The Korean Grand Prix was a slow-burner, which came alive in the final part of the race. Once again Sebastian Vettel controlled the race, but he did not dominate it as he had in Singapore.
Meanwhile race strategy again played a huge part in the outcome, with Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen again using strategy to make his way from 9th on the grid to 2nd at the flag while teams had to deal with two safety cars.
The race also saw some highly unusual happenings: a fire truck on circuit, without the knowledge of Race Control and a front nose failure on Nico Rosberg’s car.
There was a lot therefore for strategists to deal with. Here is our analysis of why the race worked out the way it did.
Pre race expectations
Before the race, based on the data the teams had gathered from practice, it appeared that two stops would be around eight seconds faster than three stops. The new supersoft tyre had shown itself to be 0.7s a lap faster than the new medium. The pit lane window would open around lap 11 for the cars, which had started on the supersofts used in qualifying.
In fact the level of tyre degradation was higher than expected. Most people planned a two-stop race, but it was marginal for many and the two safety cars really helped them. We saw a tyre failure for Sergio Perez after he flat spotted a tyre that was near the end of its life.
Vettel controls but doesn’t dominate
After his performance in Singapore two weeks ago, which aroused suspicions and rumours about his car, Sebastian Vettel was noticeably more subdued in the Korean race.
Starting from pole, he built an early cushion over his rivals and then managed the race with a gap of four to five seconds. He had no need at any stage to run at full pace, so he managed his pace throughout. In Singapore, there was a moment after the safety car where he needed to build an advantage of almost 30 seconds to avoid losing position at his pit stop and here we saw the true absolute pace of the Red Bull.
The reason why he kept the gap at around five seconds in Korea is that this provides protection from the car behind undercutting him in a pit stop. That’s too much time to make up by making a pit stop a lap earlier and taking fresh tyres. With a five second gap Vettel can react and cover the car behind.
The only time it looked like it might be close in Korea was the final stint. Both Vettel and Grosjean pitted on lap 31 during the first safety car. The tyres that came off his car had done over 20 laps (they were used when he started with them) and he was told that they were finished. So with 24 laps to the finish on a new set of mediums, it could be marginal for him in the closing laps. However he was fortunate in that a second safety car was then deployed, which meant it was easy to reach the finish on the tyres. Meanwhile, Grosjean made a mistake and this allowed Raikkonen through into second place. Raikkonen’s pace was slower than Grosjean’s in the final stint and the team didn’t allow Grosjean a team order to repass his team-mate. They knew he wouldn’t be able to challenge Vettel anyway by then.
Raikkonen does it again – P9 to P2
Kimi Raikkonen has made a speciality of coming through from lowly grid positions to podium finishes, using clever race strategy and varying his pace as required. He was at his best in Korea, but he did also get a large helping of luck from the safety car.
Raikkonen made a poor start, but recovered and with the mix up on the opening lap giving some slower cars an opportunity to get into the top ten, Raikkonen had little problem passing them to get to 7th place on lap four. He wasn’t happy with the tyres and at this stage Lotus’ plan was to stop three times.
The key to his race lay in his undercut on lap 26, where he took a new set of medium tyres. This allowed him to undercut Hulkenberg, Alonso, Hamilton and Rosberg and with Webber’s puncture he also stayed ahead of him. In one strategy move he had gone from 8th to 3rd.
Hulkenberg reacted and tried in vain to cover him, but Mercedes left Rosberg out for three laps and Hamilton out for four laps, losing time, because lap 26 was too early for them to bring him in and make the finish on a set of tyres on a two stop plan. They should have switched to a three stop plan when they saw Raikkonen’s move, but they stayed out and lost time.
This is a pattern we have seen a few times this season, where Lotus has been able to be aggressive and make stops on the front foot, forcing rivals to lose places either by staying out or by covering the stop and condemning themselves to tyre worries later in the race. It’s a Catch 22 when they do it to you. Pitting Raikkonen on lap 26, which was at the time part of a three stop plan, put rivals into no-man’s land. Alonso pitted on lap 28 which is neither a two or three stop window, it sits in between and he duly lost track position to Raikkonen.
Although he has made life difficult for himself by qualifying poorly – and lately he has been some way off the pace of Grosjean who has mastered qualifying now – Raikkonen has the perfect qualities for this era of Pirelli tyre degradation racing. He knows how to push the tyres up to the limit but not over them, so he never burns them out and loses the performance as a result. His feel for the limit of the tyres, like Vettel’s is impressive.
Mercedes hit problems
With hindsight, Mercedes should have used a three stop strategy because Hamilton lost too much time staying out after Raikkonen had undercut him on lap 26.
Hamilton had tried to undercut Grosjean at the first stop, pitting on lap 9, which Lotus covered a lap later and retained the position. Hamilton therefore did a 20 lap middle stint and lost position to Raikkonen, as outlined above. But he lost a lot of time at the end of the second stint, over two seconds a lap at times.
To compound matters, Rosberg suffered a highly unusual front nose fixing failure, just as he passed Hamilton. So Hamilton lost four seconds in the process as he was compromised by the problem on Rosberg’s car.
The timing wasn’t great from there onwards – he pitted just before the safety car, so wasn’t able to take the benefit of a free pit stop at just the right moment.
Maldonado unable to capitalise on strong start
Williams is badly in need of some points and Pastor Maldonado looked like he was shaping up to get some after a fantastic start which took him from 18th to ninth on the first lap. Williams tried to do a two stop race from this point, but because Maldonado was running with quick cars at the front, his tyre degradation was quite severe and he ended up cutting his second stint short. This extended his final stint to 22 laps and meant that in the final stint his tyres were far worse than those on Gutierrez who had lucked in to being able to pit under the safety car on lap 31, as well as Perez. A ninth place had been there for the taking, but it shows how easily it can be taken away and how much a safety car at the wrong moment can turn a race on its head.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the F1 teams strategists, from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan and from Pirelli
Vettel: SSU MU (11) MN (31) 2 stops
Räikkönen: SSU MN (11) MN (25) 2
Grosjean: SSU MN (10) MN (31)2
Hülkenberg: SSU MN (10) MN (26) 2
Hamilton: SSU MN (9) MN (29) 2
Alonso: SSU MN (9) MU (28) 2
Rosberg: SSU MN (10) MN (28) 2
Button: SSN MN (4) MN (22) 2
Massa:SSU MU (6) MN (29) 2
Perez: SSN MN (10) MN (31) 2
Gutierrez: SSU MN (7) MN (31) 2
Bottas: SSN MN (8) MN (28)2
Maldonado: SSN MN (7) MN (23) 2
Pic: SSN MN (9) MN (30) 2
Van Der Garde: SSN DT (10) MN (11) MN (30) 3
Bianchi: SSN MN (10) MN (30) 2
Chilton: SSN MN (12) MN (30) 2
Vergne:SSN MN (12) MN (24) MU (38) 3
Ricciardo: MN MN (18) SSN (31) 2
Sutil: SSU MN (3) MN (28) SSN (38) SSU (41) 4
Webber: SSU MU (12) MU (30) SSU (31) 3 NC
Di Resta: SSN MN (7) MN (23) 2 NC
SS = Supersoft compound
M = Medium compound
N = New compound
U = Used compound
NC = Not classified
DT = Drive Through
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Kindly provided by Williams F1 Team
Note the controlled pace of Vettel, relative to the Lotus and Mercedes cars. Note also the undercut by Raikkonen on the cars in front of him by pitting on lap 26. This is a text book undercut, but even he was surprised by how many places it netted him!