Analysis: McLaren pace and strategy provides wake up call for rest of field
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  04 Sep 2012   |  4:46 pm GMT  |  91 comments

Jenson Button’s victory in the Belgian Grand Prix makes him the leading points scorer of the last three races, a reversal of a trend, which began in May, where the British driver and his McLaren team lost their way.

The problem Button was suffering from was a lack of performance due to mismatched tyre temperatures between the front and rear tyres and the team was experimenting with various ways of solving that, including heating the tyres from the inside, using heat soak from the brakes.

They’ve now found a solution, partly involving aerodynamics to increase rear end grip and aerodynamic balance, but also mechanical set-up and the result has been 51 points in three races. His performance in Belgium showed that he not only got the tyres working well in qualifying to take pole position, but also was able to comfortably do the race with only one tyre stop. His second stint, on the hard compound Pirelli tyre, was almost 170km, the longest that McLaren has done on a single set of tyres in 2012.

In Belgium the McLaren had the largest performance advantage seen so far this season. The pace and the strategy provided a wake up call for the rest of the field. Button is still 63 points behind Fernando Alonso in the championship, but on this form, he will be a contender at the end of the season. So how did he manage to do only one stop and what were the strategic keys to the race? And what about the others; why couldn’t Lotus compete for the win and could Schumacher have finished fourth if he had done the same strategy as Hulkenberg?

Pre-Race expectations

The build up to this race was dominated by the heavy rain on Friday, which meant that the teams learned nothing about long run tyre performance. They were shooting in the dark on Sunday, the only data coming from a handful of dry laps on Saturday morning, where they were also preparing for qualifying. It left little time for drivers to establish how to get the tyres to work.

Also part of the strategy in Spa was deciding whether to go for a low down force set up, with less wing, to help straight line speed in sectors one and three, or whether to go for more down force to help with sector 2. Most went for downforce, with Button and Alonso among the exceptions. Gearing was also important and several drivers found themselves with a less than ideal combination of gearing and down force, with the result that they were hitting the rev limiter on the Kemmel Straight and losing speed.

All of this led to a mixed up grid with two Saubers and a Williams at the front, Red Bull struggling for pace, with Vettel in 10th place and Hamilton down in seventh.

Pirelli brought harder tyres to this race, being a little more conservative than they have been so far and this opened up the possibility of making only one stop. The same will be true in Monza.

Pre-race the feeling was that a one stop strategy would be around 5 seconds faster than two, but it would leave the driver vulnerable at the end of the race to cars on fresher tyres. McLaren were certainly thinking of one stop for Button starting from pole, circumstances permitting, while most of the others were planning two stops, especially as the track temperature started rising before the start.

The start line accident changed the strategy in two ways; by eliminating four competitive cars, it changed expectations of what many drivers might get from the race and it brought out a safety car. This slowed the field down and meant that the first four laps of the race, which are normally the hardest on the tyres as the car is at its heaviest, were relatively easy.

This encouraged a number of drivers and teams to change plans and try to do one stop. Among them were Williams and Mercedes, which is surprising, because they have been among the hardest car on the tyres in race conditions this season. It didn’t work out for them or Williams, thanks to a late puncture, which robbed Senna of 8th place. It did however work for Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.

He was helped by qualifying outside the top ten so he was able to start the race on a new set of medium tyres, whereas his front running rivals were all on used mediums at the start, from qualifying. This small detail was important to the outcome for Vettel, who was able to get to lap 21 on his first set of tyres, which meant he needed to do 23 laps on a new set of hards in the second stint.

Button enjoys a margin

Jenson Button was able to make the most of the largest performance margin over other cars we have seen this season so far. The McLaren’s underlying car pace was around half a second faster than its nearest rival at Spa and Button was able to exploit that fully in qualifying and the race.

He could do one stop relatively easily, helped by the crash, which eliminated rivals, also by the safety car and by the freedom to run at the front in clear air. Being able to control the pace, not have to defend from other cars meant he could focus exclusively on managing the tyres and this meant Button had complete control all afternoon.

