Although Sebastian Vettel made a mistake in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, his rivals were not able to press home their advantage and control him on race day, as he took the lead at the start from team-mate Mark Webber.
Any chance of his rivals being able to work with strategy to prevent Vettel from taking his seventh consecutive victory went out of the window there. Vettel was able to pull out a lead and preserve the tyres at the same time in the opening stint and then, because he had not used the medium tyres at all in qualifying, he was able to do two stints on new medium tyres in the race.
But behind the top three battle there were some interesting strategy plays and we will focus on these in this UBS Race Strategy report.
Before the race, based on Friday evening practice running, it seemed that the soft tyre was blistering and degrading as it had in India, but not as quickly as at the Buddh International Circuit. Also it had proved to be 1.5 seconds per lap faster than the medium – twice the margin of India. This was significant.
It meant that it was essential to run it in the final qualifying session and thus for the top ten cars to start the race on it. However some runners outside the top ten would be likely to start the race on the medium and run a long first stint.
The soft tyre performance degraded at five times the rate of the medium. The key to the strategy then, as in India, would be how hard far one could go on the soft tyre before the first stop?
And if stopping early brought your car out into traffic behind medium tyre runners, how hard would it be to overtake?
In India it had proved very easy – so Vettel had come through the field quickly after his first stop from 17th place. In Abu Dhabi some runners got caught behind Adrian Sutil on medium tyres and this had a bearing on the outcome of the race.
Another variable in Abu Dhabi strategy is the temperature. Whereas India had been very stable with temperatures staying constant throughout the race, in Abu Dhabi the day-to-night race means that the track temperature drops by over 10 degrees as the race goes on. This makes it easier to get the tyres to last in the final third of the race, but it means that the strategists have to adapt to the changing conditions, so there are no fixed plans.
Strategy gets results: Sutil, Di Resta and Grosjean’s races
Before the race, there were predictions that a number of drivers would try a one stop strategy. In the end a few did try it, but only two drivers pulled it off; Force India’s drivers Paul di Resta, who finished 6th from 11th on the grid and Adrian Sutil who went from 17th to 10th.
Force India found that the soft tyre was working really well in the race and they exploited that to get their result, playing to the strengths of their car. They were surprised more people didn’t try to do the same.
Most of the first stint stop laps for the cars on soft tyres were earlier than expected, around laps 7-10.
Only Di Resta, Vergne and the two Ferraris did a long run on the soft tyre in the first stint, but the others did not explore what the soft might do over 15-18 laps.
Five drivers started the race on the medium tyre: Jenson Button, Esteban Gutierrez, Adrian Sutil, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen.
Sutil managed to get to lap 28 before making his only stop of the race. He then ran a 27 lap stint on softs to the finish.
He became the barrier in the first stint, holding cars up behind him between laps 17 and 25 and this opened the field up.
A few laps earlier it was Paul di Resta and Jean Eric Vergne – running a long opening stint on the soft tyre – who provided a barrier, holding up cars like Webber, Rosberg and Grosjean that had pitted early. Di Resta was getting the same lap time out of used soft tyres that Rosberg was getting from new mediums.
Unlike India, overtaking was proving tough. Webber and Rosberg eventually got through, although this was where Webber passed Rosberg for second place as they came up to pass Di Resta. But Grosjean lost time behind Vergne.
After they pitted, Sutil continued on, Grosjean eventually passing him. But this had damaged Grosjean’s strategy as he’d pitted early and had been looking to do an aggressive two stop strategy to challenge Webber and Rosberg.
Lotus didn’t need to stop Grosjean for tyre degradation reasons on lap eight. They did it to try to jump Webber, but also to consolidate their fourth place. Webber and Red Bull saw it coming and pitted on the same lap. Grosjean then just needed to do the same strategy as the others around him to achieve that fourth place result.
Webber was in trouble on the tyres in the first stint, he struggles to feel the car on worn soft tyres, by his own admission. By running a lap or two longer, while Webber moved onto the slower medium tyres, Grosjean might have jumped him. But there was a significant risk from behind; Hamilton was coming through on new mediums and might well have got ahead.
Having lost time, Grosjean wasn’t close enough to Webber and Rosberg around the time of the second stops to try an undercut.
