The 2014 Belgian Grand Prix will be remembered for the collision between the two main title contenders, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
However, there were some interesting strategy aspects to the race, not least recovery strategies for Rosberg and Alonso, while Kimi Raikkonen was a few tantalising laps away from a first podium for Ferrari since his comeback.
Could the team have got him that podium with a more optimised strategy? All is revealed here.
Pre race considerations
Due to the wet qualifying session, the teams had all new dry tyres available for the race, which meant that they could run longer soft tyre stints in particular than they would have been able to do if the tyres had been used for qualifying.
Unusually for Spa the track had stayed dry for all of Friday’s practice, so most teams had a good amount of data on how the tyres would behave in the race.
The soft tyre was around 1.6 seconds faster than the medium on the first lap, but less over the length of a stint. The likelihood therefore was that teams would do two stops with a medium tyre stint at the end. There were some interesting variations on this, which almost paid off as we shall see.
Ferrari juggle two different scenarios and narrowly miss podium
Ferrari looked more competitive, especially in the wet qualifying, than it has of late with Fernando Alonso qualifying a season best fourth and Kimi Raikkonen missing a podium by a few laps at the end.
The team set the cars up with more downforce, which paid dividends in the wet qualifying but made it difficult for them to pass cars in the race.
This hurt Alonso once he fell into traffic behind Kevin Magnussen due to a penalty for mechanics not leaving the grid at the appointed time.
Ferrari was fortunate not to suffer a more severe sanction than a five second penalty at Alonso’s first pit stop. He could have been forced to start from the pit lane and/or to serve a drive through penalty, which would have added 15 seconds to his race time and cost many track positions. The stewards were lenient with Ferrari on this issue.
After an early skirmish with Ricciardo, Alonso settled into fourth place in the opening stint. Ferrari served the penalty at his first stop on Lap 12 and he fell back to 7th behind the McLaren of Kevin Magnussen, whom he could not pass.
The question mark with Alonso’s recovery strategy is why Ferrari pitted him on lap 25, only two laps later than Magnussen? If they wanted to give him a chance to pass in the closing laps, then a larger offset would be ideal, perhaps another two to three laps. He faced no risk from behind and had only done 13 laps on his second set of soft tyres.
At this point Magnussen, after his second stop, was being held up by Hulkenberg, this lasted for three laps. Ferrari clearly thought that Magnussen would pass the German easily on fresh tyres, but he didn’t. Alonso pitted on lap 25 and rejoined behind Magnussen.
With hindsight, they could have afforded to leave Alonso out a few more laps while Magnussen was being held up, to build a larger offset, so Alonso would have had an extra 2/10ths of a second per lap in the tyres and could attack more effective in the later stages of the race, as Bottas did to Raikkonen. But it would have been close and this is very much a hindsight view.
Similarly with Raikkonen, Ferrari narrowly missed a podium. It would have been quite an achievement to hold Bottas behind to the end as the Williams was quicker. Ferrari went for a very aggressive strategy with Raikkonen, pitting him on Lap eight. This worked very well as he was able to undercut and pick up many places when the cars ahead pitted, so he found himself running second in the middle stint between the two Red Bull cars.
Again his second stop is the question mark. He stopped with 23 laps to go onto a set of medium tyres. On paper this should have been fine; most teams felt from Friday running that the mediums would be okay for that length of stint. However Ferrari had not done a meaningful long run on the medium in Free Practice, so their data was more sketchy. And as it turned out for everyone on the day, the medium was not capable of staying strong for that long. Williams capitalised on this with Bottas, offsetting him by seven laps to Raikkonen so he was able to easily pass his fellow Finn with five laps to go.
So why did Ferrari pit Raikkonen after only 14 laps in his second stint? Could he have squeezed out a couple more laps and might that have made the difference at the end? In reality it’s unlikely. Bottas had a faster car and a more balanced strategy and there is little that Ferrari could have done to resist.
They pitted him to cover Rosberg who was coming through from behind, there was no other significant threat from behind. But Rosberg was always going to beat Raikkonen with the huge performance advantage Mercedes enjoyed at Spa, so this wasn’t really the right move. But on balance even if they’d left Raikkonen out another couple of laps, Williams had him covered and the podium was always a bit of a pipe dream.
Rosberg and Ricciardo fight for victory
It is a measure of how large Mercedes’ performance advantage was in Spa that despite crashing into his team mate, losing time with a front wing change and being forced into a compromise strategy, Rosberg only lost the race to Ricciardo by a small margin. It highlights what a massive own goal the collision between team mates was. A dominant 1-2 finish was clearly on the cards.
Ricciardo did the classic two stop race strategy, with two stints on softs and one on mediums, without needing to worry about undercuts or offsets. He ran his fastest race in other words.
He passed Alonso and Vettel early. The Mercedes collision helped him to take the lead, after Rosberg was forced to pit early for a new nose and from there Ricciardo did what he does best, which is to keep it all under control and maintain a very strong pace with no mistakes. It was a fantastic drive from Ricciardo.
As for Rosberg, despite that forced wing change on Lap eight, which took nine seconds, he could easily have still done the race in a two stop and won had he not made a series of mistakes. The first was to flat spot the left front tyre with a lock up at the Bus Stop chicane on Lap 17. This caused a vibration and led to him pitting early on Lap 19 for a new set of tyres. The team did not appear to be ready for him and in the panic a new set of mediums was fitted.
Now committed to three stopping, as it would be a stretch to do 25 laps on a set of medium tyres, he should have been on soft tyres for this third stint as he had already got his mediums out of the way in his second stint. So he lost time here by not using the full pace advantage of the car on the fastest available tyre. He also lost some time letting Button back past after a possible illegal overtake.
He stopped again for another set of softs on lap 34 with the idea being to drive flat out and catch Ricciardo as his tyres faded in the closing laps of a long stint. He also lost some time in a skirmish with Bottas after his stop and with a small off-track moment.
The net result was that he was three seconds behind Ricciardo at the flag. Another two laps and he would have beaten him.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race History Chart & Tyre Usage charts, Click to enlarge
Kindly provided by Williams F1 Team
Look at Rosberg’s pace in final stint as he closes on Ricciardo.