The challenge from Lotus did not materialise as not only did the Lotus not have the expected race pace, but also it seemed to struggle to get temperature into the tyres. This was evident at the restart where Hulkenberg jumped Raikkonen. Lotus was on a two-stop strategy and without the pace to exploit that fully, there was no challenge for the win from Raikkonen.

Button even had sufficient margin in the final 15 laps to make a precautionary second stop and still win the race, but he had the pace and liked the balance of the car on the tyres he had. He was still lapping in the 1m 54s in the last few laps, a similar pace to the Lotus on tyres which were 8 laps newer.

Vettel managed the race skilfully too, using the one stop plan and the pace of the Red Bull on hard tyres to jump the two stoppers and move up from 10th on the grid to 2nd. It’s debatable whether that would have worked if the four front running cars had not been eliminated at the start, but despite losing two places at the start, to cross the line 12th at the end of lap 1, Red Bull adapted well to the changing circumstances and Vettel drove a very positive race, making several important overtakes to ensure his progress.

Schumacher loses a strong result

Michael Schumacher drove very well on Sunday, making some excellent passes and defending robustly, as is his style.

Could Schumacher have finished ahead of Hulkenberg in fourth place if he had done a similar two stop strategy, rather than change tactics after the safety car and switch to a one stopper?

The German ace got past Hulkenberg on lap 13, when Hulkenberg pitted Schumacher was on new medium tyres and ran a 19 lap first stint, which left him 25 laps to do on a set of hards. It was a big ask, but by staying out past lap 13 or 14 he was committed to stopping just once.

Schumacher was ahead after Hulkenberg’s second stop on lap 27. But he only had four seconds advantage and 17 laps to go to the finish on the same set of tyres, ahead of a similar pace car on fresh tyres. It was never going to work. The Mercedes was relatively fast on full tanks, but as we have seen often this year, the competitiveness didn’t continue as the car got lighter and the tyre wear increased. Schumacher was forced to make an unscheduled stop for tyres on lap 35 and lost three positions.

Had he pitted on a similar pattern to Hulkenberg and stayed on a planned two stop, he would have fought him for the fourth position, but possibly would have lost out due to the Mercedes pace fading on lighter tanks. Nevertheless the failed one stop bid cost him places to Massa and Webber and he ended up seventh.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History, kindly supplied by Williams F1 Team

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Hi James,

To be honest, I didn’t really understand very much of the details of the telemetry data that Lewis posted (other than his annotations). However, I’m sure there are many like me that are very curious about it, though I’m more interested in learning about what data is recorded & how to read it than I am in the specific data from the two cars on that date.

Would you and/or one of your one of your writers be willing to break it down in detail? I think it would make for a very interesting article.



Enzo, Lewis said that the team decided to use the new rear wing on Button’s car, and not on his car. People were just discussing about the more/less downforce, but Hamilton was complaining about the fact his side of the garage do the wrong decision (voted). Actually, Button or Hamilton (and any other driver) could validate the new upgrades because of the rain on friday. So, the utilization of the upgrades were more a “engineering” call (and so theoric), than a call from the drivers (pratical). In doubt, the team did not believe on their development/technical skills. And so, seems like Hamilton relied on the old one in his vote.


James – any idea why Lewis was carrying part of his spoiler back to the garage? A special part perhaps?


Hi James, Thanks for a very informative analysis!



I have to congratulate you, these analyses of each race are getting better and better and the level of detail in this one was outstanding. Keep it up! It is a really great service to your readers to better understand the race they watched and the bits that TV can’t show you (i.e. they can’t follow every car all the time) or know at the time of the race. I have always loved F1, greater appreciation of the strategy that played out only adds to that! Thanks


James, I’ve read on an Italian technical F1 site, that they think Button had some sort of “Super DRS” on his rear wing and Hamilton didn’t.

What caught his attention was the fact that Buttons rear wing had some sort of swellings on his wing, that where not present at Hamilton’s wing.

Hamilton’s wing had more air inlets and he used the “monkey seat” Button didn’t.

But it were the swellings that made the author a little bit suspicious.

I have the pictures for you, maybe you could take a look at them, the swellings are clearly indicated bij the yellow arrows.

