The Indian Grand Prix was all set up to be a fascinating strategy battle with four of the top ten cars starting the race on the more durable medium compound tyres and six on the soft compound, which was short-lived. Everywhere there were different tactical approaches and possibilities, although some yielded good results, others didn’t work out.
Sadly incidents at the start meant that the fastest two of the outliers, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso were not able to show what they might have done. A strong result for Sergio Perez, however, made the strategy look worthwhile and one wonders what might have been for Webber and Alonso.
Meanwhile the two Lotus drivers went about the race in completely different ways but came together near the end as both ended up trying a one stop strategy. It worked for Romain Grosjean, who scored an impressive podium, but not for Kimi Raikkonen.
Here we analyse in depth how and why the race turned out as it did.
All teams have strategy computers, which model the race beforehand and give a likely outcome. On Sunday morning many had Webber winning the race by three to four seconds with Vettel catching him at the end. The key to it was how hard it would be to overtake and come back through the field for the drivers like Vettel, Rosberg and Hamilton, who were starting the race on the soft tyre and would be forced to pit early. Most estimates said that the soft tyres would last around five or six laps only at the start of the race. Because of this Webber, Alonso and the two McLaren drivers had opted to qualify on the medium. Although it was one second a lap slower than the soft, it was a much better race tyre. By qualifying a better than expected fourth, Webber managed to put himself into a position to win the race, if he could use the clear air after Vettel, Rosberg and Hamilton pitted to push hard, while Vettel would be coming back through traffic after his first stop.
Vettel had gone for the soft tyre in qualifying so he could stay out of trouble at the start, which turned out to be prophetic. Meanwhile the Mercedes paid went that route because they had been very fast and consistent on the soft tyre in their Friday long runs. It looked promising for a strong podium for them, so they wanted to maximise their advantage.
Meanwhile to throw another strategic dimension into the mix, on race morning Pirelli issued an advisory note that teams were not to do more than 15 laps on a set of soft tyres and 35 laps on a set of mediums. Ferrari and Red Bull were both struggling to get them to last.
The FIA refused to enforce Pirelli’s guidance, leaving it to the teams to decide how long to run the tyre. In the end Adrian Sutil set his fastest lap of the race on his 18th lap on the softs, while Kimi Raikkonen did 51 laps on a set of mediums. For Sutil and Romain Grosjean, ignoring Pirelli was central to their strategy and their result.
Webber’s plan fails at the first hurdle; Vettel comes through
Although the simulations said he should win, starting fourth on the medium tyre, it didn’t work for Webber because he got tangled up at the start with Alonso and dropped to seventh place, behind Hulkenberg and Raikkonen. His opportunity was lost at that point. His strategy relied on running in clear air at the front while time was being lost for Vettel in traffic.
By the time he hit the front he had only half the gap he needed over Vettel, who carved his way through the traffic better than expected. Once Red Bull strategists saw that Webber and Alonso’s strategies were compromised, they pitted Vettel on lap two to get him off the unfancied soft tyre. From here he had 58 laps to do on two new sets of medium tyres. He split the race evenly, doing two 29 lap stints.
The key to his race – and Rosberg’s race too – was being able to come through traffic after the early stop. Vettel was 17th on lap two and back up to the lead by lap 29. He had to pass all the medium tyre runners, who could otherwise hold him up by running long, and he did so.
Webber meanwhile, knowing that he was racing for second place, pitted on lap 28 for a short stint on softs, then pitted again on lap 32, as he had an opportunity to slot into a gap allowing him to run in free air ahead of Ricciardo. This gave him 28 laps to do on medium tyres to the chequered flag. This had secured him second place but then alternator failure ended his afternoon.
Perez standout drive and what might have been for Alonso
Sergio Perez was the most notable illustration of what might have been for Webber and Alonso as he ran the medium tyre in qualifying and at the start and managed to go from ninth on the grid to fifth, his best result of the season. He kept the medium tyre lapping competitively until lap 28 and then did a short stint on softs, in clear air, pitting on lap 33, rejoining behind Hamilton, but ahead of Hulkenberg. As Hamilton’s tyres faded in the closing stages, the man who replaced him at McLaren was able to pick him off.
