Only two races into the new hybrid turbo formula, the intense heat of Malaysia was always going to be a stiff challenge for the teams, but once again an impressive 15 cars from the 22 starters made it to the end.
Pace was the ultimate decider of this race, with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton simply too fast for the rest, leading home a Mercedes 1-2, but behind him there were some good battles in which strategy played a key part in the outcome.
Alonso vs Hulkenberg: Different strategies at play
Before the race one of the key decisions was whether to go for two or three stops. In the end only Hulkenberg, starting seventh and Kobayashi, starting 20th went for it.
It was much hotter on race day than it had been in practice, despite the fact that the race started at 16-00hrs local time on Sunday while practice had been held at 14-00hrs on Friday. On top of that heavy rain on Saturday night had washed the rubber away and the track was very dirty on race day, which meant that the cars were sliding around more and overheating the tyres.
The pace of the race was therefore lower than expected – a second a lap slower than Friday practice in fact.
Most teams went for a three stop plan, Magnussen was forced into an early stop on lap 9 with a damaged front wing from the collision with Raikkonen, while Alonso was being very aggressive by taking his first stop on lap 11, a lap or two earlier than the optimum. He was locked once again into a fascinating battle with Hulkenberg’s Force India.
Ferrari went for the aggressive route to let Alonso really attack the German, while Force India decided to try something different; they went for a two stopper. There were several reasons for this; although their pace was similar, as Melbourne had showed, they didn’t believe that they could overtake Alonso on the same strategy.
Also there was a threat of rain and having a more flexible strategy meant that they could potentially luck into a stop as the rain arrived and catch out Ferrari who would be multi stopping and might have just been in when the rain came.
Ferrari was also mindful of tyre degradation. In Friday practice Alonso’s car did a long run on hard tyres, which didn’t look great from the tyre degradation perspective. In the race his degradation was as high as anyone’s, this will be a concern to Ferrari moving forward and must be addressed if they are to be competitive.
A two stopper puts you ahead of the three stopper you are racing against after his final stop. So Hulkenberg found himself 14 seconds ahead after Alonso’s last stop, with 13 laps to go. Anything could happen. Force India had lost nothing and it was well worth a go. In the end it did not work out, Alonso made the most of his aggressive plan and used the new medium tyres in the final stint to catch and pass the German for fourth place.
Alonso had taken the hard tyre in his third stint, rather than at the end because he knew he would need the extra performance to pass Hulkenberg.
The Alonso Hulkenberg battle gave the race an interesting strategic case study and was another heroic performance from Hulkenberg and Force India.
Keeping cool on track.. and on the pit wall
Cooling strategies were also a significant player in the outcome in Malaysia. All teams knew that they would have to compensate for the high temperatures by opening up the bodywork for cooling in some way and that this would cost them aerodynamic performance.
This was a factor in Ferrari having stronger performance in Malaysia than McLaren, despite McLaren’s upgrade package with a new front wing. It had been the other way around in Australia.
It also played a role in the “team orders” controversy at Williams, as Massa’s car was running hotter than Bottas’, according to Williams’ senior engineer Rod Nelson. Bottas had been instructed to stay behind Massa early in the race, despite believing he was faster. The pair was behind Button – Bottas felt he had the pace to pass the McLaren.
Bottas’ strategy involved him pitting two laps later each time than Massa and four laps later than Button at the final stop. So he had a car with no cooling issue and much fresher tyres for an attack on Button in the final stint.
Williams say that the plan was for Massa to let Bottas have three or four laps to attack Button and then if he were unsuccessful, Bottas would drop back behind Massa again for the finish. Massa refused to co-operate and they finished in that order.
There is a fine line between team orders and strategic plays and this was a strategic play by Williams; the trouble is Massa has been on the wrong end of team orders many times in his career and it definitely affected his self-esteem and his trust in the team.
It was extremely unfortunate that Williams chose similar wording here to the infamous “Fernando is faster than you” coded message from Ferrari in Germany 2010 to let Alonso through to win the race. And psychologically this may well have contributed to Massa refusing to collaborate, making it look more like a team orders situation than a strategic play.
Would Bottas have passed Button for sixth place if allowed to try? Well in Australia he was the driver who made the most significant overtakes and in Malaysia he had made up six places on the opening lap after being hit with a grid penalty. So he certainly looked racy. Pace wise it would have been difficult, but his fresher tyres would have given him a chance, perhaps. Williams are mindful that although they have 20 points on the board and lie fourth in the constructors’ table, they need to maximise their results in these early races with a very quick car. They probably feel that they haven’t really been able to do that.
In terms of strategy the question here is, was it worth the risk of damaging Massa psychologically and potentially undermining his trust in the team at this early stage for the sake of an extra two points?
The team clearly felt he would understand the strategic side of their intentions and they will be working with him now to understand. It is important for fans also to understand the difference between a team order and a strategic play.
Reliable pit stops count for more
It is noticeable this season that many teams are not chasing the ultimate speed in pit stops, preferring to be consistent and eliminate the risk of something going wrong.
Rather than go for the sub 2 seconds stops we saw last season, many teams prefer now to take half a second longer and avoid foul-ups. It is noticeable, for example, how Mercedes has slipped down the table of fastest stops, but its stops are consistent. Red Bull showed in Malaysia how time lost in a botched stop can ruin a driver’s race and take away all chance of points.
Daniel Ricciardo’s front left wheel was not properly fixed on after his third stop and it cost him fourth place. Ferrari remains the benchmark team for pit stops this season.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is prepared by JA on F1, with input and data from several F1 teams, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gilla
Race History Graph, Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing
[Click on graph to enlarge] The zero line is an imaginary car setting the winner’s average lap speed every lap.
Note the Button, Massa, Bottas battle and the way Bottas had set himself up for an attack in the final stint by staggering his stops so his tyres would be fresher for the final stint. Note also the pace of Hamilton in the opening stint and the way he eases off to control the race after that. It is very reminiscent of a trace from Vettel in the second half of last year.