Where Mercedes found the race pace and why Shanghai race turned out as it did
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  17 Apr 2012   |  8:39 am GMT  |  148 comments

The UBS Chinese Grand Prix was a thrilling race, despite the comfortable winning margin for Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes.

Race strategy was crucial to the outcome and we also learned a lot about how F1 has changed in 2012, with the field closing up on performance, so the top teams can no longer rely on building gaps over the midfield to drop nicely into after pit stops. The leading teams will have to work much harder than last year on creative race strategy and the drivers will have to do a lot more overtaking.

During Friday’s Free Practice 2 it was clear that many teams have yet to master the best set up on their cars for both qualifying and the race, going from high fuel to low fuel.

How Mercedes surprised with its race pace
McLaren appeared to have race pace that was 0.5s a lap faster than Mercedes, but overnight on Friday Ross Brawn’s team made some changes to the set up to improve the tyre life and at the end of the Saturday morning session Schumacher ran a handful of laps on high fuel to confirm the changes. This was not noticed by many in the paddock, but proved crucial to Mercedes’ victory.

The track temperature was foremost in the minds of the team strategists as they prepared for the race; these 2012 Pirelli tyres are very sensitive to temperature changes and in qualifying it was clear that a drop of a few degrees created a disparity between different cars.

The rough rule of thumb is; Mercedes likes the colder temperature, as does the Sauber, while the Red Bulls, Lotus and McLarens operate better in higher temperatures. This is a trend that is likely to continue all season, so in Bahrain the picture may look different from China.

As with last year’s Shanghai race, the key strategy decision was between two pit stops and three and the timing of them. Pre race predictions showed that two stops was faster than three by up to 7 seconds, but the danger was that the two stopping driver would be vulnerable in the last five laps on worn tyres.

Crucially, the decision on which strategy was faster varied from team to team, depending on how fast they could run on the medium tyre. McLaren, for example, found it slower than the soft, while other teams including Mercedes, Lotus and Williams thought differently.

Rosberg vs Button vs Hamilton
McLaren went for three stops, Mercedes for two; the pattern was set. One of the reasons why Hamilton in particular was obliged to do three stops was because in qualifying he set his fastest time on a set of tyres that had done six laps by the time he started the race. This meant he would struggle to make it to lap 13, which was the window for two stops.

Mercedes knew this and planned to exploit it. Rosberg and Schumacher were instructed to get to at least lap 13, at which point they would switch to a medium tyre and do a middle stint of 21 laps, then a final stint on mediums again. Button was the greater threat to them on his three stop strategy, based on two stints on the soft tyre, but his challenge faded with a botched final pit stop, where the left rear wheel change was delayed by six seconds.

So when he rejoined, instead of being 14 seconds behind Rosberg with 17 laps to go and tyres that were 5 laps newer, he was 20 seconds behind.

The pit stop problem – not the first McLaren have suffered at critical moments this season – had a further knock-on effect in that it brought Button back out into the train of cars led by Massa and Raikkonen, who were two-stopping. Instead of gaining on Rosberg, Button could not take advantage of his new tyres, lost a second per lap to him and the race was over.

Most of Hamilton’s race was spent in traffic as well, due to starting down in seventh place after his gearbox change penalty. He could never get clear of the competitive midfield cars and run in clear air, so progress through the field was difficult on the three stop strategy he was obliged to do. A strategy like that requires plenty of opportunity to drive flat out on a clear track.

Another factor that worked against McLaren was that they had to cover Mark Webber, who made extremely early stops. So this caused them to pit earlier than intended and meant that they didn’t have the fresh tyre advantage over Rosberg and the two stoppers they wanted and needed to cut through the field.

Intense competition in midfield
Quite a few cars in the midfield tried the two stop approach, based on two stints on the medium tyre, with mixed results; the key here was being able to extend the middle stint so as not to leave yourself too many laps at the end on the final set of tyres.

Vettel went for it, to try to get himself up from his lowly 11th grid slot, as did Massa from 12th, Senna from 14th and the two Lotus drivers. Raikkonen started 4th and Grosjean 10th.

