Analysis: How did Ferrari take Malaysian Grand Prix victory away from Mercedes?
Vettel wins Malaysian GP
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  31 Mar 2015   |  1:09 pm GMT  |  265 comments

If ever a Formula 1 race was decided on Race Strategy, it was the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix.

After predictions that the season could be a Mercedes whitewash, victory for Sebastian Vettel in the second round in Malaysia came as a surprise.

Mercedes struggled in the hot conditions, but was the race still winnable for Lewis Hamilton? And how did Ferrari use Race Strategy to bring their first victory for two years?

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.58.07
Why Ferrari knew it was in good shape for the race and why Mercedes needed to be careful

In Melbourne, Ferrari had shown impressive pace during the race, especially on Raikkonen’s car, which suggested that the Ferrari was close to Mercedes in race conditions. But there was no evidence in Melbourne that they could make a set of tyres last longer than Mercedes.

In the hot conditions of Malaysia it became clear that they could and this held the key to Vettel’s victory.

Friday second practice is a crucial session, when F1 teams do a qualifying simulation and then fuel the cars up for long runs to simulate the first stint of the race.

Mercedes’ preparations at Sepang were compromised as Lewis Hamilton had technical problems on Friday and lost track time, while Nico Rosberg’s running was limited as the team tried to save engine mileage. This cost them dearly as the cars were not set up ideally for the race. This had other knock on effects.

What FP2 showed (graph i below) is that Ferrari had less tyre degradation while for Mercedes, the hard tyre was faster after three to four laps of the run, taking into account the need to run 56 laps in the race in a workable strategy of maximum three stops.

This is what persuaded Mercedes that the hard tyre was the better race tyre and told them that they would not get more than 10 laps out of the mediums at the start of the race, so that meant three-stopping.

This thinking led them to the unusual idea of using a set of mediums for both drivers in Qualifying session 1, because they were preserving their new hard tyres for the race.

This move on Saturday told Ferrari that Mercedes’ race strategy would be a three stopper with most of the race on hard tyres. They could plan accordingly, to attack Mercedes’ weak point.

Going back to Friday FP2, Raikkonen’s long runs showed that Ferrari could possibly get to around Lap 15 on the medium tyres, which opened the possibility to do a two stop strategy, making one stop less than Mercedes planned.

Mercedes expected Raikkonen to do two stops from 11th having the freedom to use a new set of mediums at the start. But they did not expect Vettel to be able to do the race in just two stops. Of course the three laps behind the Safety Car in the first stint helped that, but Vettel’s second stint in the race was the killer, as we shall see.

Vettel Malaysia 2015
The tactical battle in the race decides the outcome

Mercedes had to do three stops. Even with the deployment of the Safety Car early in the first stint, there is no way that Hamilton could have converted to a two stopper and even less of beating Vettel on that strategy.

The evidence is very clear from the second stints of the race (see Graph ii comparison of Hamilton on hard tyres vs Vettel on medium tyres). More evidence was there from the first four laps of the race, when Hamilton was not able to pull a gap to Vettel, which told the story Ferrari was hoping to see.

When the Safety Car was deployed on Lap 4, Vettel did not pit, whereas Hamilton, Rosberg and 13 others did. This handed the initiative to Ferrari and then when Mercedes fitted the hard tyres, that also gave Ferrari a pace offset on the tyres. From here onwards, Mercedes were in huge trouble.

In Hamilton’s third stint, his medium tyres were finished after 12 laps, which shows how hamstrung he was tactically, having lost the track position advantage over Vettel early on.

The pre-race plan for Mercedes was to stop around Lap 10 and fit new hard tyres. They needed a stint of over 16 laps and that dictated it had to be Hard tyres at that stage.

The Safety Car period starting on Lap 4 meant that there would be a maximum of four to six laps after it ended before Hamilton would need to pit again, which did not make sense, as it would hand the advantage to Vettel, who would be able to run longer.

Mercedes’ strategy for Hamilton was to stick to the three stop plan, which would require him to pass Vettel on the track before the end of the race.

But two things prevented that. The first was the fact that more cars than expected stayed out under the Safety Car, which meant it took Hamilton longer to clear the traffic than expected.

Secondly Vettel’s second stint on mediums was much faster than expected and with Hamilton committed to the three stopper and with no new medium tyres left after Qualifying, he was powerless to recover.

