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?
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.