The first half of the 2016 F1 season ended with a really strategic race and one where the pre-race planning had to be completely revised once the race started.
This is something we have seen plenty of times in the Pirelli era, but this race caught even the best-prepared teams by surprise.
When the front running teams split strategies, you know that they are looking for clues and answers and this led to the race’s central strategic theme between Mercedes and Red Bull.
Whereas in Spain back in May, Max Verstappen was given the strategy with the harder tyre at the first stop, in Germany it was Daniel Ricciardo and it brought him the better result this time; although second place here is hardly compensation for the win he lost at Barcelona.
Friday practice running was very interesting with Mercedes looking fast on the single lap, but Red Bull and Ricciardo in particular, looking very fast on long runs. Ricciardo did a particularly strong soft tyre run, which hinted at what was to come in the race.
Although Pirelli were saying before the start that three stops was marginally faster than two, most team strategists were briefing that this would be a straight forward two-stopper with superoft-supersoft-soft being the fastest way. How wrong that turned out to be!
The win was never in doubt for Lewis Hamilton, after he once again sprang into the lead on the opening lap. Both Red Bulls also got ahead of pole sitter Nico Rosberg, but the bold move was Verstappen’s around the outside of Ricciardo into second place.
This put the strategic ball into his court, as it had been with Ricciardo in Spain. And from here, as in Spain, the Red Bull car behind on the road ended up with the better strategy and the better result. Ricciardo was put onto the soft tyre at the first stop and Verstappen the supersoft.
This tyre turned out to be less good at that early stage of the race, when the cars were still heavy on fuel. After an overcast morning, the temperature came up quickly in the hour before the race and the cars all experienced higher energy in the corners, so the tyres suffered from thermal degradation, unlike Friday, making three stops inevitable.
The smart thing to do in that situation is to split strategies and get a read early in the race on the soft tyres. This opens up the rest of the race for you; depending on what new tyres you have left for the race. Red Bull and Mercedes had judged it perfectly with a new set of softs and a new set of supersofts available to use for each driver.
Ricciardo’s second stint, using the soft tyres, is what set him up for this result as he was able to run a fast 21 lap stint, which meant that he came through in the third stint on supersofts behind Verstappen – when he was on his soft tyres – and the teenager had to let him through.
Verstappen has understandably painted this as ‘taking one for the team’, as he had the less competitive strategy, but in fact Ricciardo had generally more pace in Germany, as the race history chart below clearly shows and this was his day.
After a demoralising May, being denied the wins in Spain and especially Monaco, the last two races showed the Australian back to his very best and keeping Verstappen behind him. The second half of the season between these two will be fascinating as Verstappen’s learning curve has been almost vertical and he has been outstanding given the circumstances, since his move to Red Bull in May.
Verstappen then had to contend with Rosberg trying to come back through from fourth on the same tyre strategy as the Dutchman. Nothing worked; Mercedes tried an undercut, but the pit stop was slow.
Later, when Rosberg served a penalty for pushing Verstappen off the road in an overtaking move, the timing of the pit stop was intended to pull Verstappen into a longer final stint on supersofts than he would ideally have liked, with 22 laps to the finish.
That didn’t work either; Mercedes stopwatch malfunctioned and Rosberg lost another four seconds, then Verstappen was able to maintain a strong pace throughout the final stint and Rosberg on softs couldn’t challenge.
Ferrari meanwhile had two new sets of softs saved for both drivers, but no new supersofts. Ferrari did not split the strategies of its two cars; they were running in fifth and sixth places with a big gap back to the next battle, between Hulkenberg and Bottas.
They put both Vettel and Raikkonen onto softs at the first stop, but their pace was not close to Ricciardo or Hamilton who was also on the soft in that stint and that will make demoralising viewing for Ferrari as they go into their winter break.
Behind the six top team cars at the front, there was another terrific battle for ‘best of the rest’.
If Ferrari feels blue having been overhauled by Red Bull, then Williams must be feeling similar after losing out to Force India in Germany. They still have a 15 point lead over the Anglo Indian squad, but in the last three races Williams have been outscored by them 22 points to 4.
Both Force India’s Hulkenberg and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas had saved two new sets of soft tyres for their race.
But Williams tried to do a two-stop strategy, after both Bottas and Hulkenberg had stopped on Lap 12 for the first time. The second stint was comparable on both cars, but early in the third it was clear that the two-stop plan wasn’t going to work.
Hulkenberg pitted on Lap 32 onto supersofts, while Bottas pitted a lap later onto another set of softs to go to the finish. But by lap 41 it was clear that the degradation was such that this was not going to work out well.
At this point there is only one outcome likely if nothing changed.
If you look at the race history chart below you can see that Williams could have pulled out of the plan around Lap 46 and given Bottas a final blast on supersofts.
There was no risk from behind as the gap was good to Button. But they stuck with it and Bottas’ performance fell off a cliff at the end, to such an extent that Button finished ahead and Perez almost caught him out too.
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
Indicating the relative pace of the cars, the gaps between them. An upward curve shows good pace, sudden drops indicate pit stops.
Look at the pace comparison of Ricciardo with Hamilton and Ricciardo with Verstappen. This was a strong race for the Australian.
Ferrari clearly doesn’t have the pace in comparison with the two leading teams in this race.
Also look at the end of the race as Bottas tries to hold on with a two stop strategy that is not working. He loses the additional place to Button.