Hamilton and Rosberg pit
Could Mercedes not have split the strategies with its two drivers, as several teams did?

When the Safety Car was deployed on Lap 4, a number of teams decided to split the strategies, leaving one driver out and pitting the other. If you look closely it was teams outside the Top 10 who did this, as it is a gamble.

Williams, Red Bull and Mercedes did not do it (Ferrari was in a different position as Raikkonen had made a stop early on for a puncture).

Force India and Toro Rosso went for it and it worked out better for Verstappen, who did the same strategy as Rosberg, than it did for Sainz who stayed out and could not make the stint lengths last long enough for a two stopper, so fell back at the end behind his team mate.

With Hamilton leading, Vettel second and Rosberg third, the only way for Mercedes to split the strategy would have been to back Rosberg for the win and pit him under the Safety Car, leaving Hamilton out to hold up Vettel. This would have made Hamilton vulnerable, as his race strategy would be compromised, given that once the race resumed, he would have to pit long before Vettel.

The fact that they did not do this, perhaps indicates that Mercedes felt their best chance of winning in Malaysia, given the relative performance of their two drivers at this point in the season, was with Hamilton.

With hindsight, it might have been worth a try as Rosberg was going to finish third anyway by stopping behind Hamilton on Lap 4 and he lost additional time in traffic as a result of having to queue for tyres. But it would have compromised Hamilton’s race and Rosberg would still have had to overtake Vettel at the end.


With the benefit of hindsight, there are a number of things Mercedes might have done differently which would have given Hamilton or Rosberg a better chance to win.

But with the tyre performance they had, they would have been taking a huge risk to try to beat Ferrari on a similar two stop plan. More likely they would still have pitted Hamilton under the Safety Car, but if they had saved the set of medium tyres they used in Qualifying session 1 for Hamilton to use during his second stint of the race, he might have been closer to Vettel to challenge for the lead at the end.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 08.50.16

Graph I – Comparison of Friday Free Practice 2 long runs, showing clearly that Ferrari suffers less degradation in tyre performance and is able to make the tyres last longer than Mercedes. This decided the Strategy for both teams in Malaysia. (NB The lap number is across horizontal axis and the vertical axis is the lap time, the lower number being the faster lap time)

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 09.59.56

Graph ii – Comparison of Hamilton vs Vettel 2nd stint; (Vettel on Medium tyres, Hamilton on Hards). Vettel’s pace is very impressive, especially early in the stint and he is able to push hard and maintain tyre life for 20 laps, whereas Hamilton’s tyres in his third stint were failing after 10 laps. (NB The lap number is across horizontal axis and the vertical axis is the lap time, the lower number being the faster lap time)

Report Sq Banner
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists, from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow and from Pirelli.

RACE HISTORY GRAPH & TYRE USAGE CHART, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge

Key: Horizontal = Lap number; Vertical = Gap to cars behind

Notice the clear drop off in performance on Hamilton’s tyres at the end of the stints in comparison with Vettel’s. Note also the pace of Vettel’s second stint, which put the race out of reach for Mercedes.

Race History Graph, Malaysia 2015

Tyre usage, Malaysian GP

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Conclusion, Ferrari asked a certain team to crash deliberately at a certain lap so Ferraris strategy can work out….

James, please tell me, what if, there was no Safety Car, how could it turned out to be… where would Vettel end?…..

No way, Vettels wins if no SC involve….


If Mercedes couldn’t really do anything other than run a 3 stop strategy, the race wasn’t really won by strategy IMO. Mercedes ran the best strategy they possibly could. Ferrari won by the superior tyre performance of their car, which allowed them to find a faster way to the flag that simply wasn’t possible for the Mercedes team. It wasn’t an optional strategy that Mercedes got wrong and Ferrari got right. Mercedes got beaten by a car that out-performed them on the day.

Christmas Dinner

Last year Mercedes positioned their Turbo in a very unique and productive configuration. Is this configuration now standard across all the Engine manufacturers do we know?


