The Singapore Grand Prix has always been a race where strategy plays a large part in the result and this year was no different. Partly this is because there is usually a safety car to work around, which can change the game as it did this year. Partly it’s because this is a race where cars which are more gentle on their tyres can take advantage and do one less pit stop than their rivals. And with a stop taking almost 30 seconds, that’s a big advantage.
The safety car presented an opportunity for some and a risk for others. Mercedes didn’t take the risk and lost out to Ferrari and Lotus. Other teams did try to take the opportunity of pitting under the safety car and tried to reach the end of the race, over 30 laps, on a single set of tyres, but they either lost performance or had to pit again before the end.
In fact the safety car spoiled the race in many ways, although it did set up an exciting finish, as cars that gambled on pitting under the safety car, had to struggle to the end on the tyres while others on fresher tyres came through the field.
Pre race expectations
This race was set up in a fascinating way thanks to the performance difference between the two Pirelli tyre compounds; medium and supersoft. It was a significant margin; some teams were seeing two seconds a lap of difference in pace. This meant that a three stop strategy looked to be 12 seconds faster than two stops. But if there were to be a safety car this would offer teams a chance to switch strategy and go for two, depending on where it fell.
Vettel thinking strategically already in qualifying
Sebastian Vettel took a strategy gamble on Saturday; opting not to do a final run in qualifying to save a new set of supersoft tyres for the race. All the indications were that the supersoft would be the faster race tyre and that without a safety car, teams would need to be prepared to do three stops, meaning four stints in total, of which three would be on supersoft.
Having a new set would mean Vettel could have superior pace at a key point in the race or if he was under pressure and forced into stopping earlier than ideal to avoid an undercut, he could put on a new set of tyres which would give him the pace to get out of trouble. In the end he didn’t need to worry; his pace advantage was so significant that even with a safety car cutting down his lead, he still had a huge margin over his rivals. And in any case the safety car made it a two stop race for everyone.
But it was an interesting moment. To lose pole and start from the dirty side of the grid wouldn’t have been worth having a new set of tyres for. Red Bull took the risk because they didn’t believe anyone would get close to beating Vettel’s time and they were lucky that Rosberg was 9/100ths of a second slower, rather than faster on his final run.
Much has been made of Vettel having a fastest race lap, one second faster than the next best car, but this isn’t as simple or meaningful as it looks. Vettel put on a new set of supersofts on lap 44 and two laps later set the fastest time of the race. His main rivals were not in a position to challenge that because they were all tyre saving in the final 20 laps of the race. Adrian Sutil had the second fastest race lap, while the second fastest car last weekend, Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes, put on a new set of mediums on lap 41 – which were two seconds a lap slower than the supersofts – and set his fastest lap of the race on lap 51, two seconds slower than Vettel’s.
How could Rosberg have beaten Alonso and Raikkonen?
The key to Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen getting onto the podium was that the Ferrari and Lotus teams had confidence that they could get to the finish on a set of medium tyres should the safety car be deployed around lap 25. This was based on knowledge gained from Friday practice, where almost 4,000kms of running was done by the field, with 26 laps the most anyone managed on a set of mediums.
Mercedes did not have that confidence and the strategy team maintains that they would more likely have ended up like the McLaren drivers, losing performance and track positions at the end, than the Ferrari and Lotus cars.
Ferrari had to take the risk, there was nothing to lose from a championship point of view. If Alonso had followed the Mercedes strategy he would have finished behind Rosberg. By pitting under the safety car he gave himself a shot at second place and it worked, meaning that at least he was able to minimise the championship points loss to Vettel.
For Rosberg, who stayed out when the safety car was deployed on lap 25 along with Vettel, Webber and Hamilton, his nine second lead over Alonso was lost. It was only four seconds when Rosberg made his second stop on lap 41 and lost track position to both Alonso and Raikkonen.
