Balancing risk and reward: The big decisions behind the Belgian Grand Prix
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  27 Aug 2013   |  10:11 pm GMT  |  130 comments

The Belgian Grand Prix was not one of the most exciting races of the 2013 season but the weekend featured some fascinating strategic decision making, which had a significant bearing on the outcome of the race.

In a slight departure from the normal scope of this report, in addition to looking at the race strategies, we will also look at the strategic decisions taken at the end of qualifying on Saturday, which affected both qualifying and the race.

Decisive moments in Qualifying

In many ways the qualifying session in Spa was more entertaining than the race and it certainly featured some significant moments of decision-making. The Q1 session was wet to start with and drying at the end and the smaller Caterham and Marussia teams, with nothing to lose, successfully gambled on switching to dry tyres before the end, which led to three of the four backmarkers making it through to Q2, at the expense of both Williams and Toro Rosso drivers. However from 19th place on the grid Daniel Ricciardo was able to come through in the race, using strategy, to gain a point for 10th place.

But the really significant strategy decision faced the leading teams when rain began to fall during the final Q3 session. Those who had gone out on dry tyres were forced to pit for intermediates. Force India however gambled from the start with Paul di Resta, delaying their departure from the pits at the start of the session, to confirm their belief that rain would fall.

So he was on track on the right tyres as the others returned to the pits and he set a competitive lap time, which looked for a while like it could be pole position as the rain fell more heavily. It was a bold call by Force India, but the right one for the conditions. It was beyond their control that the rain eased off in the final few minutes of qualifying, which allowed four cars, now on intermediate tyres, to beat his time. Di Resta was fuelled for more laps, but his tyres didn’t have another good lap left in them, so he was sitting in the pits when the pole lap was set.

In wet conditions the time penalty for carrying a few laps of extra fuel is minimal compared to dry conditions and the big gains come from being out on the track so you can adapt to the changing weather conditions and profit from any improvement in them, which is what Mercedes and Red Bull did.

This required the team fuelling the cars, when they pitted for intermediates, for enough laps to remain out on track at the end. Not everyone got this bit right; Hamilton, Vettel and Webber were fuelled for three laps, Rosberg, Alonso, Button and the Lotus pair for two. Rosberg did a superb job to take 4th, but wasn’t on track when the track was at its best. Alonso was but he had spun, losing the initiative, while the Lotus cars were not as competitive in the wet as they had been in the dry Q2 session.

Ferrari had short-fuelled Massa for one quick lap, so he would get out ahead of the rest and this gave him optimum track conditions for that moment. But it also meant that he wasn’t on track at the end when the faster times were set.

This is strange because although there is a clear upside in running on a clear track, there was also a lot of risk in this strategy; there was plenty of evidence from the changeover from Q1 to Q2, that the track dried very quickly. So any slight easing in the rain would leave Massa exposed, as it subsequently proved. He ended up 10th.

The key ingredient then was timing and Red Bull and Mercedes got this right with Hamilton and Vettel in particular. Hamilton crossed the line with two seconds to spare to start his final qualifying lap, Vettel was just ahead of him. So the teams gave both drivers the best chance of getting the desired result. Hamilton duly took pole ahead of Vettel.

The point here is that, although on the face of it rain makes it a “lottery” and there was some luck involved in the rain easing off at the end, by giving the drivers enough fuel to be out on circuit to the very end, they gave them a chance to master the situation, whatever may arise. As JA on F1 technical adviser and former Williams strategy chief Mark Gillan observed, “Luck? Possibly, but in my experience the better people tend to be in a position to capitalise. The timing here was exquisite.”

Q3 is only 10 minutes long and a lap of Spa in those conditions was around two minutes, so there isn’t much time and wrong calls can have a profound impact.

Pre-race expectations and strategies of note

The pre-race predictions showed that the difference between one stop and two stops was only around a second, with the wear rate and degradation on the medium and hard tyres not showing significant differences. But there was a pace difference, with the medium around 0.8secs per lap faster than the hard.

With a dry race following a wet qualifying session the choice of starting tyre was open and most people opted for the softer tyre, the medium. One notable exception was Daniel Ricciardo who started on the hard tyre and did a long first stint. When he stopped on lap 16 he had risen to 13th place and he resumed in 17th. He then ran the rest of the race on the faster medium tyre and this brought him up to 11th at his second stop and he was able to come through Vergne and Perez, both on the hard tyre, in the final stint to finish 10th.