I think the bottom line is that Ferrari had significantly better tyre life than Mercedes and hence better pace in the extremely hot conditions of Malaysia. It was a sort of double whammy because they chose the hard tyre as their race tyre being more durable, but slower, whereas Ferrari could make the faster medium tyre work for them. If the safety car had come out at the end of Hamilton’s first stint and they had gone with the mediums with optimum set up they may have been able to keep Ferrari behind. Mercedes were compromised by their preparations caused by poor reliability, and inferior tyre performance which equates to a pace deficit. It will be different in China!

roberto marquez

I enjoyed the race at Malaysia but I have always thought that F1 is about TWO OBJECTIVES : 1 To determine who is the fastest and race smart driver in the grid 2 To show who can build the fastest and more reliable car . In the first case they award the Driver Champion Title ,in the other The Constructors Championship. Now we add another element STRATEGY, element which has nothing to do with the drivers ability or the car pace and reliability. Shall we talk to FIA and create a third throphy : The Strategy and Good Luck Championship ? Why do not we leave that for E formula ,it will not make it more boring and allow Hamilton ,Vettel, etc to race the way it has always meant to be.


G’day James Allen,

Sorry to bother you again, I’ve another two questions.

You’ve mentioned stopping into clean or clear air on a few occasions. Is there a good example in the Malaysian race to explain why this can win or lose races? If not perhaps you could point this out at the next opportunity?

Secondly is it possible that teams like Redbull/Torro Rosso, Ferrari/Sauber, Merc/F.India might have arrangements in reference to the above situation?

Thanks in anticipation,



It just means coming out without traffic ahead so re driver can take full advantage of the new tyres and then run at target pace. It’s all about looking for gaps backwards to cars 21-23 secs behind at a typical F1 trac


Thanks James,

If you notice a good example of using that, an example where a driver stops before or after the optimum to ensure clean air I’d appreciate a heads up. An example always makes a point better.

What about the “delta minus point two” I’ve seen a few posts about the communications between Merc and both drivers.



G’day James Allen,

I noticed a few comments about the merc radio messages. Could explain the message to Nico “… delta minus point two …” does that indicate the speed required to catch Vettel?


I disagree that this race was WON ON STRATEGY.

– Lewis couldn’t pull away from Vettel on fresh tyres (so the two cars are evenly matched on pace on good tyres).

– Win worn out tyres Ferrari was much faster.

So regardless of strategy a Ferrari would have won on the day, it was the much better car.

Is Ferrari going to loose it’s pace in China, why? Highly unlikely.

Will the benefit on worn out tyres be reduced, very likely.

So we are in for massive battle in China, from two currently evenly matched cars!


Does anyone see it this way? >>>

Mercedes – 3 Stops

Ferrari – 2 Stops

Time Lost per pitstop 21 seconds

Time Lost by Mercedes – 3 stops X 21 = 63 seconds

Time Lost by Ferrari – 2 stops X 21 = 42 seconds

Time to be gained between 3 stoppers and 2 stoppers = 21 seconds

Gap between Seb & Lewis = 8.5 seconds

Therefore Time Gained by Mercedes (Lewis) by pitting under the safety car 21 – 8.5 = 12.5 seconds.

Why ain’t anyone seeing it like this? Its not that Mercs when on fresh tires were some 2 seconds a lap quicker. The pace between Ferrari & Mercs were fluctuating under 1.2 down to 100th of the seconds either ways depending on which of the two came out of the pits.

So, Ferrari could have won with greater margins if the Safety Car didn’t come out

And Merc (Lewis) benefited by 12.5 seconds by pitting under the Safety Car.

I’m not saying this…. Maths is 🙂


You are absolutely spot on!

It’s strange sometimes how our supposedly INTELLIGENT RACE ANNALISTS miss trivial yet important detail like this.


Great to see Ferrari win on superior pace, and means the big gap from last year has been significantly diminished. If we’d had Kimi’s faster race speed up there too the battle at the front would have been insane.

Even if Mercedes comes back in China that fact that different teams could come to the front depending on the circuit and temperatures is a welcome development.

Whilst the focus on Ferrari and Mercedes battle is understandable I think the season also holds promise because of what we saw further back in the field. This is the second race in which Sauber has shown good speed. If Ericsson hadn’t beached it, the car had the potential to finish solidly in the points.

