after every corner = 3 chicanes, 2 Lesmos, Parabolica).

In terms of passing, this would mean that Vettel would have reached a certain speed earlier than his rivals, meaning a speed advantage on the early parts of straights and on parts of the track where the top speed is not reached.

Could this quicker acceleration have been the reason for his easy pass on Alonso?

It would have meant it was easier to pass on Curva Grande, coming up to Ascari etc. It also would have meant he would be able to drive away from rivals initially on the straight, though would have been a sitting duck at the end if the rival was still close enough.

This extra acceleration was also in conjunction with the good downforce and traction of the Red Bull – the gearing was not the only strength – which would also have given him a gap out of Ascari (where he seemed to make up all his time in Qualifying on Hamilton) leading up to the straight.

I also assume that with full tanks at the start of the race, the lack of absolute topspeed was less of an issue than in qualifying with empty tanks as it is harder and takes longer to reach max speed. The extra acceleration with full tanks would also have been more useful. Is this one reason why he seemed so quick in the first stint of the race?

Would this have meant that the other cars would have likely been a closer match in absolute lap times at the end?

The strategy was then essentially to run & hide, build an advantage using the acceleration early (not missing the top speed so much as yet), stay out of traffic/trouble, not let a car get close enough for DRS, keep managing the gap to the finish.

Was the only reason the strategy worked because they were on pole? Or because of the combination of strengths of the Red Bull? Or because Vettel was in imperious form? Or did their rivals miss a trick? Or did they all combine?

Anyways, prob enough about that…

16

I think you’ve got a pretty good handle on it Vinwah. That’s why Seb was so eager to get past Alonso after the restart.

17

James,

Do we know what the difference in the top gear ratio between Vettel and the other front runners?

18

Mclaren opted again for a higher downforce set-up like what they had at spa. Yes they are quick but in my observation they suffer massively on a heavy fuel load at the start. More downforce + full(heavy)fuel load they suffer with top speed in circuits like spa and monza.

But in the middle of the race they seem to make it work since the fuel goes down which helps their top speed. Maybe they should tweak it a bit so they wouldn’t suffer at the start? just like vettel’s gear ratio strategy.

Whitmarsh said mclaren was fastest http://en.espnf1.com/italy/motorsport/story/58813.html Yes they were fast, but to be fast at the last segment of the race is good but at some point it would be hard to catch the leader if he was able to pull a gap during the first half or 3/4 of the race?

19

I also thought that it was odd that Mark didn’t know about the wing being under the car. You would have thought that he would have been told to slow right down so that he could have still made the chequered flag and some points.

20

James, what happened around the last stops that meant Schumacher exited the pits close to Hamilton? I would have thought that the earlier stop and faster car would have put Hamilton further ahead.

Was this down to the difference between the soft and medium tyres do you think?

21

Hamilton’s pace in the last 14 laps relative to his peers was phenomenal. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed watching Schumacher hold him at bay, I can’t help thinking that the race and potentially championship would have been more exciting if Hamilton hadn’t been caught with his trousers around his ankles after the restart. But let’s not forget that IF is F1 backwards as Murray used to say.

22

Hamilton and Button matched each other, virtually to the tenth, over the last 14 laps.

23

do you think the mclarens could have given Seb a run for his money if they had their starting position after the first few laps?

24

Strategy or set-up? Red Bull aced them both on Sunday.

I’ve always thought that wings, ratios and basic suspension geometry are very similar across the teams. Very interesting to see that is not always the case.

25
Grayzee (Australia)

Great read, again.

Ok! I’m confused. Monza is supposed to be all about top speed, so how can the car with slowest top speed be so much faster than all the others? I understand how it worked in Qualy, but the race? Is it to do with downforce(he wasn’t running much wing) or with pure acceleration? It seems to defy logic that a car that tops out at 327kph can be quicker over a whole lap than one that does 340kph. And, given that the strategy worked, why didn’t anyone else do it? Or would it only work with the Red Bull car? I dunno. Please help !

26

“It seems to defy logic that a car that tops out at 327kph can be quicker over a whole lap than one that does 340kph”

You’re only looking at one point of reference, which is the speed trap at the end of the longest straight. As Aaron says, you need to consider the rest of the lap or take average speed to show who really is the quickest and not necessarily the fastest 😉

I have to admit that I’m not the biggest Red Bull Racing fan, but I’ve become more impressed as time goes on with their thinking outside the box approach. Running the shorter ratios here and at Barcelona was inspired and they fully deserve to win this year’s World Championships.