The author admits he might be just seeing ghosts, but I’m Italian myself, and i read a lot of his articles, there always well argumented and serious.


Nice spotting Enzo. Amazing that we didn’t see any pics of this on Sunday


Thanks very much for sharing that!


James on a slightly different topic, could your newshound nose sniff around other teams engineers and try to ask, off the record, just how ‘damaging’ or useful was the data Lewis made ‘public’ on twitter – IF you could find any who’d own up to having seen a copy?!

Naturally McLaren try to play it down, and yet reading between the lines there seems to be a hint there might have been one or two bits of really valuable data amongst it.

It’s also sad that Lewis made such a blinkered mistake – being so annoyed about Jenson’s advantage that in trying to explain it to his public, he didn’t see he was also revealing other secrets in the screenshot he hadn’t considered! Bit immature.


I spoke to several engineers.

They had that data already. But it correlated, which is useful

It tells them something when they can directly compare the two cars knowing the downforce levels.

It’s more that it happened at all – as MW said it’s an “error of judgement”. Any engineer doing that would be sacked immediately.


Maybe Hamilton just shot himself in the foot, settle for a few million dollars less and have McLaren keep your trophies!



Seriously? Jenson is now on-track to be a contender for the championship ?

Over the last three :

Alonso : average of 17.5 pts per completed race

Jens : average of 17 pts per completed race.

So, unless the expectation is that Alonso is gonna have a lot of DNFs in the remaining races, JB would need to ask for the 2012 season to be extended into 2013 or 2014 for him to have enough time to catch-up to Alonso !


Over the last three:

Lewis: average of 25 pts per completed race. 🙂


You can’t take only completed races, when DNFs are one of the reasons Jenson is so far down the order. Either re-calculate the whole season standings excluding DNFs (not sensical, I know), or average all three recent races for points. Whichever you do, you must be consistent. And if you do that, Jenson seems rather stronger…


My point is that it’s not really reasonable for JA to say that Jens is on-track to be in contention for the championship when the only way he is likely to catch the top three is if they have a rather significant number of DNFs. If the Top Three continue their recent form, I really can’t see how he can catch them.


James – do you think there is any possible tension in the McLaren team? This could have been the cause of Hamilton’s outburst. The reason I point this out is that the drivers and engineers would usually share data. Given the two were using radically different setups this seems very odd. Perhaps tension n the garage?

There must be a reason. I highly doubt that McLaren had no idea on what setup to use and therefore deployed two very different strategies to hedge their bets. This would then suggest that Button got lucky that his low downforce set up was the one to use.


Hi James, what are your thoughts on Schumacher? Do you think he will sign on again with Merc or call it a day? Or even a move to a different team (say Ferrari)?


Fascinating analysis once again. What really caught my attention are the Mercedes trains: Rosberg on laps 17 – 20 and Schumacher on laps 29 – 34.


Good thinking. If the teams are at war, than that’s what they should do


In European grand prix race where Vettel was one second per lap faster than the rest of the field and then he was again amongst the pack. I guess Button’s pace is somewhat like that specific to Spa. If it is not, then all other teams can forget wins and even second place for the rest of the year unless McLaren team goofs up in quali/race (strategy/driver error). That car speed looks ominous. But the funny part is both the drivers are fifth and sixth in Championship with the fastest car at their disposal. Just now read James Allison saying that the DDRS/F-Duct of Lotus could be seen only in Suzuka as Monza and Singapore trakcs are not suited for its use. I thought that gizmo was what all Kimi needed to push himself ahead in WDC table. Interesting season ahead.


McLaren went two separate ways on the set up for Spa, one worked and one didn’t. Isn’t this something that should have been sorted out in the much talked about simulators?

Surely a good simulator session on an accurate simulation would have shown the benefits of the low downforce wing and allowed both McLarens the right set up with it merely needing tweaked for the reality of the track.

Unless they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.


There are quite a few parameters pertaining tyres (degradation, temperature, etc.) that are very difficult to simulate as the teams don’t have enough data or good understanding of those characteristics.