It is interesting to compare the results these drivers achieved, all trying to do the same thing. The most stark example of it going wrong is Raikkonen – he fell from 2nd place, with just nine laps to go, to 14th at the finish! Partly this was due to worn tyres after a 28 lap final stint, but he also got off line trying too hard to defend his position from Vettel. His tyres got dirty and this allowed other cars to pass him. He got in a vicious circle; as he defended against them the tyres got dirtier still and all hope was lost.

The reason he found himself in this position was because he pitted too early for his second stop on lap 26. His middle stint was only 16 laps long on the medium tyre so he blinked too early on coming in for the second stop.

Conversely, Senna started on the medium tyre, did a middle stint on his new set of soft tyres, pitted for the second time on lap 29 back to the medium and managed to gain places when the three stoppers made their final stop. Senna’s drive showed how well balanced and competitive the Williams car is this year. He managed to get an 7th place finish. Vettel went from 11th to 5th at the finish, making the most of the strategy by pulling off a long middle stint on medium tyres.

Grosjean drove well, to collect his first points of the season, but it could have been better. He managed to go four laps longer than team mate Raikkonen in the middle stint and this set him up for a great result in 5th place. He was sitting there with 12 laps to go, but made a mistake when fighting Webber and lost three places. He managed to get two of them back, which shows that he still had life left in his tyres, despite them being only three laps fresher than Raikkonen’s.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists.


The Y axis is the time behind the average laptime line. So, for example, when Rosberg’s curve is going down and away from the zero line it means that he’s doing laptimes slower than the average, and when his curve is going up and towards the zero line it means he’s doing laptimes faster than the average. The coloured lines show the pace of other cars relative to the leader.

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“…sins of my youth..”


Schumacher seems to have such rotten luck at the moment, that I can’t help thinking it might be something to do with this:


I’m a schumacher fan, by the way. Can’t wait for the old giant to finally be up on that podium.


I almost throw my pint glass to the TV in the bar, I was sooo upset and still upset about this race.

Adrian Newey Jnr

James – have you got any thoughts on where Williams would be if they had more experienced drivers?


Hopefully a couple of more wins for Rosberg.

But for Bahrain would like to see another winner. Will be great to have 4 different winners for the first four races before we return to Europe.

Are you already in Bahrain James?


Im looking forward to Bahrain after this race. While I dont think Mercedes will be on the pace. We should see another mixed up muddled up order which is sure to keep the Championship exciting!

Hopefully Webber has a screamer and beats Vettel again.


James, I also think that Mercedes saved its tyres during the qualifyings, whereas, the McLarens, Hamilton in particular was out there making unnecessary/unwise challenge in Q2 and Q3. Rosberg’s drive was not flawless, as he went outside the track at some point, he deserved the win, though. Why is Hamilton’s start lately not as good as Button’s?


I had wondered about the tyres Hamilton qualified on – DC mentioned that they were ‘scrubbed’ in the BC TV commentary.

Thanks for making it clear in an excellent article.

Do you think more drivers are going to try a single Q3 run in Bahrain, James ?

The race pace benefits of a new set of options are very clear from your strategy calculator. New options are faster than new primes (& last just as long), and new primes are faster than used options.


Thanks again for such brilliant post race analysis. Without wanting to sound like the proverbial spoilt child, do you think in the future it would be possible to produce these graphs so users could select individual drivers to compare or allow zooming on sections that have a lot of clutter?

Also, I think Charles Pic is missing?!

Cheers James!!


I’m looking into that. These graphs are kindly provided to me by one of the teams.


I hope it’s not Marussia!


Yes, as I posted earlier, that would be good. I made my own version of this in Excel (yes I do have a life as well!) and nearly finished adding a select drivers’ trace feature. It’s nice! Just don’t know how to link that to an interactive web app! 🙁


Which ever team is doing that, thank you! It is really appreciated!


Great analysis James. I love seeing Michael and Kimi be competitive. Kimi really is wringing everything out of the Lotus and, considering he has been away for a few years, is right up to speed. Given time, he and the team will start scoring points as the Lotus seems to have real pace.

Thanks for the insights James. I really enjoy your site.


Pete I struggled too.

The line for each car shows where the car would be relative to a car lapping at rosbergs average lap time measured over whole race.

So at the start rosberg is lapping slower than his average and falls behind. At the end his pace is above his average And he catches up at the line!