Meanwhile Sutil continued to hold up Lewis Hamilton, with Felipe Massa, Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso also in the train, which affected thieir races.
It was nicely done by Force India. By controlling the two strategies, Force India gained track position over teams that started ahead of them and in Sauber’s case they are direct rival in the championship. They had the bases covered in case of a safety car and took their opportunity to get both cars in the points, beating several cars that started in front of them.
Ferrari – did they let the drivers race this time?
Abu Dhabi has never been a happy place for Ferrari strategy wise. They lost a world championship there on a bad call in 2010. And this year wasn’t easy for them. In the opening half of Sunday’s race, it seems that Ferrari were letting their drivers race each other. Massa got the initiative at the start and headed his team-mate Alonso for the opening stint and maintained that in the second stint.
But the second half of the race saw a change; Ferrari made two odd calls in the second round of stops. First they put Massa onto medium tyres when he pitted on lap 38, which had been proven to be slower than the softs. And as Massa had done an 18 lap first stint on them, then getting them through 17 laps to the end from his second stop on a cooling track should have been easy – and faster. As the leader on the track, Massa had stop preference. He went for a stop on lap 38.
This seems too early; his lap times didn’t indicate that he needed to pit, so there was nothing to indicate that the tyres were going off. It gives the appearance of Ferrari deciding that Alonso had more pace. After he got clear of Sutil and Hamilton he caught Massa very quickly and this may have persuaded Ferrari that he had good underlying pace and was the better bet to score points if freed up. After giving Massa two stints in front it looks like Alonso was set free at this point. Alonso’s fuel corrected pace was much better.
Massa has since questioned the decision to put him onto mediums as he didn’t have the speed to pass Vergne in the Toro Rosso, who held him back. Massa thought it obvious he would put softs on at this stop and didn’t mention it on the radio before pitting because he thought that is what they would give him.
Alonso went longer because he needed to do something different to beat his team-mate. But Ferrari may have also gone too early on Alonso’s second stop, which led to the controversial incident where he came out of the pits alongside Vergne and Massa and passed Vergne by going off track.
Vergne was trying to do a one stop and his tyres were really struggling by this point, lap 44. If Alonso had stayed out one more lap he would have easily come out ahead of Vergne and none of the drama would have occured.
Vergne, incidentally, had been trying to do a one stop strategy. He ran a long first stint preserving the tyres and then needed to do 38 laps on the mediums. But he ran out of tyre performance in the last seven laps. Di Resta managed it because he was able to go three laps further in the opening stint.
Vergne was racing Sutil and Perez for the final points positions, but they passed him with seven laps to go. In retrospect, with the problems Button and Ricciardo suffered early on, Vergne might have been better off doing a normal two stop plan and pushing flat out all race. He might have beaten Sutil to a point.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is prepared by James Allen, with input and data from several F1 teams, from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan and from Pirelli
TYRE STRATEGIES, ABU DHABI
Vettel SU MN (14) MN (37)
Webber SU MN (8) MN (33)
Rosberg SU MN (10) MN (33)
Grosjean SU MN (8) MN (37)
Alonso SU MN (16) SU (44)
Di Resta SU MN (20)
Hamilton SU MN (7) MN (29)
Massa SU MN (18) MN (38)
Perez SU MN (6) MN (27)
Sutil MN SN (28)
Maldonado SN MN (5) MN (25)
Button MN SN (2) MN (11)
Gutierrez MN SN(18) MN (30)
Hulkenberg SU; MN (9) MN (27)
Bottas MN MN (24) SN (45)
Ricciardo SU MN (7) MN (28)
Vergne SN MN (17) MN (51)
Van der Garde SN MN (7) MN (33)
Pic SN MN (8) MN (32)
Bianchi SN MN (5) MN (31)
Chilton SN MN(6) MN (32)
S = Soft
M = Medium
N = New
U = Used
RACE HISTORY CHART
Kindly Supplied by Williams F1 Team
Note the train of cars behind Sutil (brown dotted line) from laps 23 to 27 and how it opens up the field.
Note also how quickly Alonso catches Massa in the second stint once he is clear of Hamilton.
Look also at Vettel’s pace in the opening lap as he clears the rest of the field and yet does not suffer a drop off in performance over a 14 lap stint.