How the race was won: A deep dive into race strategies from Japanese Grand Prix
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  11 Oct 2011   |  11:17 am GMT  |  169 comments

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.

Getting that little bit extra: Vettel vs Button and Alonso

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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what do you think is happening with Massa?


Korean Practise Question

Has Lewis’ Race Engineer



please say yes!!!

– ok bear with me. i did see Latham in the Pit but what i also saw was the other guy whose name i don’t know releasing Lewis’ during P1.

P2 radio-comm also sounded different (either not Latham or he is improving his message delivery – the engineer pointed out where time was being lost but also explained the run relative to tyres and fuel with encouraging words – this is not typical Latham. the voice did sound different to me but that might be my wishful thinking)

what do y’all think?.


Someone mentioned earlier about the prospects for Vettel on a 4-stopper, and I remember thinking the same about Hamilton.

Considering he must have had an extra set of prime tyres after the foul up in quali, and that his outright pace on the tyre was good, wouldn’t it have made more sense to use his natural aggression to really go at maximum speed, especially after he jumped Button at the start? It would have negated his problems with tyre wear vis-a-vis Button and Alonso…


Unsurprisingly a large proportion of the posts are about Lewis Hamilton and everyone has a view, but I think perhaps there is more going on inside Mclaren than we are aware of. According to Lewis’s comment in Korea he did not have a puncture at Suzuka after all, but the car was rapidly degrading tyres because of the very stiff set up McLaren had given him for the race after preliminaries on the simulator. If you ask me a fair proportion of Lewis’s ills are down to McLaren foul ups as indeed the late release for his second run in Q3 clearly was.

I’m not convinced that Lewis’s management are ideal choice for a racing driver. It is known that Lewis wanted to expand his brand and perhaps they were the perfect choice for that, but not for his core activity – racing. I suspect Anthony Hamilton was quite right when he said he was not getting the right kind of support.

And finally James your last paragraph sums up all that is bad about these high degradation tyres and it is completely unfair. There simply is not enough latitude to allow lower performing cars whether that be intrinsic or due to set up, to push hard to catch up which sort of defeats the whole object of racing. It’s a shambles!


the real reason that hamilton wrecked his tyres in the first stint is because he had to start on a set that had already been used in Q2 and also in Q3 ….so they were already half gone before the race


That’s very true.- Well thought out! So the failure to do his second run had far reaching consequences. It does serve to highlight just how precariously balanced the whole operation is for drivers on these tyres.


I agree with you, Richard.

This whole tire thing is bad for the sport. And while its good to have some strategy, F1 is not chess. I miss the time when the drivers could push really hard in qualifying and in the race. To have one flying lap in the last seconds of the Q3 its ridiculous.


Jensen Button is giving Hamilton a lesson in maturity. Jensen had to drive the Honda when it was a terrible car and never gave less than 100%. When he finally got a decent car, the Brawn, he said that it went faster in reverse than his last car went forwards.

Lewis current car can still win races. Jensen attitude is to make the best of what he has, as he as had to drive cars that had no chance of winning in the past. Lewis is sulking that he hasn’t got a Red Bull forgetting that he has always had a race winning car.

Lewis needs a decent manager who will get his focus back on racing. He seems a decent young man but I suspect he is falling into bad company


Button only won because Vettel had a really slow pitstop


Villeneuve was one of the most talented drivers on the grid in the late 70’s, early 80’s, his talent deserved a WDC, but it didn’t happen


Let them all qualify on the softs. Then at start of the race they all use the hard compound and then change over to the tyres they qualified on as part of the rule during the pits. The only problem I see with this is, the Hard tyre with heavy fuel load will give the teams the chance to build gaps not like we are seeing at the moment. But it will make the start of the race durable but the end more of looking after your tyres whilst the fuel tank is low.


Basically give the teams an option to start with qualifying tyres or start with hard’s and then go to the soft qualifying tyre during a pit stop.


Lewis is his own worst enemy. He can keep blaming his car for not winning races, but I don’t think many people are criticizing him for not winning races. They are criticizing him for race-craft that seems to find him involved in a disproportionate number of incidents.

Excuses such as ‘he’s just always pushing the limits’ or ‘he doesn’t know any other way to drive than 110%’ really have no merit. A champion needs keep a cool head, knowing where the car’s limits are keeping it on that line. These are the same ‘rookie’ mistakes he was making in 2007 and 2008. As a fan, I had hoped winning his first championship was a turning point for him. Maybe it wasn’t.

He is without a doubt one of the most talented drivers on the grid, which is why people expect much more than he is showing lately.


Nice to see Team Lotus not falling off the graph like HRT and Virgin… based on this graph they actually look like they belong in F1.