It’s only a shame that this won’t be picked up more in the general F1 press. Had it have been a third pedal or an F duct, we wouldn’t hear the end of it, but adopting a different strategy and concept has really paid dividends, just as the rest of the RB7 has been brilliant.

27

Exactly. The lap time gain from a smoother acceleration out of the fast corners outweighs the top speed they hit for a few moments later on the straight. It’s only a problem when you are behind a faster car in a straight line, as Hamilton was with Schumacher

28

Its a bit like drag racing, the car with the highest terminal speed is not always the quickest over the 1/4 mile.

29
Grayzee (Australia)

Thanks Guys! Now I understand. It was pure ingenuity on RB’s part. Thinking “outside” the box is pretty rare these days.

30

faster through Ascari, parabolica, lesmos, curva grande and the chicane at the end of the main straight. faster acceleration, stronger braking. I guess it must all add up!

31

You’re right he wasn’t running a lot of wing, so I guess it was down to gearing for optimum acceleration. I think that set-up could have only worked for Vettel, based on the plan of running away at the front and never having to fight with anyone. Everyone else had to make sure they had enough top speed to attack or defend.

32

James I don’t know how you managed to create this report in one day. Get all the information that you need and then analyze it.

Such an excellent work.

Great race and we don’t care anymore to know who is first in the race because we all know that.

Good overtaking and a very entertaining race.

33

I’m curious whether both McLarens had the same gearing. Although I was not able to see the whole race, from what I viewed I did not recall Button bouncing off the rev limiter aka Hamilton.

34

This could be because he wasn’t in the slipstream of a car in front going down the main straight.

Hamilton was close enough to Schumi without DRS to be in the slipstream. Time and again he would pull up behind on the main straight in the slipstream, step out from behind Schumacher come half alongside before fading back again as the Merc had so much straightline speed.

Incidentally I thought Hamilton could have been a little smarter with the DRS. It seemed he stepped out from behind Schumi before the DRS line, thus losing the slip, and then once he was already losing ground opened the DRS. He seemed to do this a few times.

Would it have been better to be a little further back leaving the parabolica, use the KERS, DRS and slipstream in conjunction to propel him up to and past Schumi, or at least alongside, into the braking zone?

35

As per comment above, their speed trap figures were practically identical.

36

After the Monza race, it dawned on me that the belief that Mclaren has had the faster race car isn’t exactly accurate.

Red Bull has been the all round package since the season began. It has been fast on every track & more importantly it has been dominant in qualifying + as a bonus, it has been pretty bullet proof.

The thing is since the hard tyre is used by teams at the end of the stint – towards the end of the race & Mclaren have been fast on those, it has given the impression that Mclaren has been the faster race car as they have been able to set faster times on low fuel.

And yet on heavier fuel but on the soft tyre, Mclaren is slower than both Ferrari & Red Bull, which has enabled Vettel to build a gap early in the race while the Mclaren lads are crashing behind trying to get past other cars due to lower grid slots because surprise-surprise, even in 2011, pole position is still critical.

37

Good analysis James.

During the race we saw a lot of footage from inside Hamiltons car and could hear him bouncing off the limiter on the pit straight. It is something we saw lap after lap for maybe 5 or 6 laps while he was stuck behind Schumi.

We didn’t, as far as I remember, see much from the inside of Jenson’s car, for comparison.

Basically, I am wondering if Jenson had the same issues Hamilton did, or whether they’d given him a longer top gear than they had Hamilton (not suggesting any conspiracy – may well have been driver preference as at Red Bull!). He got passed Schumi instantly in a great move, but it makes me wonder why Hamilton struggled where Button succeeded.

Was it simply a great move from Button following perhaps a slight mistake from Schumacher, all coming together at the right time for Jenson – or did he have a slightly different setup that gave him a slight advantage in that scenario?

38

I reckon two factors helped Button past Schumacher. First, he preserved his tyres more in the first few laps so had more grip when he got up behind Schumacher. Second, he’d had the opportunity to watch Schumacher defending against Hamilton, which maybe helped him anticipate where Schumacher would go on the approach to Ascari.