I’ve written an easier to understand explanation of the graph and the zero line


Steve’s explanation – and James your updated explanation – now make it make sense to me! Its blindingly obvious to me now! Thank you 🙂


/me waits for the usual crowd of “this aint car racing it’s tire racing” ppl to chime in.

Tornillo Amarillo

Great analysis anc graphic!

Maybe Brawn has also something to show in the next warmer race, maybe he is on top of tyre management now.


Very good summary James and thank you for that.

Well, I would not mind if we see more of the same over the next races. Have not just a fourth different driver but a fourth team win the next race, would start to feel like we may have an exceptional season in the making.

I hope to see more of the race leaders having to work through the field to earn their points after each pitstop. Best if it includes first place still, unlike China.

I feel right now Mc.Laren is above the rest but were unlucky or else so far safe for Melbourne. Not that their results are anything bad it has to be said, but I sense that it could as easily be three races, three wins. Don’t want to get the Mc.Laren fans on my back (Surely many of you here.) but I am glad that it is so. Over the years & maybe be more so over the last 30 years, we have had many season dominate by one team. Too many I would say. I understand that a particular team fan would enjoy seeing his pick blow everyone else away on the track. Just a downer for the other fans. A season for all seasons is what we want. If Mc.Laren happens to win such a season on the last corner of the last race sort of finish, it would be that much more rewarding to you their fan anyways.

We can always dream no?



As a massive McLaren fan I’m personally happy they are strong enough to compete for a championship this year and it won’t be a red bull runaway but I’m so glad it’s going to be close. I’d still support mclaren whether they were destroying everyone or even losing badly but I’d always prefer a close, unpredictable season.

I doubt I was the only mclaren fan cheering nico on to his maiden victory.


It’s great to see more teams in the mix at the top. This looks to be a very unpredictable year.

To me, the biggest disappointment is the Caterham team. I was really hoping they would take the next step and fight with the midfield teams…at the very least, challenge the lower end of the midfield. Instead, they seem mired where they have been…the best of the new teams.


I was sad to see this too but it’s probably exaggerated by the fact that Williams, toro Rosso, sauber etc all improved a lot this year. Caterham might have been fighting a Williams like the ’11 version, but it seems the ’12 cars midfield all stepped up faster than caterham could.


I think Ferrari and Red Bull come-back strongly after final Mugello testing.

2012 F1 testing calendar – http://www.formula1onlive.com/2011/12/f1-2012-pre-season-testing-calendar.html


Isnt everyone going to this test or am I missing something?


James, you say that Grosjean only did 3 more laps than Kimi in the last stint. However, what everyone universally has seemed to ignore is that Lotus put Kimi on a set of USED medium tyres for that final stint. People like Bruno was coming home on a set of FRESH medium tyres. That was the key mistake that Lotus Renault made. It would be good if during the race we could be told what set of tyres (whether fresh or used) a driver is in.

Also, when watching a race without live timing it was very difficult to follow what was going on because the onscreen graphics does not show how far away each driver is from the leader. Why does Formula One Management use STUPID INTERVAL GAPS. If they used ABSOLUTE GAPS from the leader (which they always used to do before a couple of seasons ago) then it is easy to follow. [mod]. Thanks.

With stupid interval gaps one cannot work out for instance how far Lewis or Jenson was from Rosberg, and whether they were closing in. [mod]


I have to agree with the comment about interval times. Much as I hate to admit it Fox Nascar coverage is light years ahead of F1 for race information


Kimi had no new tyres left. His mistake was coming in too soon for 2nd stop on the only new set he had, which could have been expected to last longer.


Hi James, so it was Kimi’s call to pit too early for third stint?


Cheers for the reply James. Sorry my comment had to be modded. Perhaps if I can please elaborate. Firstly on the Kimi point. Of course Kimi had no new tyres remaining. But that is a key point, many people have said Kimi used his tyres too roughly and that other people like Romain were better at managing their tyres. That’s a lot easier to do with a fresh set than a used set. And yes, you’re absolutely right, Kimi came in too soon for his final stint OR alternatively he could have came in for a final stint on softs.