Whilst RBR finished poorly, Ricciardo was initially racing strongly in 4th place which seems to indicate their engine improvements were good. Brake issues clearly compromised their race performance but I think we can expect that to be resolved reasonably quickly. With their engine gains so far and more to come, RBR could soon be much closer to the front … but still clearly behind Mercedes and perhaps competing with Ferrari depending on the circuit and track temperatures. With all the hype around Verstappen (and he is good) I didn’t know what to expect from Sainz but so far he has done great and maybe outperformed `V-Stap’ (with the Malaysia result compromised by strategy choice).

So many great variables in play for rest of the season!

Lastly, the jokes above about Bernie running JAonF1 were hilarious. However, I found them a little confusing because after all, JAonF1 is a WEBSITE! If Bernie was hosting this discussion forum surely he would do it via fax or `letters’ know, with postage stamps on them?


Lol – You’re absolutely 100% spot on about Bernie MaxRPM 🙂

I don’t embrace the whole social media aspect as much as some but even I have to admit that Bernie needs to get with the program.

It’s fine to say that only young people use it but it’s young people that are the future. Every few years (or even every year) people predict the demise of F1, but if Bernie has his way then once all the 70 year old Rolex wearing viewers kick it F1 really will be screwed.


all those predicting the demise of f1 have not a single shred of evidence to back up their claims excep for cynicism. eccleston knows the social medium is important but not that important because embracing it doesn’t swell the profits as much as a women only series might. the guy is logical and has always been successful and his critics are jealous of his success.


Will Vettel now be inviting Rosberg and Mercedes over for the Ferrari debrief at China?


Lol – Vettel is known to have a good sense of humour so I could see him really doing that 🙂


Vettel crossing the finishing line, Michael Schumacher was my first thought, that was the 2nd.


I’ve always wondered if Rosberg’s car setup is tyre heavy. It might explain why throughout the Malaysia weekend, both Hamilton and Rosberg suffered high tyre degradation if Hamilton had partly based his setup on Rosbergs and the information gained from Rosberg’s runs during FP1 and the start of FP2. Historically, this might also explain why the Merc’s in 2012 and 2013 suffered from high tyre degradation.

Food for thought!


James, I think that what is not being taken into account is had the Mercs stayed out under the SC, the knock on effect this may have had on Vettel. For example, Lewis would have been able to drag out his first stint with Vettel behind, and this may have changed Ferraris tactics for the rest of the race. Vettel may have suffered more tyre deg due to being longer in dirty air, and may have forced him to shorten his stint. Another factor would have been the pressure on the following car (in this case Vettel) to try and undercut, which could have resulted in him changing strategy. Often cars that are following a rival can’t take advantage of better use of tyres and drag out longer stints as there is pressure to gain track position by using the undercut. One teams decision has an effect on the others.

Ultimately we will never know how it would have panned out, but I am certain that the far better option for Mercedes (of course with hindsight) was to stay out and maintain track position. I still think they may have had a very good chance to win had they done so.


Lot’s of “ifs” and “mays” there.

“Another factor would have been the pressure on the following car (in this case Vettel) to try and undercut”

No, he’d certainly have overcut Hamilton. And he “may” have been ahead of Hamilton by the time Hamilton pitted.


Something to ponder…….

Rory Byrne retired from Formula 1 and then returned as a consultant halfway through the development of the 2014 Ferrari. He has however, been involved throughout the development of the 2015 Ferrari. Could it be that the 2015 Ferrari is just a really good car?


fp2 graph. that merc peakiness reminds me of some melbourne graphs. i know it’s only practice but i wonder if the merc works in a narrower window than the ferrari.

the ferrari seems to gradually fade. the merc seems more step like.


What I took away from the race is that conditions were not ideal for the Merc, which never found its optimal setup. Losing critical track time on Friday, left it all to do in Saturday’s P3. As Lewis noted in an interview on Friday, they unloaded with the same setup as in Australia, and didn’t have enough track time to try any changes.

Certainly there were strategic errors made, but those were all due to uncertainty, which could have normally been covered up, if the cars had been set up optimally.

One note, the trace for Lewis and Seb showed virtually identical tyre deg, within the statistical margin of error. The outliers were Kimi and Nico. Kimi obviously had the least deg, while Nico the most.

Based upon that, I think it would be premature to consider Ferrari to have caught up to the Mercs. Of course, now that there appears to be real competition, it’s all good!