The two McLarens both went through the speed trap at about 333kph, in qualifying and the race. Button just faster by 0.5kph in qualy and 0.2kph in the race.

39

Thanks iceman – just the answer I was looking for 🙂

40

Even more importantly, Schumi’s pace was compromised by his attempt to run Lewis off the track, so Jenson was able to get a run on him into the chicane.

I previously wondered whether Jenson’s setup was significantly different, but his comments after the race regarding how he was able to pass, and your stats on the relative speeds of the Mclarens show that he just had better luck than Lewis that day, admittedly allied to probably slightly better racecraft.

41

Interesting.The graph is very graphic re Vettel’s pace,”he killed em (2010-2011 WDC)”!

As for my foot shooting team McLaren,”sheezus guys,wouldn’t an extra tooth on LH’s top cog have made a world of difference,I mean its easy for me to say in hindsight but aren’t you mechanics paid to know what the required gear ratio is to avoid stuttering down the pit straight bouncing off the limiter,without even touching the DRS button.

Quite amateurish IMO.Hurry back Ron.

42

No doubt Lewis’ chosen ratio was shown to be ‘mathematically superior’ by some simulation or other…

43

The strategy was a good one, ruined by a muffed start.

If he hadn’t had the bad start and got stuck behind Schumacher, it would have probably been good enough for 2nd, or at worst 3rd place.

44

I believe part of it (from what was mentioned somewhere a the beginning of the race I think) is that Hamilton’s car was setup for the RBs (and they would have a good idea on Friday and Saturday morning what the RB plan was wrt gear ratio) and the lower ratios would’ve helped him keep up coming out of the corners and still keep up.

The ratio Hamilton had allowed a quicker off-the-corner speed (which the Merc didn’t have, but made up for farther down the straights).

45

Yes looked as if Hamilton was setup for a bull hunt. But i think it was not only Schumi’s not punishable blocking. Hamilton looked as if he was doing a overtake thinking he had the faster car, which he obviously didn’t had. Trying to overtake on the outside demands a faster car because of the longer way. He hadn’t the faster car compared to Schumi and should have tried the inside?

Was he just not experienced enough with slow cars (well just compared to a Merc in this race) in difference to Button. So good drivers should have had a saison with slow cars?

46

Great article James. Just to add to Schmacher missing the gear and letting Hamilton through, Ross Brawn says he was distracted because he was on the radio at the time. Wonder how long Schumi might have kept Hamilton there if didn’t missed the gear.

47

James, not sure what you mean by Vettel’s shorter top gear allowing him to use DRS exactly as he wanted to. Would have thought it would negate the effect of DRS as he would be hiiting the limiter. Could you elaborate please?

48

From what little I understood about the matter, a shorter gearset will, as James mentioned, allow him to put the power down more smoothly accelerating out of a corner allowing him to use the DRS on corner exit sooner without a big power surge from a taller gear causing a spin. In qualifying where DRS is used everywhere he probably knew he could use it to extract more pace from the car in quali trim to get on pole and then assuming he could stay in P1 he wouldnt ever need his DRS anyways and the shorter gear would allow him quicker acceleration out of a corner to break a tow making the lower top speed a non-issue, similar to how he held Hamilton at bay in Spain as he got out of the last corner fast enough where Hamilton couldnt run him down on the pit straight. He almost got made to look like a huge fool though when Alonso snuck around at the start and hence it being a huge pass that he pulled on Alonso to gain the lead back, and what I find most impressive was how quickly he put 1 second between them before the DRS was reactivated 1-2 laps after he got around. The rest, as they say, was history… what a great race!

49

I don’t think activating DRS on corner exit will make much difference because at that point the car’s speed is still (relatively) low. The DRS effect surely is most pronounced at much higher speeds where drag reduction is most significant. And it is precisely at these speeds that Vettel’s shorter gearing would have crippled his ability to derive any benefit from DRS.

I can understand RBR’s logic if their calculations showed that the improved acceleration from the short gearing would more than offset the loss of top speed and inability to maximise the DRS effect. What I don’t understand is James’ statement that the shorter gearing allowed Vettel to use DRS exactly as he wanted to.

50

how about alonso being 2nd in the championship again this year. makes me think he is the only one who can beat vettel over a season now.

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