The Russian Grand Prix this year featured some interesting strategy decisions, but the outcome for many was dictated by the collisions on the opening lap, which effectively took three front running cars out of points scoring positions and opened up an opportunity for midfield runners to get some valuable points.
Williams and Ferrari both left Sochi with a positive result, but the feeling that it could have been better.
Here is our analysis of the behind the scenes decisions that shaped the Grand Prix outcome.
There are some basic factors about the 5.8 kilometre Sochi circuit, which dictate race strategy; the track surface generates low tyre degradation and the long lap with 11 corners at around 110km/h means fuel consumption is critical for some runners.
The new three tyre options formula has worked well this season, but in Russia Pirelli bucked the trend with the third option, bringing the medium tyre, to work alongside soft and supersoft. Normally they do not bring a tyre harder than the ones raced at a venue in 2015.
If they had brought the ultra soft, it would have made for a more interesting race strategically, with at least two pit stops, rather than the one stop most drivers made.
This unusual track has low front tyre energy, while managing the rears in the race is important to make the soft tyres last around 36 laps, which is the target. This makes it a tough race for rookies to do well in, as they lack experience of how to do this.
The switch from October to May for this event did not have a huge bearing on the performance of the tyres, although it was slightly warmer on race day than previous events.
Ferrari misses another opportunity; Williams, what might have been
The Sochi track is not one of the strongest for Ferrari. Last year they were some way off Mercedes’ pace and were behind Williams. This year they came with an upgrade package using new aerodynamic parts and an engine upgrade using some of their tokens. But they were still half a second off the Mercedes, which was demoralizing.
They had the pace in Sochi to finish ahead of Williams this year, but could have had at least one if not two cars ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, who was forced to start 10th after a turbo issue in qualifying.
Sebastian Vettel’s race was ruined by Daniil Kvyat hitting him twice at the start, while Kimi Raikkonen made a mistake in qualifying which meant that he started behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, so wasn’t able to do his perfect race, based on car pace, with Bottas as a buffer behind. Hamilton was able to close sufficiently to jump him at the pit stops as a result.
Williams also had mixed feelings about the result. On the one hand fourth and fifth is not bad and is the result that they deserved on car pace, as the Williams was a couple of tenths slower than the Ferrari. But on the other hand Bottas would have hoped to convert second on the grid to a podium.
Williams strategy team did everything right in Sochi. They pitted Bottas early, as soon as the pit window opened, to try to retain the track position, but a sequence of events afterwards meant that he dropped to fourth instead.
Bottas pitted on Lap 16 and Hamilton, who had been running behind him, pitted a lap later. Hamilton had a strong in-lap and should have dropped back out ahead, but a slow Mercedes pit stop meant he came out behind Bottas. The pair then battled, and after Hamilton passed him, Bottas ran wide onto the marbles. He then struggled to clear Fernando Alonso’s McLaren.
The net result of this is that he lost two seconds to Raikkonen, who pitted on Lap 20 and was able to come out ahead of his fellow Finn.
If Hamilton’s stop had gone normally and he had rejoined ahead of Bottas, it’s likely that the Williams driver in clear air would have been faster, cleared Alonso more easily and retained third position over Raikkonen, who would have struggled on equal tyres to pass before the finish.
Red Bull recovery strategy goes badly wrong
Red Bull’s troubles in Russia were well chronicled; Kvyat took out team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and both were forced to pit on the first lap. Red Bull opted to put both cars onto the medium tyres, as this was the only tyre available that was capable of reaching the finish without another stop. In 2014 Nico Rosberg did something similar and reached the podium.
But the problem was that the tyre was much slower than the softer tyres rivals were using. Red Bull’s decision was based on two things; first the fact that if they went with a strategy of two more pit stops using perhaps the softs and then supersofts, they would be doing the same thing as the cars in front of them, so there would be no chance to get ahead. Second, another stop later in the race would cost 24 seconds and they estimated that they would lose less time staying on the mediums.
It didn’t work out at all. Ricciardo had some car damage, but the medium tyres also made the car slow on traction out of all the low speed corners, so even when he managed to pass another car, he was repassed due to this slow traction.
Ricciardo ended up making a second stop anyway on Lap 29 and an unplanned second stop wrecks any race strategy. So effectively Ricciardo had his race ruined twice.
One of the more heartwarming stories of Russia was that Fernando Alonso and Kevin Magnussen were able to score their first points of the season and Romain Grosjean was able to pick up points for the third time in four races with the new Haas F1 team.
All three managed to profit from the chaos on the opening lap caused by Kvyat. Starting 14th, 15th and 17th respectively, Alonso, Grosjean and Magnussen found themselves 7th, 9th and 8th on the opening lap.
What happened from there was Sainz triggered the pit stops by pitting on Lap 11. Renault needed to pit Palmer first from 10th place, then Magnussen two laps later. Haas left it a lap too late and their stop was one second slower than Renault’s so it allowed Magnussen to jump him for 8th.
As Renault had similar car pace in Russia, Magnussen was able to hold the Haas at arm’s length, out of DRS range.
Alonso meanwhile, did very well to retain track position given that he had to do a lot of fuel saving with the Honda engine. Despite a couple of laps of Safety Car, the Honda engine was on the limit on fuel at this track, a competitive disadvantage to Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault powered rivals.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY AND TYRE USAGE CHARTS
Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – Click to Enlarge
Showing the gaps between the cars as the race progresses and also the relative pace of the cars. Time gaps on vertical axis, Lap number on horizontal axis.
Look also at the difference in pace between the Mercedes (light blue), Ferrari (red) cars compared to the Williams (black). Mercedes wasn’t really pushing, while this is one of Williams’ stronger tracks due to power and chassis characteristics.