Jenson Button tried to do a one-stop strategy, the same as he had won the race with 12 months earlier. McLaren appeared confident before the race that their car had low enough degradation on the tyres to achieve this, but as it turned out Button was forced to make a second stop on lap 34, ten laps from the finish, when he was running third.

At the time there was a possible threat of rain and had that happened and had Button been able to drive to the moment when everyone needed to pit for wet tyres, he would have been on the podium. But with Grosjean, also on a one-stop strategy and catching him at almost a second a lap, Button had time to pit and rejoin ahead, which he did. So he finished where he started in sixth. Normally being forced to switch strategies like that carries a heavy penalty, but Button was helped by Massa, against whom he was racing, not having much pace in his Ferrari and not posing any threat to him.

In contrast the other Ferrari of Fernando Alonso managed to go from 9th on the grid to 2nd at the finish, thanks to a superb start, which gained him four places and he then passed Button and Rosberg. He was second when he pitted on lap 13. By staying out two laps longer than Hamilton, he was right behind the Mercedes when it came out of the pits and was able to pass him for second place. This gave him the result he would have had if he had qualified where he might have done with a perfect execution.

The other interesting decision was Webber and Red Bull opting for the hard tyre at the first stop, very much against the tide. Webber had another poor start due to a clutch problem and dropped from third to sixth on the opening lap. He stopped a lap before Vettel, who went for the medium, but ran a similar length stint of 16 laps, so wasn’t able to take the advantage of running a longer middle stint, to set him up for a quick blast on new medium tyres at the end. His lap times in the second stint, behind Nico Rosberg were almost a second slower than Vettel’s and so he wasn’t able to take the upside gain of a longer middle stint.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists, from Mark Gillan and from Pirelli


Vettel:MU MN (14) HN (30)
Alonso: MN MU (13) HN (28)
Hamilton: MN MU (11) HN (26)

Rosberg: MU MN (12) HN (25)
Webber: MU HN (13) MN (29)
Button: MU HN (17) HN (34)
Massa: MN MU (9) HN (26)
Grosjean: MU HN (22)
Sutil: MN HN (11) HN (26)
Ricciardo: HN MN (16) MN (33)

Perez: MN DT (13) HN (18)
Vergne: MN MN (10) HN (24)
Hülkenberg: MN HN (9) HN (24)
Gutierrez: HN MN (19) MN (28) DT (41)
Bottas: MN HN (14) HN (28)
Van Der Garde: MN HN (15) HN (29)
Maldonado: MN HN (11) HN (27) SG (38)
Bianchi: HN MN (14) HN (28)
Chilton: HN MN (15) HN (29) DT (32)
Di Resta: MN HN (10) HN (25)
Räikkönen: MU MU (14)
Pic: MN

M = Medium compound
H = Hard compound
N = New compound
U = Used compound
NC = Not classified
DT = Drive Through Penalty
SG = Stop/Go Penalty (10 seconds)

Courtesy Williams F1 Team

The zero line is simply the race winner’s average lap time (total race time divided by the number of race laps). This is why his curve can go above the line if he’s lapping faster than his average, and below the line if he’s slower than his average or doing a pitstop.

The vertical axis is the gap behind the leader, the horizontal axis is the number of laps.

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James, If I remember well, Mcalren had complained in the past that the RBR cars can illigaly change the set up front wet to dry in the pits….

So, even if Vettel picked wet set up alone with Hamilton, come race time, the RBR had an advantage because could change it to dry set up, and Hamilton could not…

I believe this could explained Vettels massive advantage during the race… can please James ilustrate us?, Thanks.


James, something doesn’t add up in your and Raikkonen’s statement. He said that he was about 5 seconds late to cross the line again otherwise he would have done another lap. According to you, he would have not had enough fuel. Are you 100% sure about that?


Slightly off topic here, but have just read that Ferrari are keen to retain Massa for next year as long as he improves…

Does Massa have some sort of hold over Ferrari? He has been average to bad over the last 2/3 years… He’s lost Ferrari MANY championship points… (I understand these aren’t so important to Ferrari – they have their bonus $50 million payment from Bernie every year regardless).

