The Malaysian Grand Prix provided some extraordinary talking points with the dispute between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber the main focus.
Although this was primarily a dispute over trust and team orders, some curious race strategy decisions created the circumstances for the Red Bull drama and the Mercedes team orders, as we shall see.
After the practice sessions the feeling among team strategists was that tyre degradation would be very high, while wear was expected to mean that medium tyres would last 15 laps with the hard lasting 18 laps. But the decisive data would be the degradation (cost in lap time of performance dropping every lap) this would decide how long the stint lengths would be.
Degradation turned out to be very high, as much as 0.4secs per lap for some cars, which is why the stint lengths were so short and there were multiple stops. For some cars, staying out over 10 laps meant losing four seconds. To manage this problem, many teams told their drivers to drive to a prescribed lap time, with the result that some team mates found themselves in artificial situations.
The controversial battle between Red Bull team mates for the lead in the closing stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix was triggered by earlier strategy decisions. Vettel had driven qualifying with the goal of saving three sets of new hard tyres and two sets of mediums for the race. This is because he expected the Red Bull to be hard on its tyres. He was clearly planning a multi stop race with a fast final stint to keep the Ferraris and Mercedes at bay.
The race turned on a very odd decision: In the early stages of the race, as the track dried out, the team’s decision to pit Vettel early on lap five to change onto the new medium tyres was very much out of character. Red Bull has traditionally been conservative on changeover situations from wet to dry and the way they handled Webber was more typical of their approach. The Australian pitted two laps later than Vettel, with the result that he took over the lead of the race for the second stint.
Webber controlled the race from here. The pair were forced to anticipate their third stops to cover Lewis Hamilton, who was only two seconds behind when he stopped on lap L30. Webber was given priority on Lap 31, with Vettel a lap later.
But having done all of that, at the final stop something very unusual happened; having been given the stop preference throughout the race, coming in a lap earlier than Vettel for the second and third stops, Webber was then disadvantaged at the final stop.
He was brought in a lap later than his team-mate who pitted on Lap 42. Prior to this Webber had enjoyed a 4.2 second lead. However after exiting the pits on new hard tyres on lap 43 he found that Vettel was now 0.5s behind him on the faster new mediums. If Webber had stopped first he would have increased his lead.
So by stopping Vettel first, the team artificially set up the circumstance for what then happened, with Vettel choosing to attack and pass. The money in F1 is all in the constructors’ points, not the drivers’ points, so with 43 points for a 1-2, there was no reason for the team to want any risks to be taken by letting them race; plus racing each other, as they did, damages the tyres.
Despite the fact that the team had every reason to want the drivers to hold station after the final stops – and instructed them to do so – the circumstances led Vettel to see an opportunity, which had been created by this strategic decision. He wanted to redress the earlier strategic mistake, which had cost him the lead at the first stop. The rest is history.
Another fascinating team-mate duel appeared to be going on at Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg disputing the final podium position. Here too, things were perhaps not quite what they seemed.
Hamilton had qualified ahead of his team mate and was ahead in each of the stints of the race up to the final pit stop. Both drivers did a short third stint on new medium tyres of just nine laps, Rosberg pitting a lap after Hamilton throughout the race.
Mercedes had concerns about the fuel consumption of both drivers and asked them to save fuel in the second half of the race, Hamliton’s being the more critical. So in the final stint, when Rosberg closed up to Hamilton and asked for permission to pass the situation was again somewhat artificial. There was no reason to let him past as they were not going to catch the Red Bulls and at no stage had Rosberg been ahead of Hamilton.
The positive was that Mercedes were competitive again for the first time since the middle of last year. And they could even say that an opportunity had gone begging as Red Bull was not on top of its game in Malaysia, with lack of pace and poor tyre life. It seemed that on Saturday they perhaps sacrificed some pace for better tyre life.
So there was a chance there for Mercedes to put some pressure on Red Bull and Hamilton was doing just that, but the fuel shortage put paid to their challenge.
It was surprising that they opted to cut it so fine on fuel; the gains from running two or three kilos under-fuelled are around 1/10th of a second per lap, or 5/6 seconds over a race distance. With variable conditions – a wet track at the start and a track that is ramping up in speed, it is difficult to get the fuelling right. But a chance went begging for Mercedes in Malaysia.
One of the more remarkable stories of the race, was the decision by Ferrari to leave Fernando Alonso out on track with a damaged front wing. They did it for strategic reasons, but again it was an uncharacteristically rash decision as the wing failed and Alonso took no points from the weekend. It went against their philosophy of being consistent over a long season.
They were being extremely optimistic that the wing would hold; at 180mph on the pit straight the broken wing was subjected to loads in excess of 500kg.
They left him out because they were trying to delay the pitstop for a couple of laps until the track was ready for slick tyres. This would save them 21 seconds, compared to pitting him for a new nose on lap 1, at which point they would have been forced to leave him on intermediate tyres and then he would have to come in again at the changeover point to slicks, which was laps 5-7.
So what would have happened if they had pitted him on lap 1?
It was clearly set to be a long and chaotic race, with multiple pit stops, so even if Alonso had dropped to the back of the field, there was every chance that he would have been able to score points.
With these high degradation tyres, race consistency is the most important factor and that is something at which Alonso excels. On top of that there were several cars like Hulkenberg’s Sauber and Perez’ McLaren that had good intermediate pace but poor dry pace, the Lotuses were struggling for pace on a three stop strategy and there were also setbacks for the quick Force India cars and Button, which dropped them out of the points.
So in all likelihood, on a track where overtaking is easy, Alonso would probably have finished behind his team mate in sixth place, ahead of Romain Grosjean, taking home eight points and maintaining the gap to Vettel at 14 points, instead of 22.
TYRE STRATEGIES – Malaysia
Vettel: IN MN (5) HN (22) HN (32) MN (42)
Webber: IN HN (7) MN (19) HN (31) HN (43)
Hamilton: IN MN (7) MN (21) HN (30) MU (41)
Rosberg: IN MN (8) MN (22) HN (31) MU (42)
Massa: IN MN (5) HN (20) MN (33) MU (47)
Grosjean: IN MN (7) MU (20) HN (35)
Raikkonen: IN MN (6) MU (21) HN (34)
Hulkenberg: IN MN (7) MN (21) HN (34) HN (44)
Perez: IN MN (7) MN (22) HN (33) HN (54)
Vergne: IN HN (7) HN (26) MN (43)
Bottas: IN MN (6) MN (22) MU (40)
Gutierrez: IN HN (7) MU (22) MN (36) HN (51)
Bianchi: IN MN (6) HN (17) HN (29) MU (43)
Pic: IN MU (7) HN (20) MU (32) MN (43)
Van der Garde: IN HN (6) HN (18) HN (28) MN (42)
Chilton: IN MN (6) HN (19) MU (31) HN (41)
Button: IN MN (7) MN (21) HN (35)
Ricciardo: IN MU (6) MN (19) HN (33)
Maldonado: IN MN (6) MU (13) MU (32)
Sutil: IN MN (6) HN (22)
Di Resta: IN MN (6) HN (20)
I = Intermediate tyre
H = Hard compound
M = Medium compound
N = New compound
U = Used compound