All the above mentioned setup parameters (downforce level, gearbox ratio, etc.) have an impact on tyres. Obviously the teams do a lot of simulations prior to the race weekend, but the only way to optimize (and hence get those extra few tenths which we’re actually talking about) is during practice. If the practice conditions mirror the race conditions, that is…



If you go online and read several of the articles on the new rear-end of the McLaren, all they did was copy the rear-end of the Ferrari. After the first two races of the season, McLaren was going backwards. They were struggling with front-end grip and was absolutely horrible in the wet.

They also copied the new brake-ducks of the Ferrari F2012. Besides the F-duck from a few years ago, what New technology has McLaren introduced to F1? Last year their car in pre-season testing was junk until they copied Red Bull’s blown-exhaust.

They are already looking into copying Ferrari’s push-rod technology for next year. Maybe the FIA should fine them another 100 million dollars and take away their constructor points like they did several years ago.


Quack-quack !..” duct ” not “duck” lol


You mean that McLaren copied the rear end of the Ferrari, which Ferrari _themselves_ admitted to taking from Sauber earlier in the year? There are many good approaches to attacking design issues in F1 (or anything). You don’t have resources to prototype them all. You make informed guesses as to one or two or three leading contenders, and prototype them. Sometimes that gives you the right answer. But sometimes your competitors try one that you didn’t, and they get it better. Then any team/company/individual that does not copy your competitor will lose advantage, simple. That’s the same in business as in F1. No shame in simply being smart.


Matt if you noticed the MP-4 27 side pods had been heavily revised and quite different to every other car, same last year without U shape side pods. The Mp4-27 exhaust was quite unique and I think Red Bull/Ferrari took a page out of their book earlier this year. The nose cone on the Mclaren is quite unique despite them raising it slightly this year. Their front wing is a work of art you ask me and I think half the field have tried to replicate its features.

Mclaren in 40 years have been the most innovative team in F1 and pioneers of full carbon cells as just an example.

Being a front running team as opposed to be being a winner has something to do with 2 drivers as well as cars.

Making throw away statements has something to do with lack of knowledge, research or intelligence or any combination of all three.


Hope they don’t copy the red airline seats in the garage idea for Jens and Hammy


lol…that’s funny. Maybe Lewis will try to copy Fernando’s hairstyle too 🙂



In essence, McLaren’s update appears to be influenced by Ferrari’s famous acer ducts, something which the MP4-27 now features as well. The ducts are sloping down and feature an undercut of the sidepod, allowing air to flow underneath the tail of the duct and towards the centre of the car. THE RESEMBLANCE IS STRIKING, AND PARTICULARLY INTERESTING BECAUSE IT WAS FERRARI THAT INITIALLY COPIED MCLAREN’S DOWNWASH EXHAUST EXIT.

I also seem to remember the 2010 Ferrari having an f duct also.


You mean Ferrari’s front pull-rod suspension? I am a Ferrari fan but I do recall Ferrari copying McLaren’s exhaust after the dreadful start to the year.

All car updates are submitted to the FIA for approval and then it seems to be made public. You can view updates on the website.


Yes, you’re right. It’s the front pull-rod suspension. I think that Ferrari was trying to copy Red Bull’s blown-exhaust. Not McLaren’s.


[mod] McLaren have been consistent front running team for decades and you don’t achieve that without good original engineering.

Every team looks at what their rivals are doing and if they can’t get it banned they try to copy it. If that doesn’t work they try to hire the guys that thought up the ideas in the first place !

Try listening to James’ latest Podcast. You might learn something.

And which team do you think Ferrari hired their current Technical director from ?

Pat Fry was at McLaren for 17 years.


If McLaren have been a “front running team for decades”, how come they haven’t won “the Constructor’s Championship since 1998?


Front-running doesn’t automatically mean “front”. Of course, there’s the 2007 season (the $100 million you talk of, a ridiculously severe penalty), where they would’ve won on points had they not been excluded that year. There was Ferrari domination 1999-2004, Renault the next two years (2005 McLaren had horrible early-season reliability, but best car in the second-half), Ferrari again in 2008, Brawn 2009, then RBR the last two years.