Surely Alonso’s not so delicate that he can’t put up with a slightly more competitive team mate?

I find the situation frustrating since there are many young drivers out there who deserve a chance in a top team… to be honest WE deserve to seem them in a top car – its always more fun when you have an inexperienced but fast youngster in a top car… keeps the old-timers on their toes…

I hear Lauda claim Hulkenberg needs another years experience?! How much experience does a driver need? – he’s been around for 3 years now…?!

Didn’t seem to be a problem when Hamilton join McLaren as a rookie… Raikkonen only spent a year at Sauber before joining McLaren..

Yes Massa was good pre Alonso and his crash, but he’s really not up to it now…

It would be great if F1 followed the MotoGP template and threw rookies into top rides… look at Marquez – amazing…


I said that in Sunday’s Ricciardo piece


“So any slight easing in the rain would leave Massa exposed, as it subsequently proved. He ended up 10th.” – That’s Ferrari screwing the #2 driver’s race once again …


Red Bull running two different rear wings at Spa on Friday. A super low drag wing, and the wing they eventually used for both cars on Sat and Sun.

Were RB doing on-track testing of the super low drag wing for Monza already?

If so – wow – talk about being organized and thinking ahead! I think RB are going to be strong at Monza.

Question is – how strong will Ferrari’s low down force package be?


Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. It looks like McLaren may be better than it appears.

If Jenson had gone for a two stop MU, MN, HN strategy, and come in earlier for his first and second stops, he could have been much closer to Mercedes – or possibly even ahead. Both Mercedes had to come in very early for their second stops – and could have been vulnerable at the end.


Gile on sky now James all grabbing at straw with if and buts on how Button couda,mighta have gotten a podium.The fact is he was lucky to even get 6th place with Kimi brake issue and both Massa and Grojean having bad races.Mclaren tried a hail marry not on rain but on a safety car which would have allowed them to pit with the leaders and maintain position.Also there was never any real treat of rain,and if it did the Mercs on wet setup would have certainly breeze pass webber too.we can play this if and but game on quit a few drivers for wins or better position.lets keep it real James we know Button is campaigning for his contract in the media,but that was a stretch to far for your site


Hi James,

Had a question. Did Mercedes opt for a wet weather set-up for Spa and hence were slow in race pace in dry or was their low downforce package not good as Ferrari and RedBull. Lewis said that he was expecting them to also struggle at Monza and then back to competitiveness at high downforce circuits like Singapore.


Surely the main strategy issue,not mentioned here, was the one Ross Brawn talked about – how much downforce to run and how much to bias the settings to cover the possibility of a wet race.

Red Bull’s pace in the speed traps suggests they unusually opted for less downforce than others, while Hamilton’s unexpected surge to pole may suggest his car was set up more towards a wet race. Alonso’s slow pace in qualifying, but fast in the race suggests his set up bias was towards a dry race.

This is supported by the fact that Vettel passed Hamilton very easily, even without DRS, and then later Hamilton couldn’t pass Alonso on the straight, even with DRS.

With the race turning out to be dry, Vettel had a huge advantage and it looked as though he could have won by a much bigger margin if he had been allowed to by his pit crew. We may see at Monza whether this is a new normal or whether it was exaggerated by the wet/dry bias that each team opted for at Spa.



I wonder how different it would have been if Rosberg had qualified 2nd and therefore Vettel ha d not been able to take the lead so quickly – different result maybe?


Hi James.

Why did McLaren used hard tyres on Jenson’s last stint?

It was a short one and the medium was suposedly faster. Didn’t they have any left?


McLaren asked Jenson twice during the race which tyres he preferred, and both times said the harder tyres.

prasanna madhavan


Off topic, i watch gp2 races. they use the same pit lane. how do they manage it?


“However, the mistake, if there was one, was in not fuelling Di Resta for more laps; he was sitting in the pits when the pole lap was set.”

You’re suggesting that his intermediate tires would’ve lasted more laps in such conditions? I thought intermediates give you 2 to 3 qualifying laps max. in such dry/wet conditions.


That paragraph isn’t there any more. It’s been updated


With Spa 2013 being so boring I wonder how the race would have faired if there was no ‘DRS’ and leader had to pass back markers as they did in Senna’s day.