If McLaren make a decent car next year, and the Pirellis still require sensitive handling, my money’s on JB to be champion.


Firstly Big Well done to Seb for claiming his Second World Championship.

On Lewis my question is has he been found out and is one dimensional? Whilst there is no doubt that he has speed does he have adaptability?

Reasons behind this –

– Hasn’t adapted driving style to the new tyres, I recall a piece by MB where the gist was that you had a certain amount of ‘tyre’ and you had to decide/manage when you used that over the stint. Lewis seems to overuse the tyre at the start of the stint and has nothing left at the end

– Misses testing or more to the point the impact of De La Rosa to develop the car. Is there any coincidence with the downturn in his performance with the testing ban coming into force? Lewis can drive the wheels off a car but can he develop one to move it forward. Intersting comment when Button re-signed from Paddy Lowe ‘ We’ve got a driver who can provide constructive feedback to develop the car’

Attitude – ‘Monkeys at the back’ and other comments haven’t endeared him to the other drivers who now make it overly difficult for him to get past

Heart on his sleeve – Blatantly obvious to everyone he’s not happy and he’s showing it so the mind games from others just compound the problem. Currently looks like he’d rather be anywhere else – his side of the garage doesn’t look a fun place to be. Jenson has looks to have come in and ‘stolen’ the team that was built up around him

When he is on it would say he is more Mansellesque than Senna – that’s why we love an ‘on it Lewis, he will rag every last tenth out of the car. When Mansell was driving, on a bad day, the car would at least do you the favour of blowing up so you looked to have gallantly tried, now the cars are so reliable they won’t do that for you and you roll in 5th, 6th or worse.

James, you know him better than us what are your views to the slump


Hi James,

Why do you think Schumacher has improved a lot? Is it as simple as the more mileage he puts in, the better he drives?

If not, I would appreciate if you could write an article about why he improved.

I think many people would want to read it.


Confidence is back certainly


hello james any news on Kubica?


Minor point. Race history graph is interesting, but would be easier for my old eyes to follow if McLaren and HRT switched colours. The bold black is wasted on HRT.

Change of subject. It is good to see that the Button/Hamilton pairing seems to gell. Reminds me of the great British pairings of the past; Hawthorn/Collins, Moss/Brooks, Clark/Hill.It would be nice to see Hamilton regain his form, and the Union flag dominating the podium. If DiResta gets a drive with MB, a Brit 1-2-3 could be on. Has there been one since 1958?


Why dont the teams use new soft tyres on lighter fuel loads so they can go faster instead of slower tyres at the end?


They used the harder compound at the end because they have to. They cannot use only one compound for the whole race. And the top teams don’t use the harder at the start because the car is too heavy and the harder tyre doesn’t offer as much grip as the softer.

They would lose alot of time in the first stint and at the start.


The car is much slower and less nimble with heavy fuel so better to offer it more grip to allow the driver to make better use of it in the early stages. Then as the track rubbers in during the race and the fuel load burns off the performance of the 2 compounds converges. This gives a better performance when averaged over the race distance. With your idea you’d have a prolonged period on the primes with heavy fuel going really slow followed by a short dash to the flag on the options. This would tend to mean that you spend more time on the inferior compound. Think of it this way:

If you start on heavy fuel on the primes you are automatically going to find it harder to make pit stop size gap to the car behind you because your car is slower. This means you are obligated to use the prime for a full life cycle in order to pit at the same time as the car behind and hopefully maintain position. This means you are spending a large amount of time on the sub optimum compound whilst the car is at its slowest. If you save the prime for the final stint, due to the rules you can run for as little time as possible as the race could feasibly end before the tyres die a death therefore offering the opportunity to remain on the optimum compound for the majority of the race and then just tolerating a short stint on the tyres you don’t really want to use. This is why we have seen drivers trying to save sets of new options for the race and in Germany I believe Vettel only used the prime for the final lap. It’s about minimising the time spent on the sub optimum compound.


This is the first time Lewis’s tyre was punctured due to his driving style or did he hit small debris not noticeable. The softs were blistering alot so I’m guessing he chewed them up that’s why the puncture.

Button was helped by the safety car or else he might have not completed the race from fuel guzzling. But maybe not from his smooth driving style. Just thinking.

Surprisingly Alonso’s pace was very good from the prime or Ferrari has improved so much, but then Suzuka is a fast and harsh track on rubber. Korea should reveal if it’s true they got around the problem bugging them.

Vettel RB7 seems to be eating tryes too, interesting.

I’m impressed with Pirelli as the variations this year has been hard to predict from track to track. I do understand they have tweaked them too.

James, do you have details of the period when they tweaked the compounds?

This year’s rubber has been intriguing or rather mysterious.