Ferrari copied others at the start of this year, every team does it.


About the twiiter giveaway, some say every engineer in the pitlane is poring over the document

I’m just wondering if anyone else is suspecting a double con played by McLaren on the rest? put them on the wrong scent and and keep the real stuff secret just a few more races??


A retroactive double bluff! Those sly foxes!

Unless… Maybe that’s just what they want us to think!

Seriously though, be careful invoking conspiracy theory. After a while everything seems to fit into two boxes. 1) Evidence suggesting a conspiracy. 2) Evidence suggesting a cover up. With no middle ground visible.

Onve you’re down that hole, you’re sitting in Plato’s cave meditating with Descartes.


>Onve you’re down that hole, you’re sitting in Plato’s cave meditating with Descartes

I’m cool with that, as long as we can phone out for pizza.


Aaaah, the conspiracy theories. 🙂


I suspect that there is less conspiracy here and more that Lewis didn’t take to being trounced in qualifying by his team mate.


It was interesting to see cars running different set-ups and how that worked out in the race. It seems both were fairly similar and were driven very different. For example, Kimi struggled to overtake on the straights and therefore had to make his moves in sector two.

Also, it’s interesting that Button has got on top of his tyre balance issues. Judging from Hamilton’s poor qualifying trim, it seems he is now the one struggling with tyre balance and set-up issues. Unless this is resolved, expect Lewis to become more frustrated and less media-friendly in the coming races.


Gosh don’t jump to conclusion Lewis won in Hungary and he will win again. He just messed up his strategy due to lack of Friday running as a few other did


I never said he wouldn’t win. And you are drawing conclusions yourself without even elaborating on what that strategy may be.

Anyway, here are the sector times for qualifying:

Lewis rarely underperforms and from these times, he simply didn’t maximise his sector 2 advantage unlike Kimi. Kimi was also faster in sector 1 and 2 which suggests Lewis struggled with rear-end traction coming onto the straights.



JB’s boost was also factor of Merc engine?

IMO it seemed like the cars with these engines benefited at top speeds.


while it is always great to see a couple of Goliath’s fighting for the win for lap after lap, I have never been one to be upset because of such a dominating win as we saw at Spa.

McLaren, Jens, and his side of the garage obviously nailed the sweet spot right on. then they actually executed the perfect w/e!! and that has always been a part of of the equation for a race, a season, a career…

even without “the incident”, Jens and the Team would still be the winner because, on this w/e, they dominated all the competition… and that is VERY, VERY hard to do.

I absolutely don’t care about the WCC championship (just a contrived way to distribute $$$ and keep big-named commercial interests involved)… the WDC is somewhat up in the air at this point with 5 or 6 drivers with a possible chance at the title (5 of them being past and present WDC). add in a few young guns on lessor Teams making some serious noise.

there are literally DOZENS of medium to large problems I see with F1 today, but given what we got, how can a serious fan NOT be enthralled with this season to date??

I cannot wait for Fri P1 in Monza!!…


Doesn’t really matter…..Alonso to win the WDC, he deserves it…


The driver with the most points at the end of the season deserves it.

That might be Alonso, but it could be any of six drivers at the moment.


I agree, Alonso has won me over through the years …. His performance in less-than-best equipment is incredible. I just wish he wouldn’t “fix” the game and manage his team mates through subtle politics – he’s good enough to not need that!


An opinion is not a fact, and certainly I’ve never seen Alonso demanding number 1 status in any teams? However, we all listened to the Chairman of Mclaren when Fernando was there “we were not racing Kimi, we were racing Fernando”.


Could you show us any evidence of Alonso fixing the game?


The evidence is there for all to see. He demanded number 1 status as Mclaren, didn’t get it hence all of the so-called Hamilton favouritism. Massa’s time at Ferrari should have come to an end years ago, but Alonson has the defacto number one status he desires .. I guess Massa will be there next year! 🙂


Perhaps the limited Friday running is working in Button’s favour, in previous races he seemed to show good pace initially on Friday, but then apparently tweaked the car into a much worse state by the qualifying session.