Hi James,

With the simulation technologies at the teams disposals, are they not able to plug in say Vettel not stopping under SC if SC happens on lap x, produce some results then counter with plan b or c.

I was glad it was an exciting race (and a non Merc winner) but very disappointed it was not live on free to air Ch 10 in straya…


Yes of course, that is running in the background all the time

Ramon Martinez

For shure we see Merc true pace at China


hi james,

id love to know what the top speed differences are of all the teams from last year to this year at sepang.

it would be interesting to know what sort of gains some teams have made in overall top speed …

are you able to analyse this for us, my point of asking is id love to know how much each team has actually improved…




Dear James

At the start of the race there was a radio message between Lewis and his engineer about the other car and a problem. The answer to Lewis was ” yes the other car has a similar problem”. The question I have to you is, isn’t there a possibility that over and above the tyre issue there was some sort of problem that Mercedes were nursing and perhaps running detained engines as well?



I think they were being conservative with the engines in Malaysia, yes


James could you briefly explain ‘being conservative’ with the engine is this engine power or the cooling systems or both?


I’m not sure if they were being conservative with their engine – there was a radio message from Mercedes to their drivers telling them to “give it everything”, which I am reading as code to “turn it all up to the max boys, we are in trouble!!. I hope so anyway, I would love Ferrari to give them a fight this season – the infighting at Mercedes will be pure entertainment. Then they will realise that they need Ross Brawn and shouldn’t have got rid of him because that guy *knows* stragedy like no other.



On a different note, looks like Horner is very sympathetic at Ferrari lately…hmmmm…with all the talks about RBR I think he is showing is charm 🙂


Thanks for the safety car tip I forgot that one


I actually think that first stop for th SC was the mistake that cost Merc.

The gap could have been managed by Hamilton if he had track position . Vettel would have struggled to maintain the tyres in the hot air of the Merc. Saying that if the Ferarri had track position (which they did) it too would have won(which they did).

If ever there was a race to prove track position is king this was it.

The cars are evenly matched it’ll make for a great season once kimi sorts out his quali performance


This is the more comprehensive analysis I can remember on your blog, very interesting reading indeed.

James, next time, no need to waste lines on the graph for McLaren… there is 99% chance that we know the outcome before they start 🙂


Given their trajectory of improvement between Australia and Malaysia, I think you may be eating your words by mid season. They have already caught up with Sauber and Force India based upon James’ graphs (on performance, but not yet reliability). They’ve basically gained about a second to a second and a half in two weeks. That’s impressive.

That engine hasn’t been taken to full power yet (or even close to it, I suspect). The first few races for Honda are basically an extended test program.


To be honest Steve I hope you are right, it is very painful to see FA on that car.

At the moment I will swap impressive for pathetic.

The facts, two races ZERO points, very difficult to argue with that.

kenneth chapman

@ mihir….just a few points that i have gleaned might help explain a small portion of the performance variances.

in ’14 ferrari went ‘small’ with the PU and that was because the aero was supposed to compensate plus it was rumoured that the MGU H was not able to be ‘managed’ as well as the mercedes. with the improved PU in ’15 ferrari have been able to improve thermal efficiencies by utilising vastly improved side pod raidiator cores. obviously this has helped them immensely in the high temps encountered in malaysia.

the latest FIA ruling re ‘fuel pressure’ anomalies and the integration of additional sensors may have pulled mercedes back somewhat, if they were the offenders? ATM no-one seems to be pointing fingers but it has been assumed that it was mercedes being very clever. james may be able to enlighten us on just who were considered to be the guilty party[ies] in this.

i’m certain that there are very many other changes that have been made but these few could well of reduced some of the differences between ferrari and mercedes.



as you may be aware, I have been ‘poking the bear’ on the origin and potential impact of the fuel sensor directive (out-of-the-blue, it seems).

I couldn;t help but notice that all of the mercedes powered cars seemed pegged back a bit.

you might be on to something…

but then again, another potential manufacturer could have gone with the ‘system’ one last time in Malaysia, and is going to implement in China.

But there is a reason that I think that Ferrari may NOT have the ‘system’; so I continue to hope.


OF COURSE theres a reason Ferrari DONT have it!! Youre a ferrari FAN… thats why!! JEES! Every argument you come up with is always MASSIVELY in favout of ferrrari. Can you take off the red specs for 1 second?

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