“Forget everything you’ve known before,” was the advice of one leading F1 team strategist on the morning of the Austrian Grand Prix.
The combination of much cooler temperatures on race day, combined with a lack of knowledge about how the soft tyres in particular would perform in the race, due to lack of dry running in Free Practice on Friday, meant that many teams were going into the dark on Sunday.
In those circumstances, Race Strategy was always going to be critical to the outcome of the race, but the winners were those who had hedged their bets and were most adaptable during the race.
And it was varying strategies that led to the race’s main talking point, the last lap collision between the Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Was it avoidable?
Based on the practice running on Friday everyone was in trouble on tyres.
Pirelli had brought the Ultra Soft, Supersoft and Soft and all teams experienced high temperatures, graining, blistering and loss of performance. Straight away in Practice one, the cars were over two seconds quicker than last year thanks to a new surface. It then rained in Practice two.
There was mild panic in the midfield when it became clear that the Manor had been very fast in the dry; ironically the car’s lack of downforce relative to the opposition meant that it put less load through the tyre and didn’t overheat it. The Manor, in Pascal Wehrlein’s hands at least, was a real threat for points, especially when he qualified up in 12th place.
This prompted McLaren and Toro Rosso to save two sets of soft tyres per car for race day, as it looked like the only way to do the race would be two stops, with a short first stint on ultra softs followed by two stints on Soft. But the great unknown was how hot the conditions would be.
McLaren benefitted hugely on Jenson Button’s car from this decision and the cooler temperatures on Sunday also helped the car operate better. Because he’d grabbed the opportunity of mixed conditions in qualifying to line up third on the grid, Button was able to execute a strong race and score a solid 6th place.
Red Bull was one of the worst for rear tyre graining in practice and that makes Max Verstappen’s 56 lap stint on soft tyres in the race all the more remarkable. His team mate Daniel Ricciardo was not able to get the tyres to last like Verstappen did and was forced onto a two stop strategy.
He’s one of the best in the business at maintaining tyre life at a good pace, so we have to view Verstappen’s performance here and in Spain with completely fresh eyes.
Were Hamilton and Rosberg always destined to come together at some point in this race? Their second collision in five races meant that the team dropped another 6 points to add to the 43 lost in Spain, which is causing the team now to consider some kind of team orders.
Analysis of the strategy decisions shows that trouble was almost inevitable; if it had not been Hamilton trying to pass Rosberg at the end it would have been Rosberg trying to pass Hamilton in the final stint if the Englishman had stayed on a one stop plan and there was a high chance of it getting messy.
This was a case, for Mercedes ‘ strategy decision makers, of being damned if they do and damned if they don’t, trying to make a fair competition. But they had no reason to expect that the pair would collide so soon after Barcelona.
As Rosberg started in sixth place on the grid, due to a gearbox change following a suspension breakage, he was always going to run a flat out two-stop strategy, with an early first stop on Lap 10. He was the faster Mercedes driver all weekend, but was having to make up ground after the suspension failure.
Hamilton, in contrast, was on pole and on a flexible strategy, which quickly evolved into a one stop once it became clear that he was going to get around 20 laps out of the first stint on Ultra Soft tyres.
Pirelli felt that in the cooler conditions of Sunday the soft tyre should be okay for 46-50 laps, Hamilton was on that plan. He had done the hard work by getting to Lap 21 before stopping. Raikkonen pitted a lap later from a set of Supersofts, while Verstappen had stopped on Lap 15, so of the three drivers he was facing the toughest challenge to reach Lap 71 on a set of Soft tyres.
However several things happened. First Hamilton’s pit stop was two seconds slower than normal and he came out of the pits behind Rosberg. This wasn’t in the plan. He had tyres that were 11 laps fresher than Rosberg’s, but the German pulled a five second gap on him.
The Safety Car then came out for Vettel’s accident and that allowed Hamilton to close up on Rosberg. Although Hamilton said after the race that the Safety Car had hurt him, it was the opposite. It had helped him close the five seconds to Rosberg.
However from this point, things started to unravel for Mercedes. First they began to doubt Hamilton’s soft tyres would make it to the finish. For once they had a clear lack of knowledge on which to base the strategy. Mercedes also calculated that if Rosberg continued on his two stop plan and Hamilton on his one stop, Rosberg would pit a second time and would lose 19 seconds of race time in the process but his lap times would then be over a second faster than Hamilton’s to the finish so he would catch him and easily pass him.
To try to keep things fair between them, Mercedes decided to switch Hamilton onto a similar plan to Rosberg, but to give him the chance of an undercut. However, the undercut would be tough to pull off as he would be moving onto the Soft tyre and the warm up on the out lap would be slower than on the SuperSofts, which Rosberg was compelled to take as he had no more soft tyres left.