What this post didn’t answer was — given that McLaren screwed up with Lewis’s set-up at Spa — will Hamilton be able to make equal use of McLaren’s performance advantage in future races? In other words, is the balance that Jenson is so obviously happy with equally advantageous for Lewis? If it is and, as the post says, Jenson will be in contention towards the end of the season, then I guess Lewis will be even more so? James?


All things being equal Lewis will push back ahead of Jenson. Except maybe in changeable conditions where strategy calls JB is good at.


“will Hamilton be able to make equal use of McLaren’s performance advantage in future races?”

So long as it doesn’t rain throughout practice, then yes, of course.

Everyone’s setup represented a bit of a gamble last weekend.

For the team (or either driver) to be in contention for the championships, both drivers need to perform well.


I think Lewis was a big part of that decision … Can’t keep blaming the team all of the time! 🙂


Button’s low-downforce set-up certainly seemed to work as advertised in qualifying, with him setting the best times in sectors 1 and 3. But in the race, his times in those sectors seemed relatively unimpressive, and he seemed to be taking most time out of the competition in sector 2. Why would that have been?


All good points. Wouldn’t it be intriguing to know how early and how much McLaren turned the engine down, and by extension how much pace they had in hand.


I would also add he didnt have to follow anyone through sector 2 which is a big plus. He would have been protecting his engine in sect 1&3 as he was not under any threat .


In addition to DRS as CraigD mentioned, I would assume Button didn’t have to push during most of the race. He managed his pace so didn’t light up the sector times.


Others likely set fast times through drafting others on the long straights in those sectors as well as being able to use DRS in sector 1. That’s likely why.


I want to know what happened to Webber who in his last stint didn’t seem to have the pace to compete against Hulkeberg and Massa and didn’t seem to have Vettel’s pace at all.


Actually Webber’s pace on his last stint was slow for the first ~6 laps after his pit stop. Then he started to have some decent pace until the end. This was the same for Kimi and Hulkenberg as well as they were all stuck behind Schumacher which slowed them down. Once they cleared the Mercedes their pace got back on track.


Webber’s usual “I-forgot-how-to-race-mid-season’ stage.


That’s a mystery to me too – up to the British GP Mark is always great, only to fade into oblivion then and maybe regrouping himself towards the end of the season….

Wonder what that is? A weakness in Webber’s mental armour? The team letting Webber down at that time of the season? Winter months in Australia?


maybe a 2 stop Webber 1 stop Vettel had something to do with it???


Yeah, as usual. That’s why he has placed second at Spa the last two years – and made the overtake of the year there on Alonso last year!


James, McLaren must have done something really dramatic with mechanical set up and aerodynamic balance to find half a second at this stage of the year. It’s a phenominal margin, something like having a blown diffuser put back in the car.

and of course Jens will romp away if the others don’t have an answer.

Do you reckon there’s more to it?

Just seems too good to be kosher somehow, forgive my suspicious nature. But if it is, then they’ve just done a brilliant job.

What of the celebrated Lotus “device” ..much-heralded, but kept under wraps, like one of those coy medieval royal brides who got un-veiled at the very last minute. Careful she doesn’t miss the wedding altogether


All of the teams got very little set-up work time in P3 before the race due to the rained out P1 & P2. This coupled with the summer break and new developments turned qualifying into a crap-shoot of sorts. The race location being Spa doesn’t help matters. Mclaren may not be as dominant in the following races. Look how far back Lewis was in qualifying in Spa. I don’t expect that to happen again, especially when Button is able to take pole so easily.


Yeah, no “device” for Monza, but it’ll come back for Singapore. Singapore? There’s the two straights, though the start-finish one isn’t that long, plus the other one has a kink in it that could cause havoc for the car with the “device” in place.

I just want to see it run in anger, it’s a fascinating concept.


Not happening till Suzuka now. Standard Monza set up requires no downforce anyway so no point in devise and Singapore don’t have the top speed to get the benefit!Damn ! They missed it at Spa. I’m very curious if the revised Engine intake slot is having an effect on the E20 without the devise being active ) ie are passing throught to the rear wing)

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