Red Bull’s Mark Webber feels the decision to switch to a three-stop strategy in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix was a mistake.
The Australian, who is leaving the sport at the end of the year to race for Porsche in sportscars, was running second behind the Lotus of Romain Grosjean, after a slow getaway from pole, when the call was made.
As a result, the 37-year-old had to do one more stop than Grosjean and race winner Sebastian Vettel – which surprised the Australian.
Webber said: “After that first stop the guys said ‘We’re still on two [stops] – no problem, look after the tyres, we can get to the target lap’. That was the plan, I was looking to wait off the back of Romain and then squeeze up to the back of him between lap 28-31 or 32.
“Then I think on lap 25 the guys said we’re going to three-stop, which is five laps shorter than the two-stop anyway. I asked the guys ‘Are you sure this is right?’ And they said ‘Yes, we’re going to give it a go’, and we gave it a go; you’ve got to give it 100%.”
The third stop left him with fresher softer tyres in the final stint but lost time when he was unable to pass Grosjean for second. Once he got through, he didn’t have enough laps left to chase down leader Vettel.
Webber, who has scored five podiums this season, said he didn’t ask to overrule the team’s decision because he trusted that they were making the right call based on the data available to them.
“I don’t have the whole chess match in front of me,” he said. “I have what’s in front of me here, I thought that Romain was strong on the option but not so strong on the prime. When I decided to pull the pin and go straight on the back of him I could do that quite straight-forward.
“Then I went there and thought ‘OK let’s wait again, we can still sit on the two-stop and wait for him to have some tyre problems at the end’ but they then said ‘No, we need to pit now, let’s go for the three’. They had more information, they always generally do in front of them and that was it.”
After the “Multi 21” fiasco in Malaysia this year, where Vettel ignored team orders and passed Webber for the win, many observers are on red alert for signs of Red Bull favouring their lead driver over the Australian. And plenty of fans see conspiracy in every move.
Having taken pole position on Saturday, albeit with Vettel suffering from a loss of KERS at a key moment, he was confident that the two drivers would be allowed to race each other on Sunday. Neither made a good start and Grosjean took the lead. So Red Bull was thinking about how to attack Grosjean and that dictated strategy from there.
Horner said it was a combination of Webber’s heavier use of the tyres in the first stint and the delay in getting past Grosjean in the final stint which ended his hopes of winning the race.
Horner said: “The key aspect was obviously the first stint. We went in to the race hoping and thinking it would be marginal for a two-stop but we believed that probably in clear air we could do that. I think the first stint dictated everything for us when Mark put Grosjean under quite a lot of pressure and went through the tyre phases pretty quickly to the point that he’d run out of tyres by the lap he pitted on.
“That was pretty early in the race, which was too short for us in our own minds to make a two-stop really work because you’d effectively run out of tyres in that last stint.
“So as the race opened up for Mark and [Toro Rosso’s Daniel] Ricciardo held the rest of the field back, some clear track space opened up. While Sebastian was able to do the opposite, Grosjean pitted to cover Mark and Sebastian was able in clear air to run at a very quick pace having conserved his tyres.
“That happened again during the second stint and as the gap opened up for Mark effectively it was a free stop. We felt that was the best way to attack and pass Grosjean with Mark and do the opposite with Sebastian. Of course that then puts Lotus in a very difficult decision because which car do they cover?
“Effectively you’ve got a bit of a chess game going on strategically, but with the benefit of clear air Mark was able to run a very quick pace. Sebastian, having conserved his tyres, went about five laps longer than we expected him to, so when Sebastian pitted and came out behind Grosjean he used those tyres incredibly well to pass him very quickly.
“He closed on him and passed him immediately with a very brave move down the pit straight – and then knew that he was effectively racing Mark who was going to be on a different strategy and a softer, quicker tyre at the end of the grand prix.
“When Mark pitted, I think with 10 or 11 laps to go, and went on to the softer tyre, obviously he closed in on Grosjean pretty quickly but then came across a bit of traffic and unfortunately didn’t go past Grosjean too quickly and that killed off any chance he had of winning the race. But it was great to see him make the move on Grosjean and obviously fantastic for the team to get a one-two finish.”
Is Webber correct? Watch out for our UBS Race Strategy Report tomorrow, for analysis of Red Bull’s split strategy decision