This year’s Singapore Grand Prix was one of the most interesting races of the season from a strategy point of view. It showed that when the performance of the leading cars is closely matched, the strategy possibilities created by having three different tyre compounds make for unpredictable racing and close finishes.
There was a great deal of variation in the decisions made before and during the Grand Prix and some big decisions to be analysed, which gained places for some and cost places for others.
It was a great battle at the front, while in the midfield the finely balanced strategy was decisive for the results of Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez and Danill Kvyat in particular.
Could Daniel Ricciardo have won the race with a different strategy and did Ferrari fall for a Mercedes’ trap at the final stop and cost Kimi Raikkonen a podium? We are here to get to the bottom of it all.
Pre race considerations
Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the way the ultrasoft tyre performed this weekend. The only new tyre in the Pirelli range this season, it benefits from newer technology and works better, in some conditions.
It was a good qualifying tyre in Singapore and also lasted quite well over 15-17 laps in the race. The difference between the ultra soft and supersoft tyres was quite small this weekend and the projected life was only a couple of laps longer for the supersoft.
On paper three stops was faster than two, but track position is king on this circuit, so a number of teams had a plan in mind to stop fewer times than their rivals. Mercedes’ two stop plan was very obvious from Friday onwards, while Force India’s rivals feared that they would try to do an effective one-stop strategy, should an early safety car offer them the chance to get off the ultra softs. That is exactly what happened as we shall see.
Could Daniel Ricciardo have won with a better strategy?
This was the closest Red Bull Racing has been on pace to Mercedes since the Monaco Grand Prix. The race pace was pretty much identical, but the qualifying pace a shade slower. Nevertheless, it was a race they could have won and afterwards felt they should have won. So why didn’t they?
The answer comes down to two things; on his 200th GP start, Nico Rosberg had probably his strongest weekend in F1 with the best qualifying lap he has ever driven, certainly in the view of his Mercedes team and then a measured drive to the race win on Sunday. He had to survive a late scare after a strategy move by Mercedes on Lewis Hamilton’s side almost backfired and cost Rosberg the win.
To gain a place for Hamilton on Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages, Mercedes triggered a sequence of stops that allowed Daniel Ricciardo to come within 0.4s of beating Rosberg to win the race. Mercedes did not expect Ferrari to pit Raikkonen in response and it almost led to the biggest own goal of the season!
Ricciardo had wanted to stop again in the final 18 laps as three stops was the faster strategy. But he didn’t want to lose track position to Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s Lap 45 stop – which was a ‘free’ pit stop as there was no immediate threat from behind – triggered Raikkonen into stopping.
Ricciardo gratefully took the opportunity, afforded by Ferrari’s unexpected move, to stop for new supersofts. This allowed Ricciardo to catch Rosberg. Without Hamilton’s initial stop, that sequence of stops would probably not have happened.
The second reason Red Bull lost to Mercedes was their decision on Saturday to qualify in Q2 on the supersoft tyres and to use them as the starting race tyre set. The difference in performance and life between the supersoft and ultrasoft tyres was quite small.
But the telling difference in the Rosberg/Ricciardo battle came at the end of the first stint, where Rosberg was able to pull a gap on second place Ricciardo of seven seconds – see illustration above, the gap increases from lap 10 to the end of the stint between dotted blue line [Rosberg] and purple line [Ricciardo]. That proved the foundation of a race-winning gap.
Had Ricciardo used the ultrasoft, he would have been right with Rosberg and the Mercedes strategists would have had to always think defensively about covering the risk of an undercut. That’s not to say that Ricciardo would have won the race if he’d started on ultrasofts, but Rosberg would certainly not have had as large margin in the last few laps so Ricciardo would have caught him sooner on fresher tyres.
Meanwhile many pundits were quick to criticise Ferrari after the race for costing Raikkonen a podium finish when they reacted to Mercedes’ ‘Plan B’ move to pit Hamilton at the end of Lap 45 for a set of supersofts. At the time he had been 1.8 seconds behind Raikkonen.
After Hamilton pitted, Ferrari had some time to think about whether to leave Raikkonen out on his soft tyres or to pit him. At Singapore a decision on whether to stop must be taken by 36 seconds before the car comes to the pit entry line. The problem with that is the main performance boost from Hamilton’s new tyres would only show in the final sector of his outlap, when they were fully up to temperature. Ferrari would not have that data before the 36 second cut off.
Teams rely on modelling for that and it’s surprising that Ferrari’s model didn’t tell them clearly that Raikkonen would be undercut. He questioned it but followed orders because the team has the data in front of them and he doesn’t.
Another data set they were relying on was how long Raikkonen’s soft tyres would last and that was based on the performance of Sebastian Vettel’s soft tyres in the first stint. He had managed 24 laps on a new set of softs, but that was after carrying 100kg of fuel and working through traffic.
Most teams reported that on the night, the tyres were lasting 2 to 3 laps longer than predictions, so Raikkonen would have easily managed to get to the finish on 28 lap old soft tyres without losing performance. If Hamilton caught him, then he would have to pass him on track and as soon as the Mercedes driver came up behind other cars, it was clear that his brakes started to overheat.
So taking all the above into account, when calculating the risk vs reward of staying out, Ferrari’s decision to pit was flawed and also ignored the standard wisdom of those situations, which is ‘do the opposite of what the other guy does’ – they pitted Raikkonen and he lost the podium as a result.
With all the attention focussed on the Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari stories up front, it was easy to overlook a wonderful strategic battle in midfield between Force India, McLaren and Toro Rosso.
Fernando Alonso was a strong candidate for driver of the day with an outstanding drive to seventh place, helped by flawless McLaren strategy calls. On the third lowest engine sensitivity track of the season (in other words least engine power dependent) the team brought Alonso in at precisely the right moments, especially Lap 34 when they judged the gap perfectly to bring him out just ahead of the one stopping Sergio Perez.
Alonso managed to stay out of reach of Daniil Kvyat, who had a strong weekend for Toro Rosso, in which he said he rediscovered his love for F1 again after a difficult year.
Kvyat’s race was frustrated by Sergio Perez’ effective one stop strategy (he pitted on Lap 1 to get off the ultrasofts and one stopped from there) and the greatly superior straight line speed of the Force India.
With DRS the Toro Rosso was 9km/h slower and without DRS it was 14km/h slower than Perez’ car, so basing the Mexican driver’s strategy on track position, rather than the faster multi-stop strategy worked well for him staying ahead of Kvyat, who had no power to overtake and Perez’ strategy blocked any chance of an undercut.
Perez felt that his race would have been even better and he could have beaten Alonso if he had not come out behind Estaban Guttierez in the Haas F1 car. Being stuck behind his fellow countryman for most of his first stint and particularly the early laps of his second stint, meant that Alonso was able to come out just ahead of him at his second stop to take the seventh position.
It was a night of fine margins in midfield and the decisions and timing of them were critical to the race outcomes of those three drivers.
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Kindly supplied by Williams Martini Racing – Click to enlarge
Look at the end of the first stint of Rosberg vs Ricciardo. Rosberg on ultrasofts is able to take the gap to Ricciardo on supersofts up from an uncomfortable 3.5 seconds to a more comfortable 7 seconds by lap 15. That won him the race.
Look at Alonso’s stop on Lap 34, perfectly judged to bring him out ahead of Sergio Perez’ one stopping Force India