The Italian Grand Prix was one of the most exciting races of the 2012 season so far, which is unusual for Monza. The track has a high-speed character and opportunities for overtaking, but doesn’t always provide excitement.
However this year’s race was brought alive by the strategy decisions made by some of the teams and the bold gamble taken by many of them to try to do the race with only one pit stop. It was marginal in terms of tyre life. Some of the tyres that came off the cars at the end had no more than a lap of life left in them.
Meanwhile Sauber, which has a far smaller strategy department than the F1 front runners with far less sophisticated tools, managed to play a blinder and sent its driver from 12th on the grid to 2nd at the flag thanks to a brilliantly planned and executed strategy and to an outstanding performance by the driver, Sergio Perez.
Unlike recent Grands Prix, the teams were able to do extensive mileage on Friday in practice and learned a lot about the tyres. Before the race the simulations showed one stop to be faster than two by 10 seconds. However one notable limiting factor was the wear on the inside shoulder of the right front tyre. This was showing signs on some cars of wearing down to the nylon, so managing that was crucial.
Nevertheless most teams set out with the intention of stopping only once. The choice of medium and hard tyres by Pirelli was pretty conservative, by recent standards, something of a shift in approach. This may have been influenced by some lobbying earlier in the season by teams who were struggling to get the tyres to last and by some problems encountered last season at Spa and Monza, which Pirelli did not want to repeat.
The two cars with the best tyre wear this season are the Lotus and the Sauber. Here they had another chance to use this to their advantage as the others would be very marginal on tyre wear at the end of the first stint and in the last laps of the race. Lotus did not have the pace to exploit this in Monza, but Sauber did.
Perez turns the tables
Sauber did a similar strategy in Monza to the one which had brought Perez a podium in Montreal from outside the top ten on the grid; they took a new set of the harder tyres at the start, ran a long first stint and then stopped once.
Starting in Monza with Perez in 12th place on the grid, Sauber knew that many cars aiming to do one stop would be struggling to get to a stage in the race for the first stop, which would leave them a manageable number of laps to do on the hard tyre at the end. So at the end of the first stint and in the final laps of the race they would be vulnerable. Perez used the hard tyre at the start and had very good pace on it. He also helped his cause by passing Senna and Rosberg in the opening laps. He picked off Di Resta on lap six, Kobayashi a lap later and then waited in 8th place behind Raikkonen.
Once the cars in front, who were pushing to make it beyond lap 20 for a stop, started to struggle, he was able to capitalise and pick up places. Raikkonen had to stop on lap 17, as the tyres were going off, but Lotus knew that they could get to the finish without problems on the hard tyre.
Massa stopped, then Vettel and Alonso together, then Button and finally Hamilton. Perez was now leading on lap 24. He was aiming for lap 28 to make his stop, but was told that the wear was good so the new stop time was “Target plus 4” which would be lap 32. Sauber changed that, however, as it became clear that the tyres had gone, so he pitted on lap 30 for a new set of medium tyres, rejoining behind Raikkonen, who was 13 laps into a 36 lap stint.
Perez’ pace on the mediums was astonishing, once past Raikkonen; he was able to run a second per lap faster than the leader Hamilton. This continued into the phase Sauber had anticipated, where 10 laps from the end the Ferraris, which had stopped on laps 19 and 20, were two seconds slower than Perez. He passed them easily to take second place.
He was not able to catch Hamilton however. The McLaren driver had been taking it fairly easy in the second half of the race, as illustrated by the fact that from lap 39 onwards he was running on the same pace as Raikkonen, whose Lotus on worn tyres didn’t have much pace. Raikkonen, incidentally, did a very good job to manage the car with its ultra-low downforce set up for a fifth place finish.
It was clear before the race started that one front running team was planning to do two stops. The Mercedes drivers had both saved a set of new medium tyres from qualifying, which would only be worth doing if you planned to stop twice, as the rules state that you must use one set of each compound and they were starting on the medium tyres from qualifying.
Sometimes the call between one stop and two is marginal, but here with one stop being 10 seconds faster than two stops, that was quite a lot to give up unless you had to. Once again Mercedes were concerned with tyre wear.
Also they had a painful experience in Spa, which they did not want to repeat, whereby they attempted to one-stop but found that they couldn’t and lost track positions after the forced second stop. To do that at Monza would mean losing any chance of points, so they had to do two stops. The Mercedes was fairly competitive in Monza, certainly with Schumacher, and he was in the hunt for fourth place, but had to settle for sixth with the track positions he lost by stopping twice. That said he was catching Massa and Raikkonen at the end and another lap or two he would have passed them both for fourth place, perhaps he might have achieved that had he made his second stop a lap earlier..
ITALIAN GP TYRE CHOICES
M= Medium; H=Hard; N= New; U= Used; DT= Drive through penalty
Hamilton: MU HN (Lap 23) 1 Stop
Perez: HN MN (29) 1
Alonso: MU HN (20) 1
Massa: MU HN (19) 1
Räikkönen: MU HN (17) 1
Schumacher: MU HN (15) HN (37) 2
Rosberg: MU HN (14) HN (38) 2
Di Resta: MU HN (21) 1
Kobayashi: MU HN (20) 1
Senna: MN HN (24) 1
Maldonado: HN MN (13) MN (35) 2
Ricciardo: MN HN (24) 1
D’Ambrosio: HN MN (27) 1
Kovalainen: MN HN (17) MN (39) 2
Petrov: MN HN (19) MN (40) 2
Pic: MN HN (18) HN (35) 2
Glock: MN HN (7) HN (32) 2
De La Rosa: MN HN (22) 1
Kartikeyan: MN HN (23) 1
Webber: MN HU (21) 1 DNF
Hülkenberg: HN MN (27) 1 DNF
Vettel: MU HN (20) DT (34) 2 DNF
Button: MU HN (22) 1 NC
Vergne: MU 0 NC
RACE HISTORY GRAPH(courtesy of Williams F1)
Perhaps the most revealing one yet: look at Perez pace on the medium tyre in the second stint. Look also at how he had to stop on lap 30 as his tyre performance had suddenly fallen off a cliff. Also see how close Schumacher came to catching Massa and Raikkonen at the end. See the difference in pace between Alonso and Massa once Alonso passed his team mate.