The Monaco Grand Prix has triggered plenty of debate after the controversial incident in qualifying where Lewis Hamilton was denied a shot at pole through the error on the last lap of his Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.
It meant that in the race, having lost the start to the German as well, Hamilton’s only shot at winning was to jump him in the pit stops.
However, a Safety Car during the pit stop window changed the game; after both drivers had made their stops on the same lap, Hamilton was heard to complain to his team about the strategy call.
So could he have won the race if things had been done differently?
Here with input from several leading strategists is our analysis – the UBS Race Strategy Report.
As always at Monaco, the teams had less knowledge than they would like going into the Grand Prix, this time because of a wet FP2 session, so limited long runs.
However with the Pirelli tyres this year being harder than before, it was clear that the race was a one-stop, the question was how early could you pit and make it to the finish on your second set of tyres?
And conversely, for a counter strategy, how late could you leave it on the first set and make gains by stopping later? And what effect would a safety car have on the race?
In the end we got a safety car and a race of high attrition, with many leading cars eliminated. It was a day for staying out of trouble, as points were there for the taking, as Marussia’s Jules Bianchi proved.
Could Hamilton have beaten Rosberg on pit stop strategy?
Lewis Hamilton was not a happy man going into Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix and he was even less happy after he was called in to pit on the same lap as race leader Rosberg, meaning that he had no chance to try something strategy wise to beat him.
He was heard to question the decision, also suggesting that at McLaren he would have been allowed to pre-empt the safety car and come in early after Adrian Sutil crashed heavily on lap 24.
The first car to pit was Jenson Button. Mclaren always brief the drivers that there is a “Safety Car window”, where they can pit at their discretion if they see an accident or “SC” boards, before the team see it and if they are in a late phase of the lap.
They were very clear on this and it’s something that other teams have been encouraged to try and copy. This is not a policy in place at Mercedes. This is what Hamilton was talking about when he referred to McLaren.
Mercedes run a clear policy of leading driver stop preference in races, something which Hamilton has benefitted from in the previous four races this year, which he has won.
Here, the situation was that Mercedes had a 1-2 and a margin of 12 seconds over the third car, Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton was in Turn 13 when the TV cameras revealed that Sutil had crashed heavily, so there was time to call them in.
However there was no guarantee a Safety Car would be deployed, as later incidents like the Gutierrez shunt proved. This was an exercise in managing probabilities – it was 90% likely that a Safety Car would be used, but there was 0% risk to Mercedes of losing positions by by doing an extra lap and waiting to see if a Safety Car was deployed. This is because in that situation, all the cars are obliged to run at a set Safety Car speed, which is 140% of the normal lap time.
If Hamilton had pitted and there had been no Safety Car he would have been behind the Ferraris and could have been vulnerable to Ferrari deliberately leaving one of their cars out to block him while the other built a gap. Given that the “blocking” car would be Alonso, this is doubtful, but you never know.
Incidentally, Button didn’t gain any places by diving into the pits, because everyone went at the same speed once the “Safety Car Deployed” signs went out. It only works when someone does something wrong or unusual – in Australia Button gained two places with this trick because Alonso stacked up the cars behind him. Here there was nothing there for the taking.
But still, it can bring a gain and Hamilton will have remembered that he lost places to Vettel and Webber in this way under the Safety Car in Monaco last year, a painful memory so he felt it was worth a try.
The point is that, from the Mercedes’ point of view, there was no obvious gain for Hamilton in making a stop after Sutil crashed, but there were some risks. Mercedes has a single head of strategy on site and his job is to deliver a Mercedes 1-2 finish. However he has also been tasked with giving his drivers a chance to race.
And it is here that Hamilton’s real frustration lay, because there was a plan in place..
As Rosberg the leader had stop priority, the only way for Hamilton to beat him was to wait until Rosberg had stopped and then push like mad on the supersoft tyres for the next lap. At the same time, Rosberg would be on an out-lap with new soft tyres, which were quite hard and took a long time to warm up. This would have been Hamilton’s opportunity; to offset himself against Rosberg, then pit and hopefully emerge ahead of the German, if he had struggled with new tyre warm-up.
To pull it off he would have needed to have been more than 6/10ths of a second faster on old supersofts than Rosberg on new softs on that lap.
But because the Safety Car came out in a pit stop window, he never had the chance to try it.
So he was immensely frustrated – on top of his resentment at the manner in which he felt Rosberg had gained the advantage in qualifying – and this is what came out over the radio and after the race.
Counter Strategy helps Hulkenberg and Bianchi to strong points finishes
Two standout results in Monaco were the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg, going from 11th on the grid to 5th at the finish and Jules Bianchi going from 21st on the grid to 8th on the road, 9th after a 5 second penalty was applied. This gave Marussia a breakthrough first points finish.
Both did the same strategy: start on the soft tyres and then take the supersofts at the pit stop under the Safety Car. This called for them to do over 50 laps on a set of supersofts. Most teams had budgeted up to a maximum of 45 laps, but Force India has always been able to try these strategies because it can look after its tyres.
In Hulkenberg’s case this was a masterstroke, because on new supersofts he was able, at the restart after the Safety Car, to overtake Magnussen who was on the harder tyres and struggling to warm them up.
However the surprise for Force India was that tyres were dropping off badly in the closing stages, unlike Bianchi’s which still had good pace. Hulkenberg was however able to hold off Button to the flag.
Bianchi’s pace was something of a revelation and this result was well deserved. It was a shame that they drew an additional penalty for taking their original 5 second penalty during the Safety Car period, rather than just adding it on at the end. The Marussia was able to hold off Grosjean’s Lotus comfortably enough in the closing stages and his lap times were comparable to midfield cars.
Another driver who tried something different was Massa in the Williams. He did not pit when the Safety Car was deployed, at which point he was lying in 11th place. It was an unusual call and a roll of the dice really, perhaps hoping for a race stoppage or a track blockage to give him a gap to pit into. With everyone doing one stop there were few other obvious ways to gain.
With attrition and problems for other runners this meant that he was fifth in the second stint of the race, with a stop to take.
He took it on lap 45 and dropped back to 11th again. But with more attrition, he rose to 7th at the flag.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen, with input and data from several teams strategists and from Pirelli
For an interactive graph, which can isolate any particular driver for analysis or compare a number of drivers, click here INTERACTIVE MONACO GRAPH
RACE HISTORY GRAPH, Kindly Supplied by Williams – Click to enlarge
Note how the field is held up in a train behind Hulkenberg in the final third of the race.