The Japanese Grand Prix was all about race strategy. With tyre wear much more tricky to manage than expected, throughout the field the drivers who succeeded were the ones whose teams got the strategy right, not just on race day but on qualifying day too.
There were some pretty contrasting races at the front. Of the top three, Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull had the worst tyre performance and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari had the best. Alonso was nowhere near as quick as Vettel at the start of each of the stints, but he was always the quickest of the three cars at the end of the stints, with much less tyre drop off. This gave him the opportunity to take second place, despite only having the car pace to qualify 5th.
Meanwhile the race winner Jenson Button had the pace to stay with Vettel early on and was able to manage his tyres better in the opening stint so that he could pit a lap later than the world champion and emerge in front of him. But it wasn’t easy for him; as the McLaren has got quicker this year, its tyre performance has edged closer to that of Red Bull, as you would expect given that it’s putting more load through the tyres.
The top three finishers all did exactly the same strategy with three stints on used soft tyres and a final stint on new mediums. The difference was in the tyre degradation each of them suffered and the laps on which they chose to pit.
I thought as the race unfolded that Red Bull were being conservative with Vettel – knowing he only needed a point to clinch the title – and that offered a chance to Button and Alonso, which both of them took. But closer analysis shows that this wasn’t necessarily the case, given that in each stint he only pitted when the tyres started to drop off in performance. Often this season we have seen Red Bull be the first to pit when arguably there has been some life left in the tyres, but they always had enough pace in hand to make early stops and retain track position. In Japan Vettel couldn’t get away with that.
There are two ways of looking at Vettel’s strategy on Sunday; on the one hand he stopped early to try and maintain position, which could be considered conservative, but on the other hand being the first to stop was also quite aggressive because he risked running out of tyres late in the race. He went onto the mediums with 20 laps to go, while Button went three laps later and Alonso four laps later, thanks to superior tyre wear at the end of the stints on the softs. This is where he took second place from Vettel.
Vettel had a big gap at the end of his first stint (5.2s) and he only pitted because his tyres were finished (lap 5: 1:39.7s, lap 6: 1:40.0s, lap 7: 1:41.2s, lap 8: 1:41.7s). At the end of the second stint, you can see that his tyres were finished again and he was actually very aggressive at the final pitstop because he stops and comes out in traffic on the prime tyre. The newer tyre helped him, but Button had him covered all day.
How the Safety Car changed the midfield battle for points
As we have seen many times this season there was a tremendous scrap among the midfield runners for points positions behind the top three teams. It was always going to be this way at Suzuka with the high tyre wear and the strategists started planning their race on Saturday before qualifying.
We saw Kobayashi, Schumacher, Senna and Petrov all make it into the top ten in qualifying, but they did not set a flying lap time in Q3. So they had, in the Renaults’ case two sets of new medium tyres and one set of new softs for the race and, in Schumacher and Kobayashi’s case, one new set of each compound.
The key calculation here was the crossover point in lap time between the two tyres and on the day the difference between the medium and the soft was about 1.2s per lap. Schumacher and Kobayashi started on used soft tyres, while the Renaults went with new mediums. The two Force India cars meanwhile qualified outside the top ten and both started on used softs, while Sergio Perez was down in 17th on the grid and started on new mediums.
The safety car likelihood for this race was 60% and we duly got one on lap 24. The drivers who benefited were Petrov and Perez because they’d started on the medium tyre and the Safety Car won them back the time they’d lost. They were 43 seconds off the lead and over 20 seconds behind the Sutil when the Force India driver pitted, just two laps before the safety car was deployed.
The Force India drivers were on classic three-stop strategies and by lap 20 it was going well; they had three-quarters of a pitstop advantage over their rivals. But the gap went down to zero under the Safety Car and Perez and Petrov had gained track position with the Force India stops. Even with DRS and it’s difficult to overtake at Suzuka. Petrov and Perez were on new sets of options at the end of the race too, while Sutil was on the prime tyre so there was no chance to recover.
As for the two Mercedes cars, Rosberg started 23rd after a hydraulic problem in qualifying. He started on new medium tyres and ended up right behind the Force India of Sutil after the Safety Car, in 12th place. He was essentially on the same pitstop sequence as Force India, but the Safety Car closed the gap up and he had the advantage of using the option tyre at the end of the race, so was able to get ahead and claim a point in 10th place.
Schumacher, meanwhile, ran a pretty standard three-stop race with stops on laps 9, 24 and 41. Interestingly he did a 15-lap second stint on used soft tyres, which revealed that he had better tyre life than Red Bull and Hamilton, which hasn’t always been the case with Mercedes this year. He was 25s behind the leaders when the Safety Car came out, so that handed him the chance to close up. A nice long, consistent 17 lap stint on new soft tyres after the Safety Car brought him out ahead of Massa and underlined once again that the veteran is back on top form in terms of race pace, as we get towards the end of his second comeback season. His races have also noticeably improved since Jock Clear, his old rivals from Villeneuve/Williams days, became his race engineer..
What happened to Lewis Hamilton?
This was an odd race for Hamilton as he squandered a chance to start on pole by a collective team and driver timing mistake in qualifying. Then in the race his pace was well off his team mate Button’s.
A slow puncture at the end of the first stint undoubtedly lost him time (lap 5: 1:40.1s, lap 6: 1:40.8s, lap 7: 1:41.9s) and positions to Alonso and Button. And McLaren have said that it also affected the rest of his race because they made a set up change to the car before realising that it had been handling strangely due to a puncture. They say the changes gave him an imbalance.
Hamilton’s second stint was the really poor one – much worse than the others. He was right with Alonso and Button on lap 12, but by the time he made his stop on lap 20 he had dropped a load of time eight second, a second a lap in other words.
Hamilton got back a place from Massa by making an earlier pitstop and then exploiting the Ferrari’s problems with initial warm up on the mediums to pass Massa on his out lap. His pace was better on the medium tyre, but he lost too much time in the opening two stints to get a decent result.
Wear rates were pretty marginal on the soft tyres, but as always, it was the same for everyone. The puncture didn’t help, but it seems that Hamilton also suffered a bit more than the other front-runners. When the tyres are going away it’s frustrating for a driver. It’s a vicious circle: he’s trying to push, but he ends up going slower.
The Strategy Briefing and Report is written by James Allen with input and data from strategy engineers from several F1 teams and support from F1 Global Partner UBS.
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