Now with the interval display on the television coverage. One critical thing throughout the race was to monitor whether Lewis, Jenson or Mark could challenge Nico for the victory. When drivers like Lewis are back in like position 5 or 7 or 10 or whatever it is important to know their relative interval to the leader (Nico) or other drivers like say Jenson. Now, if we have absolute margins we could get say:

P1 Nico

P2 Kimi +14.2

P3 Seb +18.5

P4 Jenson +19.9

Here this tells us a lot of information. We can easily see that Jenson is about 20 seconds off the lead, and that Jenson is right behind Seb, we can also see that Jenson is 5.7 seconds behind Kimi further up the road.

Unfortunately some “bright spark” at Formula One Management has decided to do intervals for each driver so it becomes:


Kimi +14.2

Seb +4.3

Jenson +1.4

Now, it is a lot harder to work out whether Jenson is gaining time on Nico or Kimi, etc. Now think if Lewis has just about to have a pitstop and we need to workout if there is a gap for him to drop into. With absolutes we can clearly see what is going on in with everyone in the entire race.

With the stupid interval system which FOM does most of the time, it is very difficult to follow the race.

Therefore James, please pass on the message to stop using interval gaps and change it to show the absolute gap to the leader.



NASCAR does absolute gaps.


I’ll discuss it with the TV director

Adrian Newey Jnr

James – I think perhaps his engineer was gambling on the tyres lasting as that seems to have been a trend this season, especially given the cooler conditions. If Kimi had not been under pressure he may have been able to work on make his tyres last rather than having to defend his position.


thats a dull comment from Adrian newey~~ No driver can manage used medium tyres for 28 laps..as easy as that`!! THumbs up for him holding that train of cars for so long


The zero line is the average laptime. Rosbergs line is his culminative time in comparison to the average. Obviously they are going slower than the average time at the start of the race when they have more fuel but, as that burns off, their get faster than the average time bringing their culminative time closer to zero until on the final lap, the leader hits zero. It also explains when the time can be above the zero line and then a safety car comes out, slows the field and their culminative times goes back down towards and even below the zero


What’s interesting and funny is watching the bits of the race weekend back, pre-race show, practice sessions etc, and listening to everyone and I mean everyone saying the Mercedes would be (relatively) no where in the race.

I recall a tweet read out in the practice sessions asking how, with the colder temperatures do the guys think if the Mercedes would actually be ok and be competitive? And the answer was no, it’s all about McLaren!

Then at the end of P3 there was the evidence when Schumacher went out on heavy fuel did a quali lap then his engineer was told him on the radio to carry on and keep pushing and not let up the pace. That was the clue but as James said above, it seems no one paid much attention into that, instead getting excited by Hamilton’s flying laps. All hindsight of course, but it seems there the evidence was there, like some Poirot tale… or something!

Surely it’ll be McLaren this weekend though…


I think McLaren got their strategy wrong with Lewis, knowing that his tyres were already 6 laps old at the start.

They should have done what Red Bull did with Webber, and brought him in on lap 5 or 6 and changed him to the medium compound tyres for a longer stint.

That would have put Lewis in mostly clear air, and with just a few slower back markers to get past. it worked for Webber as by lap 17 he was well up with the leaders.


Another great report James, it really does tell the complete story!

I was curious what your thoughts are on Schumacher’s pace on Sunday in contrast to Rosberg prior to his demise.

Was the sizeable gap by the time Schumacher pitted purely to do with conditions being more to Nico’s liking, was he having to work harder to conserve his tyres, or was Michael simply holding station?

And where do you think Michael would have finished if not for his retirement?

I have a feeling that Mercedes will be up there next weekend, certainly still the team taking it to McLaren, but come Sunday, third place, perhaps second at best will be where they’re at, purely due to humidity.

It would be easy to get carried away after China, but we still haven’t seen conclusive evidence that they can handle warmer conditions.



Sorry I’m not James but I do recall Ross Brawn suggesting Nico being in clear air protected his tyres and Schumacher in his wake was forced to accept greater tyre wear immediately.

Having clear air to run seems even more important to the ’12 pirellis so far.


THat is very true. Also another reason why Kimi hit problems


Hi James,

I have a long term question for you to look into with any engineering contacts that you have.

In the Bridgestone and Michelin days total downforce levels dominated as the tyres seemed able to cope with the additional load without degrading. Now maximum downforce is important for qualifying, but the extra load on the tyres compromises the race through increased wear. We saw this a lot last year with Red Bull in qualifying having a large edge, but not in the races and similarly with McLaren this year – Melbourne being the clearest example.