Alonso, meanwhile broke his front wing and damaged his front suspension in the opening lap melee and his strategy was compromised as he made a forced early stop, losing the strategic advantage of starting on the medium tyre. He was unable to progress back through the field and ended the day not scoring any points.
In hindsight, he might have been better to qualify on the soft and do the same strategy as Rosberg. He set the second fastest time in Qualifying session 2, so if he had just repeated that lap time in Qualifying session 3 he would have been third on the grid. From there a podium was possible with a clean start like the one team mate Massa got on the soft tyre.
Contrasting Lotus strategies and what might have been for Massa
There was some controversy at Lotus in this race as Kimi Raikkonen refused to accept team orders and let his team mate Romain Grosjean through four laps from the end. Raikkonen’s tyres were six laps older than the Frenchman’s and had passed their best. They touched, Grosjean went off track but managed to repass the Finn and went on to score an impressive third place, from 17th on the grid while Raikkonen finished seventh. So how did Lotus end up in this situation?
The original plan was for Raikkonen to two-stop from sixth on the grid and for Grosjean to one stop. Both started on soft tyres, but Grosjean’s were new as he had messed up qualifying and was down in 17th place on the grid. This would prove important as he was able to run a longer first stint than his team mate and that made the second stint a more manageable length.
He managed to get to lap 13 before stopping which was ideal, as he then did 47 laps on the mediums. He picked up places when the likes of Gutierrez, Hulkenberg and Di Resta made their second stops. All the good work to set up the result was done in that opening stint.
Where Grosjean was lucky was when Felipe Massa and Ferrari failed to trap him on lap 29. Massa needed to make a second stop and had a 23 second lead over Grosjean. If Massa had pitted then he would have trapped Grosjean behind him and would then have been on fresh tyres, while Grosjean’s were older and needing to make the finish. So the Lotus would not have been able to attack.
Ferrari did not take this opportunity and so when Massa pitted on lap 30, he came out behind Grosjean. This was the turning point of Grosjean’s race.
Mercedes saw it. Rosberg was behind Massa in this phase of the race and they pitted Rosberg to cover Grosjean on lap 27, trapping the Frenchman. Massa could have been second in other words, but clearly didn’t feel he could make the finish on one set of tyres for 33 laps.
Grosjean lost some time behind Gutierrez between laps 21 and 25 and this cost him a shot at beating Rosberg to second place.
Raikkonen in contrast, had set out to stop twice and made his first stop on lap seven. This brought him out behind Hulkenberg and Di Resta on relatively new mediums. He could not pass because he was suffering a repeat of a rear brake problem he has had a few times before. When he closed up on the car in front his rear brakes overheated and didn’t perform as normal.
Raikkonen and the team had discussed the possibility of a Plan B, should he find it hard to pass traffic on a two stop. The alternative was to run one stop, which is what they then agreed to do. The gamble was that if it worked he could get a podium and if it didn’t he wouldn’t finish lower than seventh, which is what he would have got had he stayed in traffic on a two stop.
But having stopped on lap seven, he needed to do 53 laps on a set of medium tyres. It was an extreme gamble, but he and Lotus have scored some good results in the past this way.
This time it proved to be five laps too many, as his performance dropped off around lap 55. Losing four positions in the next three laps, he had a big enough gap to Di Resta to be able to pit on lap 58 for a fresh set of softs and stay in seventh place.
Force India back in the points
It was a good result for Force India on home soil after a barren spell recently which has allowed Sauber to close up on them in the championship. This result arrested that march a little. Force India now has a 23 point margin with three races to go.
Starting 12th Di Resta finished 8th on a two stop plan with a very early first stop. While Sutil started 13th and finished 9th on a one stop strategy.
Di Resta’s strategy was to start on the soft tyre, come in on lap one and then divide the race into two halves on new medium tyres. It meant that he ran in clear air for almost the whole race and it worked well. The team was disappointed not to beat Raikkonen to seventh, but Lotus were able to pit Raikkonen on lap 58 as his tyres were falling off a cliff and get out just ahead of Di Resta.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli
RACE HISTORY CHART
Kindly supplied by Williams F1 Team
Compare the yellow traces of Raikkonen and Grosjean (dotted), both initially careful on the medium tyre in second stint, look at the contrast in performance in the closing stages
Note also the time Grosjean loses behind Gutierrez between laps 21 and 25.