In my view no driver should move aside for another and ‘DRS’ is turning F1 into something else and not the pinnacle of motor sport it’s always been – tracks like Spa most certainly do not need artificial overtaking aids!


Can’t believe Grosjean and the Lotus strategists thought a one stop was best . James surely a two stop would have gained him 1 or 2 places?



Love your veiled hint that Mark Webber should sue Red Bull for the many problems that he keeps on having with his starts. I really hope that he wins big time with the case.

“Webber had another poor start sue to a clutch problem”


Thanks !


Hey James, do you think RBR are deliberately sabotaging MWs car? If your going to imply it you should come out and say it. An Honest answer would be great


Of course not! The constructors championship is where the money is and they need every point Webber scores

Just because there has been the odd moment where they favoured Vettel it’s fanciful to think they sabotage Mark. He would have quit long ago if he thought that…


You are not hinting they’re doing that deliberately, aren’t you ? Please answer honestly. Thank you.


I wouldn’t think so.

Ferrari can say “we have qualifying problems” because both of their cars underperform compared to others. Red Bull doesn’t have a start problem, Mark Webber does. I read somewhere about Rubens Barrichello and his poor starts and it reminded me of 2009 when he was racing Jenson equally in a good car, and yet we could almost count on him to start poorly.


Vettel passed Hamilton because Hamilton made a mistake at Eau Rouge. Ham understeers through the right hand curve of Eau Rouge (too much speed?) – missing the apex by a few feet – this throws him off-line up over the top of the hill…


Boring races at Spa? Red bulls faster in a straight line? Cats and dogs living together…

This is surely the end of days?


A Big +1


It may not have been the most exciting race but I was bored to death for one whole month listening to pundits and the great British media predicting how Hamilton is going to win the 2013 championship after his great win at Budapest. So I am very pleased how the Belgium GP panned out.

Very few people realised how and why Hamilton won at Hungary. He had track position, great straight line speed and it is next to impossible to overtake there unless you have straight line speed.

Similar story at Spa. Vettel had straight line speed than the others. What I can’t understand is, Webber too would have had a similar setup but he struggled to overtake. Webber was fantastic last year but we didn’t see that magic this time. May be at the start he was thinking how he will overtake Vettel from the clean side and win the race and avoid the group photo at the end.

Monza may have a different story where Ferrari and Mercedes are going to be stronger. Some drivers have told this week that they can beat Vettel to the Championship. They have been saying the same thing for the past few years. Let’s see how they perform on the track.


Very few people realised how and why Hamilton won at Hungary. He had track position, great straight line speed and it is next to impossible to overtake there unless you have straight line speed…

That statement sounds a bit one eyed to me. Didn’t LH overtake MW (twice) on the exit from a corner? I don’t see how straight line speed enabled those particular overtakes. Are you an SV fan perchance ? Just a stab in the dark 😉


Decisive moments in Q3 was when ALO lost 10 secs in the penultimate lap (he was before RAI, but then after him) due to off-track. If he would have been before RAI, he could have done a last lap, and ended up in quali similar to VET and WEB. But htat’s a different story.


James u are correct in saying that webber had a bad start but failed to point out that it was a clutch issue again , you also said that webber was a second a lap slower in the second stint which is true, but going off your chart he was actually stuck behind Rosberg for most of that stint


Unless JA’s gone back for a sneaky edit to add these bits in…

“Webber had another poor start due to a clutch problem…”

“His lap times in the second stint, behind Nico Rosberg were almost a second slower than Vettel’s and so he wasn’t able to take the upside gain of a longer middle stint.”


Yes, that’s correct.


+ Webbers second stint was on the hard tires, so it might be expected he would be that amount slower and have difficultly passing Rosberg. Who made that tire choice?


I’m loving that race history chart except:

1. You can’t expand it to see what went on in the mid-field battles where most of the cut and thrust happens. Can you attach a link to an bigger PDF or something?

2. I’m somewhat colour blind, so some of the colours chosen for different teams look the same to me. Sadly that means the mid-field spaghetti is doubly indecipherable for me.

Thanks for the more involved strategy discussion this time around – tying the info from the tyre strategies to the race history chart to tell the story of the race.


I agree than an expandable or downloadable high quality version of these charts would be nice.