So, to my question, are the aerodynamicists now favouring efficiency in terms of maximising the lift to drag ratio, as opposed to total downforce (more “points”)? It strikes me that the Williams is probably quite efficient, but it probably lacks total downforce compared to the top teams.

A secondary question on gearing – at least in China, and possibly Malaysia, it seems that the teams are gearing the cars on performance such that the top speed using KERS only is similar to the top speed with DRS. Now slipstreaming plays a part, so using KERS at the start of the straight also helps break the tow, and the 6.7s boost only covers about half the length of the straight at Shanghai, but the teams seem to have reached a stalemate.

It was interesting to note that the Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari all noted they were too slow on the straights. They were just about the same in the speed traps in qualifying, so are at a similar performance level.

Finally, given your Defence against bias on this site, did you, or would you accept an ice cream from Kimi? I heard he was giving them out to journalists in Malaysia. I’m sure all those journalists are now corrupted 🙂




Here is the answer you were looking for, from one of the top engineers in F1:

Downforce levels
Unless you reach the point where you start to physically damage the tyre with vertical load (F1 is not at that point), more downforce is always better. However, increasing downforce does increase the ability to brake, corner and accelerate harder, so all of the longitudinal and lateral forces on the tyre increase. The car then produces faster laptimes and more energy must have been put into the tyre. Yes, this can increase wear rates too. There is also a tyre thermal effect that is a more complex discussion, but again, more downforce is still better!

To answer the specific question, aerodynamicists have always prioritised total downforce AND efficiency to maximise the lift to drag ratio. It is not in a different proportion now compared to the tyre wars.

DRS is about 18kph and KERS is about 8kph. Most teams will gear for about 85% of their DRS effect, so about 15kph. It’s always a compromise between qualifying and race performance and DRS authority and how flat the engine power curve is between 15,000rpm and 18,000rpm (flatter the curve, the more you can gear towards using all of DRS). Last year and for the first two races of 2012 Red Bull really undergeared for DRS because they strategised on not having to overtake other cars – so they sat on the limiter in qualifying but then had optimum revs for the race on full tanks and older tyres. They changed their approach in Shanghai this year and geared more typically. So it will be interesting to see what they do in Bahrain….


Good points!


I’ll put that to a couple of engineers and see what they come back with.

I wasn’t in the media centre when the ice creams came around. I’m fond of Magnums so would certainly have accepted one, and enjoyed it!!


One of the best races I’ve ever seen, seeing 12 or more cars fighting it out so close together just laps from the end was brilliant as some strategies unravelled and others succeeded. Mclaren and Williams seemed to gain the most from their strategies in my eyes. Williams possibly the big surprise of the season so far, the car seems very consistent over a stint on any tyre.


there’s lots of articles attributing Rosberg’s victory to the “double DRS” effect on the Mercedes – but that’s a help for qualifying – in the race when leading from the front most of that advantage is gone apart from when lapping the odd car.


Not quite true. It may give them a setup advantage for the race, because they won’t need to compromise the setup toward quali performance as much as others do.


Yes the double DRS was not an advantage in the race but his pole position allowed him

Clean air which prevented his tyres degrading so I suppose in a roundabout way it did benefit. I suppose this was a very vettelesque victory – massive pole lead, build a lead early in the race, avoid overtakes, cruise home once the chaos dies down. I mean that in the most complimentary way. I expected to see a young German driver doing that a lot this year just thought his initials would be SV not NR!


yes, but it seems to be crucial to be running in clear air to preserve tyres. Rosberg was the only driver able to do this because he could maximise the DDRS in qualifying. All credit mind, he put in a stunning lap and earned that clear air.


Couldn’t agreed more- this seems to have been overlooked by almost everyone! Myself included. Roll on Sunday!


Imagine a dog race with a target rabbit at constant average speed. With cars getting lighter with race time and pit stops throwing the car dogs back every time, the rabbit is normally always in lead.

But imagine a sunny race start for 10 rounds, and then heavy rain for the rest. The first 10 rounds will be faster than average speed and the line is above the average line for the first 10+x rounds,

Savety can bring the line above average too. So only constant weather and no savety car can have significant knowledge from the graph i think

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