Hi James,

Any chance of you doing a feature on the new teams at any stage. I know everyone loves all the top teams and its more interesting to fans to hear about the teams fighting for the constructors etc but we never really here anything about the new teams and the teammate battles etc in those teams.

Don’t really ever hear any info about how the new teams think their drivers are performing etc either.

Also next time your in the paddock can you get the goss on if Helmut thinks Daniel is doing a good job at HRT at the moment ?

Keep up the great work, this is without a doubt the best Motorsport related site around. I wish motoGP also had a commentary site of this calibre.




Would like to hear about the smaller teams also. In particular about HRT and Virgin. What are their plans for the future? Are they going to be allowed to stay in F1 just to fill the grid?

Lotus seem to be the only new team doing some catching up.

In regards to Ricciardo, what would you expect Helmut to say? That he is not performing as well as they were expecting? Ofc his comments will be good even if they aren’t.

I would like to hear from a facts point of view. I don’t know if anyone has the time to actually analyse his races and draw some sort of realistic conclusion.



Will do.Thanks


James, Thanks again for the excellent post. It’s nice to see Schumi getting better as the season progresses.

Out of Topic: I was wondering if you are coming up with an Iphone app or an android app for your website. I most of the times check your website using my phone, but sometimes feel if You had an application which would allow iphone users it would be much more convenient.

Your thoughts please…


Lewis has had a bad year due mainly to the McLaren team messing it up for him.

The post below summarises Lewis’s 2011 races.


So when he spins or crashes into other people, it was his team’s fault?

This is getting funnier with every excuse.


ohh my! The excuses! Bring them on!


Regarding Hamilton’s woes currently, I believe there’s 2 important people missing from his professional life. One is obviously his father, but the other is Ron Dennis, after all it was under his guidance that Lewis got to F1.

James, a point you made about Jock Clear and Schumacher. I understand they are both professional people, but was there any animosity at the beginning of their relationship? From what the media said, Jock and Jacques were close friends.


As I understand it teams under fuel for the race taking into account the additional laps before and after the race. This then explains why they go into fuel saving mode during the race. It’s not guess work, but quite precisely calculated, but of course incidents occur in the most carefully laid plans such as when Button came under threat from Alonso in the final stages of the race.


James , do we feel that Lewis was unlucky not to close the gap to Vettel during the start of the race due to the fact that Lewis had a slow puncture. As his pace during and pre qualifying looked good shape for a Mclaren 1st n 2nd. Also with the affect of changing Hamilton’s set up to compensate the lost balance probably killed his chance of racing through like in Singapore GP apart from the penalties. Because of this we could not see the true Lewis.


Or do we feel that Lewis Hamilton is having a phase of bad luck just like Jenson had last year in the MP4 26?. As it would be nice to see Lewis and Jenson fighting for positions instead of having one driver doing all the glory work. I do personally feel that if Lewis gets a Pole position in the coming races, will lift him up from all of this bad luck.


I feel Lewis needs to adapt to different driving styles and this year’s tyre compounds brought out his weakness. Let’s put luck aside for the moment. And he seems disturbed hence his concentration is not at the level we know. I hope he’ll do much better next year. He’s a great driver for sure.


I don’t think we’ve seen Lewis’ Nadir just yet. I think that will come when the Mclarens are next to each other on the grid and he takes Jenson out by misjudging a move.


James; a mate of mine has developed a full-scale model to predict race pace vs tyre deg; based on long run FP data; as well as the time delta between the compounds.

After playing around with a lot of the variables we reckon that if Vettel had gone for a 4-stopper he would’ve won. Vettel on a 4-stopper would have been able to unleash more of his car’s core pace rather than having to back off to conserve tyres. Had Jenson stayed on a 3-stopper; he would have not been able to hold off Vettel in the dying stages. Even if Jenson had gone on and covered Vettel’s 4-stopper with one of his own (in case a safety car wiped out the pitstop gap after Vettel’s 4th stop) then Jenson wouldn’t have had the pace to win in the first place.

After inputting data from the race; it seems that the Red Bull was about 0.1 quicker on the options; and 0.3 quicker on the primes in terms of out and out pace. It was that the McLaren had the legs on it in terms of managing the rear degradation.



I’d like to see it


Excellent analysis as usual James.

Although this may sound a facile, if a Ford Focus can have a blind spot warning system, why can’t an F1 car? Apart from the obvious weight and space issues but I’m sure the boffins could rapidly overcome these…?

Maybe even a head-up display with built-in rear view camera? It sounds like the mirrors are virtually useless and must add drag.


The mirrors are useless for LH, but not for the rest of the drivers. JB said he had no issues with the mirrors.

Stop looking for excuses for LH.

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