Another nice thing would be an interactive chart where you can enable/disable whatever drivers you want to look at. But maybe that’s not an easy thing to jig up, I dunno.


Thought about this some more after I posted.

Instead of a link to a larger PDF, how about link to a chart subpage with some Java tricks to make the chart kind of interactive. I’m thinking of a tick box for each driver so you can pick and choose whose traces you get to see.



For sure the qualifying strategy battle showed who’s who in the grey cell department for getting it just right was extremely crucial.

Seeing as Red Bull got it right for both their cars, I would say Christian Horner is currently the best strategist in the paddock and deserves more credit for his work because it’s not all Newey.

Force India had almost got it right but unfortunately they forgot to disengage from their previous mentality of setting one lap in Q3 and so didn’t put in enough full.

Regards the race, it’s really frightening for not only was Vettel so much faster but the Red Bull really enjoys the new tyres as Vettel was always the last of the top runners to pit and did so many laps after the opposition.

Ferrari’s strategy was made all that much easier thanks to Alonso as he did most of the hard work on track and so after his first stop, all he had to take care of was Lewis.

Mercedes had a pretty straight forward strategy and best of all Lewis had Nico as a rear gunner so there wasn’t too much danger from behind with the exception of Alonso.

The one stoppers’ race like Jenson didn’t quite work out because they was no safety car. Last year, Jenson was able to make it work because a number of laps got erased under the safety car.

Seeing as Ricciardo made his strategy work, I guess more guys at the back should have taken a gamble with the hard tyre.


‘Seeing as Red Bull got it right for both their cars’

Au contraire, they didn’t get the clutch right for Webber…again…

And then the best part was when they sent the guy responsible for the race starts up to the podium to collect the constructors trophy: Fail.


MW has had problems with the start for years now, maybe he needs to start taking responsibility and stop blaming the team. You never see SV having crap starts and blaming his team.


Then later on he “dose something” and hes the bad guy


No denying Mark’s starts are his Achilles heel, but it’s not all down to him.

He’s made some great starts at times, and it has been confirmed that there has been issues with his car, but unfortunately the trouble seems to be that it’s not often that both Mark and the car are doing it right at the same time.


No, he just squeals at the pitwall to “do something!” when he can’t overtake.

Mark’s poor starts are certainly baffling though.

Flying Scotsman

I felt this was done to rub Marks nose in it after his shock announcement on the identity of the new RB driver.


With the number of poor starts Webber has had there is no way the problem is only with the clutching system. They could have tried a dozen settings by now and he still can’t get off the line; some of it has to be Webbers fault.


This is what I think also. I think RedBull are just being nice to Mark Webber and are allowing him to save some face.


If i’m reading this graph right, it seems Ricciardo could have been battling Grosjean and Massa at the end if he were not held up by Maldonado so much in the middle of the race. Fascinating.


Good pick up, it certainly looks that way. At least Maldonado didn’t hit him!


I want to clarify something:

According to James Allen, Alonso had fuel for two laps. He spun in his first timed lap, but he had fuel for another lap. In that last lap, he already had gained three seconds by the time he arrived at the turn where he had spun the lap before (his own words). Hence his error did not have an effect in his final result. Actually because the error, his last lap was completed later so the track was drier than if he had not spun. So actually he benefited from the error.

It could be that James is wrong and he had fuel for three laps as Hamilton, Vettel and Webber. However, Hamilton crossed the finish line with two seconds left, and Alonso was behind him. So he would not have been able to do the third lap even without the spun.

Conclusion: Alonso did a small mistake, but it did not have any negative impact in his final result. Ferrari strategists, on the other hand, did get the fuel/timing wrong.


I also agree that Ferrari got the fueling of the cars wrong in Q3 which resulted in the poor grid spots. However who could think that the track would start drying out so quickly especially when the rain fell so hard to start with.

Definately there is no blame on Fernando. His second timed lap was quicker that the corresponding laps from VET and HAM…



Right, the second timed lap was not so bad 2:03 however in the “next” lap WEB VET HAM gained each 3-4s I have no reason to suspect Fernando wouldn’t have had the same sort of gain.

So Fernando was on the wrong strategy… and the spin didn’ affect much the result, but the low fueling did !

PS: I have carefully ciewed the LT and without le spun I believe he would have been able to do that lap.

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