On Lap 54 he pitted, but Hamilton made a small mistake on his out lap at Turn 2 and with the slow warm up of the tyres, his out lap was 1.4 seconds slower than Rosberg’s so Rosberg retained the track position. Hamilton had probably been brought in a lap too late.
Hamilton questioned why Rosberg had been put on the ‘faster’ tyre, but was told that the Soft was the better tyre for the last 17 laps. And that proved correct, as Rosberg’s SuperSofts were fading badly at the end.
Together with his brake issue, this meant that Rosberg was losing ground quickly at the end to Hamilton. And as Hamilton went to pass, they collided, with Rosberg taking the blame from the FIA Stewards for the collision as well as coming off worse in car damage, which meant he finished fourth.
Could Mercedes have played it differently? Leaving both cars out on one stop plans would have been very risky for Rosberg to reach the flag. And Hamilton would have been making a pass at the end of the race, when both cars would be on the limit of tyre life, so that sounded too messy.
In hindsight the one stop Hamilton was on would have turned out more favourably than they imagined, as the low degradation on the soft meant that Raikkonen easily made it to the finish on similar age tyres.
It was an uncomfortable case of risk and guesswork for Mercedes, highly unusual for them to have so little knowledge of the soft tyre and a bad situation was compounded by the fact that their drivers were not able to cope with converging strategies, which should have led to a good sporting battle, not the pair colliding and costing the team points. This must be especially painful for the whole team, given the effort Hamilton’s side of the garage went to in order to help repair Rosberg’s car after the accident on Saturday morning.
It was noticeable that Mercedes boss Toto Wolff sent Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles up onto the podium to collect the winner’s trophy – the team’s 40th Grand Prix victory of the hybrid turbo era – after such a difficult afternoon.
The most impressive drive of the day was undoubtedly Max Verstappen for Red Bull. The teenager again showed amazing control to drive at a good pace, keeping a faster Ferrari behind him to the flag on fresher tyres, to score his second podium finish.
Verstappen qualified behind his team mate Daniel Ricciardo again, but beat him at the start and once he got onto a set of soft tyres in the second stint and Sebastian Vettel had retired, he was in a position where he had nothing to lose once Raikkonen made his late first stop and came out behind him.
The thinking was – if the tyres started to fade, Raikkonen would pass him, but equally he could pit and finish behind the Finn anyway. So once the Safety Car intervened and gave them a couple of slow laps to cool the tyres down, Red Bull opted to roll the dice, even though nothing they had seen on Friday suggested that it was remotely possible to do 56 laps on a set of soft tyres.
Some have questioned Ferrari’s strategy here. Raikkonen, like Vettel, had started on supersofts after a cunning decision in qualifying, which gave them more options.
He took the tyres to Lap 22, but had Ferrari suspected that the race would end as it did, they would have pitted Raikkonen four or five laps earlier when he had a gap over Verstappen and could have pitted and retained track position over the Dutchman. But they clearly didn’t want to attempt such a long stint, which is why they executed the way they did and lost to the Red Bull.
Raikkonen’s other problem was that he didn’t have a new set of soft tyres, only a set that had done three laps. Still he should have been able to pass Verstappen. He came close on the final lap, but yellow flags meant he could not try a move. But he’d left it too late by then anyway.
A day of opportunities
The top ten featured several names that have not had much opportunity to score points in recent races. As well as Jenson Button, who made the most of McLaren’s strategy planning on Friday and the cool temperatures on race day, one notable drive came from Pascal Wehrlein, who maximised the opportunity that presented itself for Manor and scored his first point in F1 with a 48 lap second stint on soft tyres.
Romain Grosjean was another notable performer in seventh place. He managed to stretch a set of supersoft tyres until the Lap 26 when we saw the Safety Car, which was triggered ironically by Vettel trying to extend his super softs! This gave Grosjean a chance to pit and save 10 seconds compared to a pit stop at racing speeds (reminiscent of the gamble the team made in Australia that also paid off). He then went to the finish on a set of softs in a one-stop strategy that put him ahead of Sainz, Bottas and Gutierrez.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing -Click to Enlarge
Illustrating the performance gaps between the cars during the race. A line which moves steeply upwards shows strong pace. Sharp drops indicate pit stops.
Look at the pace of the Mercedes compared to the rest – clearly faster and putting more load through the tyres as a result. Compare the Ferrari pace with Red Bull’s – this was quite a result for Verstappen. McLaren’s pace is better compared to Toro Rosso, for example, if you look at previous Strategy Reports and see the relative pace earlier in the season. McLaren’s improvement is clear to see.