After the unpredictability of the first half of the season, the Korean Grand Prix fell into the pattern we have seen recently – and will probably see in the next two races – of most runners doing a two stop strategy with drivers largely choosing to race on the harder prime compound tyre in the second and third stints.
But there were a few counter strategies and some other unusual aspects to Sunday’s race, not least the strange late race messages from Red Bull Racing urging the winner Sebastian Vettel to slow down due to concerns over the front tyres. We saw a surge through the field by the two Toro Rosso drivers and the lack of movement from other midfield runners, despite the early elimination of Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and Kamui Kobayashi. And we saw Pastor Maldonado attempt a one-stop strategy that did not pay off because the car wasn’t fast enough.
Before the start all the strategists were expecting two stops, with a faint possibility that someone might try one stop, as the wear life was alright, but the performance looked like it would be far less competitive.
Nevertheless Pastor Maldonado and Williams tried it, with Maldonado ending up 14th, having started the race in 15th place. In contrast Jean Eric Vergne, who started the race in 16th place ended up 8th, by doing the first two stints on the prime (soft) tyre and then a final sprint on the supersoft at the end.
The expected life of the supersoft tyre was 17 laps and the soft was 24 laps.
As predicted, the Korean Grand Prix followed a similar pattern to the Japanese Grand Prix a week earlier with the leading teams making two stops around laps 14 and 34 for new prime tyres. The difference was that the tyre choices in Korea were supersoft and soft, whereas Japan had been soft and hard.
There were concerns with graining of the tyres and also with wear on the outer shoulder of the front tyres in Korea and several teams experienced it, with Red Bull the most extreme example; Sebastian Vettel was ordered to be careful in the final laps as his tyres were close to the limit.
This was a curious episode, which has yet to be fully explained. Pirelli were not aware of any issues on the tyres and although it was getting marginal, there was apparently still some rubber on the tyre when they were inspected at the end of the race.
Little changed at the front, with Vettel and Webber swapping places at the start, Alonso finishing third as Hamilton struggled with a broken rear anti roll bar and was thus forced to stop three times.
The main movers among the front runners were Massa, who moved up from 6th to 4th and Hulkenberg, from 8th to 6th.
Massa was racing Raikkonen and Hulkenberg was racing Grosjean. In both cases the Lotus driver lost out despite starting ahead of his opponent.
Massa kept up his impeccable record of starts by jumping Raikkonen on the opening lap. Raikkonen stayed with him, but they pitted together on lap 14, so there was no opportunity for the undercut there. Both came out behind Perez who was running longer. Massa got past him on lap 17, Raikkonen didn’t and lost a couple of seconds which gave Massa some breathing space.
Then on lap 21 Massa passed Hamilton for fourth place, but again Raikkonen couldn’t get past. He blamed the new Coanda exhausts for cutting the power. Either way, he spent five laps behind the McLaren before it pitted on lap 26.
But Raikkonen was now 10 seconds behind Massa and the race was over between them. There was nothing for Lotus to do with strategy to get back the position.
Meanwhile Hulkenberg also jumped his opponent Grosjean at the start – possibly as a result of Grosjean being on high-alert over causing any kind of accident again. It helped Hulkenberg and they ran 7th and 8th in the opening stint; they pitted together on lap 13, so again there was no chance for the undercut.
The Lotus looked the faster car, but Hulkenberg defended doggedly. So Lotus tried the undercut on lap 31, bringing Grosjean in first, when he was just 6/10ths of a second behind Hulkenberg. Force India covered the stop on the next lap, but Grosjean had got ahead again.
It stayed this way until lap 40 when they came up behind Hamilton and Hulkenberg managed to pass both cars to regain his sixth position.
With no more stops to make and Hulkenberg having track position, he was able to hold on to the finish, as Grosjean lost time, first in traffic and then in the last five laps with tyre degradation.
In the last couple of seasons we have seen quite a number of moves with drivers breaking into the top ten, having started outside. Sergio Perez’ podiums in Canada and Monza spring to mind.
What was noticeable in Korea was that for the most part this was not possible for drivers like Perez, Di Resta and Maldonado – despite the elimination early on of Rosberg, Button and Kobayashi, who started 9th, 11th and 13th respectively. Most finished more or less where they started with Schumacher ending up three places back from where he qualified.
But the exception was the performance of the two Toro Rosso drivers.
We mentioned in our UBS Race Strategy Briefing that deciding on a down force level was a crucial part of race strategy, as the track has a split character with the final sector all about high down force, but the long straights a good option for overtaking if you have a low down force set up.
Toro Rosso opted for the overtaking option; they qualified 16th with Vergne and 21st (after a penalty) with Ricciardo. In the race they split the strategies with Verge starting on soft tyres, running a long second stint on softs and ending with 17 laps on the supersoft, while Ricciardo managed to come through on essentially the same strategy as the top six cars. They came through to finish 8th and 9th and Ricciardo might have done more had he not suffered a problem with braking.
It was Toro Rosso’s strongest race of the year.
SS= Super Soft; S=Soft; N=New; U=Used
Vettel: SSU SN (15) SN (35) 2
Webber: SSU SN (14) SN (32) 2
Alonso: SSU SN (15) SN (34) 2
Massa: SSU SN (14) SN (35) 2
Räikkönen: SSU SN (14) SN (35) 2
Hülkenberg: SSU SN (13) SN (32) 2
Grosjean: SSU SN (13) SN (31) 2
Vergne: SN SN (13) SSN (38) 2
Ricciardo: SSN SN (14) SN (34) 2
Hamilton: SSU SN (13) SN (26) SSU (42) 3
Perez: SN SSN (18) SN (33) 2
Di Resta: SN SSN (15) SN (28) 2
Schumacher: SSU SN (13) SN (32) 2
Maldonado: SSN SN (21) 1
Senna: SSN SN (14) SN (32) 2
Petrov: SSN SN (14) SN (32) 2
Kovalainen: SSN SN (13) SN (33) 2
Glock: SSN SN (14) SSN (31) 2
Pic: SSN SN (17) SSN (34) 2
Kartikeyan: SSN SN (18)
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 GRAPH – shows the gaps between the cars and relative pace
Kindly supplied by Williams F1 Team