Complicating matters further Rosberg got some discarded tyre rubber jammed in his front wing and this hurt the aerodynamic performance of the Mercedes and affected tyre performance. So even if he had decided to gamble on a stop under the safety car, he would have been forced to stop again before the end of the race.
The risk for Alonso and Raikkonen was that they would be caught by cars like Rosberg and Webber who would be on new tyres In the final 20 laps. Rosberg had the pace to catch them but lost time in traffic (Hulkenberg and Gutierrez) when they were on fresh tyres and that saved Alonso and Raikkonen.
If they had pitted Rosberg under the safety car he would have lost a place to Webber but would have still been ahead of Alonso with a fresh set of tyres. To lose one place for a fresh set may have been worth it. Without the rubber getting stuck in the front wing, Rosberg would have been able to build a gap to Raikkonen, so that he could pit again, if needed, and still challenge the Finn for third place before the flag, especially as Raikkonen lost time behind Button towards the end.
But with the poor pace in the second stint from having rubber in his wing, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
Mercedes were beaten by two cars whose strength has been making the tyres last.
Di Resta loses a good result
Force India and Paul di Resta have a strong history at Singapore; last year he finished fourth and in 2011 he was sixth, in both cases using innovative strategy.
This year he was at it again. Although he qualified a disappointing 17th on the grid, he tried an ambitious two stop strategy with two stints on new supersoft tyres and the stops well balanced out for the fastest race time. He pulled off a 22 lap first stint on supersoft, the longest any driver managed. The Force India strategists managed to drop him back out into clear air with an eight second gap to the car in front, so he was motoring when the safety car came out at the end of lap 24.
Because he was targeting a two stop strategy the safety car actually worked against him, because it gave many other cars a chance to do two stops as well. Some of them ran into trouble trying to get to the end on the same set of tyres having pitted on lap 25, drivers like Button, Perez and Hulkenberg and these were picked off by the cars with the more evenly spaced stop plan in the closing laps. Di Resta had track position ahead of Massa after his second stop and thus was headed for sixth place, which would have maintained a strong record on this track. But he went off the circuit seven laps from the end.
Vettel SSU MN (17) SSN (44) 2 stops
Alonso SSU MN (14) MU(25) 2
Raikkonen SSU SSN (10) MN (25) 2
Rosberg SSU MN (15) MN (43) 2
Hamilton SSU MN(15) MU(43) 2
Massa SSU MN (12) SSU (25) MU (42) 3
Button SSU SSU (13) MN(25) 2
Perez SSN SSU (14) MN (25) 2
Hulkenberg SSU SSU (13) MN (25) 2
Sutil MN SSU (12) SSU (25) SSU (40) 3
Maldonado SSN SSN (16) MN (25) SSU (41) 3
Gutierrez SSU SSU (11) MN (25) 2
Bottas SSN SSU (13) MN (24) SSU (42) 3
Vergne SSU MN (11) MN (24) SSN (39) 3
Webber SSU MN (13) MU (40) 2
V der Garde SSN MN (13) MN (26) MN (42) 3
Chilton SSU SSN (11) MN (24) MN (41) 3
Bianchi SSU SSN (10) SSU (11) MN (23) MN (40) 4
Pic SSN MN (11) MN (25) SSU (54) 3
Di Resta SSN SSN(20) MN (42)
Grosjean SSU SSU (15) MN(25) MU (33) 3 NC
Ricciardo SSU MN (15) 1 NC
M = Medium compound
H = Hard compound
N = New compound
U = Used compound
The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is written by James Allen with input and data from some of the F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History, provided by Williams F1 team
The orange band is the safety car period. Note how Rosberg’s slow pace after that caused the field to bunch up behind. Had he been able to attack on fresh tyres he might have been able to pit and challenge Raikkonen and possible Alonso in the closing stages, as their tyres faded. But this would have required him passing Webber and possibly Hamilton. On balance that may have been difficult. Mercedes played it safe and got a result.