The Australian Grand Prix got the new season off to a great start, with seven different leaders – a modern day record – and a fascinating strategic battle between Lotus, Ferrari and Red Bull.
There were many talking points from the race and things to analyse closely; Lotus’ confidence in opting for two stops; how Red Bull managed to lose a race for which they had qualified in pole position by over a second; how strategy cost Massa a podium finish; why Mercedes switched Hamilton’s plan half way through the race and some desperate moves by McLaren to try to salvage something from a difficult weekend.
Confident Lotus execute plan to perfection
After confirmation of their long run pace in testing at Barcelona and on Friday in Australia, Lotus planned to make 2 stops on Sunday, knowing that their main rivals would struggle to do the same. The key to it was being able to get to lap 8 or 9 on the supersofts at the start. This left them with 25 laps on the first set of medium tyres and 24 on the second set. That Kimi Raikkonen was able to use one less set of tyres than his rivals but still maintain the pace, says a lot for the Lotus pace as well as its tyre management (see graph at bottom of post)
The strategy team at Lotus were confident their plan would work and it got a boost when Raikkonen gained three places on the opening lap to come around fourth. Knowing that their main rival Fernando Alonso was three stopping and would be fast in the final stint, they did not want to pit Raikkonen too early second time around. So the laps between 25 and 34 were the only nervous time for the team. Had Raikkonen been forced to pit before lap 30, the race could have been lost to Ferrari.
Once Raikkonen had passed that marker, when he reported that the tyres were staring to go, they pitted him and he was able to run comfortably to the finish, with Alonso well covered. The impressive note was that Raikkonen set the fastest lap near the end, 1.2 seconds faster than the Red Bull, having been 1.2 seconds slower in qualifying than Vettel.
Ferrari cost Massa a podium and give points to Red Bull
Felipe Massa felt after the race that he had lost a podium through strategy and he is right. At the end of the second stint, Massa was behind of Vettel and ahead of Alonso. But the Brazilian was left out too long on his second stint and lost time. Ideally he should have pitted first, but as soon as Alonso pitted on lap 20 Massa had to react, as Vettel did. Instead he went to lap 23, losing time and two track positions in the process, trying to outrun Vettel who was now on new tyres. This handed three championship points to Red Bull and Vettel which could be important later in the season. It is no surprise that Ferrari prioritised Alonso’s race, but Massa was fast enough to beat Vettel in Melbourne and it hinged on this moment. It shows how fine the margins are in decision making.
That said, the fuel corrected graphs (botom of post) show that Massa held Alonso up in the opening 20 laps and Ferrari didn’t swap them over. Massa had outqualified and outstarted his team mate so was in position on merit and he had the fastest pit stops. But it definitely took something away from Alonso’s race effort. It’s debatable whether Alonso could have beaten Raikkonen had he been clear, probably not.
Mercedes salvage result despite strategy switch
The Mercedes qualified very well and had looked quick in the wet. So the question was, would they be hard on their tyres as in the past? The strategy team clearly tried to do the same as Lotus and cover the race in two stops, but the plan fell apart and Hamilton was forced to pit for a third time on lap 42. He finished fifth, 12 seconds behind Massa, whom he was racing. He would have been better off from third on the grid setting out to do three stops; he would have spaced them out more evenly to have optimum tyre performance.
For example – Hamilton stayed out until lap 13 on the supersofts. He was 7.3 seconds behind the Ferrari before it stopped on lap 8, but after losing time staying out, he was 16.7 seconds behind in the second stint. Without the consistency of the Lotus he was forced to pit on lap 31, which meant he was trying to do a final stint of 27 laps. They gave up the plan on lap 42 when it was clear it wasn’t going to work. There were plenty of positives for Mercedes to take away, but in Malaysia they will surely be working more carefully studying tyre life on long runs during Friday practice.
All the strategists in the pit lane were mystified by McLaren’s decision to put Sergio Perez on the supersoft tyres at the first stop, having taken the sensible decision to starting him on the medium, as Force India did with Sutil.
Perez started the race in 15th, while Sutil was 12th, so they had the same idea. But by taking the supersoft on lap 16 and then being forced to come in again on lap 23, it pushed Perez back into the traffic. Earlier, in qualifying, McLaren had also taken a big gamble with him on the supersoft on a wet track and that didn’t pay off either.
With a slower than expected car and clearly some problems to deal with, it looked like there was an element of desperation about their moves; shake the tree and hope something happens. On his first outing in a top team it was a tough way to welcome the young Mexican.
McLaren’s pit stops were shaky too: they were only 6th best on combined average stops in Melbourne at 22.462secs, whereas Ferrari’s combined average was 21.646secs.
Sutil and the Force India strategy team pulled their plan off brilliantly. He started behind Di Resta but had the advantage of starting on new medium tyres. He did the longest first stint of anyone at 21 laps, keeping the pace up and although Di Resta caught him at the end, the team told the drivers to hold station, finishing 7th and 8th.
With points for midfielders likely to be harder to get this year, it was the best possible way to start the year.
Graph – Fuel corrected lap times
The lap times in seconds are shown down the vertical axis (ie The lower the number the faster the pace)
The first thing to note is Raikkonen’s fundamental pace. Last year Lotus relied on good tyre management to get the results. This year they have combined that with a fast car as well as good tyre management and that is clear from this graph. If they can keep up that pace while using the tyres for longer than rivals, it means that they will be a threat for the forseeable future as this is the optimum for race performance on Pirelli tyres.
Secondly you can clearly see that Alonso loses time early on behind Massa but his Ferrari is very quick when he gets clear. Also note his final stint, to the right, where he pushes very hard in the early laps and damages the tyres, with the result that his pace drops off. Ferrari had to stop three times to do the lap times Lotus were doing with two.
Considering Vettel’s pace, it’s clear from this graph that the Red Bull didn’t have anything like the pace in race conditions that it had in qualifying. This could be due to a number of factors, but thermal tyre management is the most likely culprit. Having been a second faster than the Ferraris and 1.3s faster than the Lotus in qualifying, they are reduced to third fastest car in the race. And Vettel’s fastest race lap is 1.2 slower than the Lotus, despite using one more new set of new tyres in the race than Raikkonen.
This is perhaps the most telling stat of all. If they can repeat that in the heat of Malaysia then the championship will get really interesting.