This year’s Japanese Grand Prix was one of only three at Suzuka in the last 25 years where all cars finished, making it a tough race in which to make progress, especially if you weren’t running towards the front.
It was also unusual for a Suzuka event in not featuring either a Safety Car or a Virtual Safety car, to mix up the race and offer some strategic dice rolling opportunities.
But there were some major talking points about the decisions that were taken with Ferrari again missing out on a podium due to a questionable strategy call and some very aggressive strategy calls from Red Bull which paid off with Max Verstappen splitting the Mercedes cars in second place.
The same tyre choices as Malaysia of soft, medium and hard were available to teams with a compulsory stint on hards. But the temperatures were very different, particularly on race day, which was quite cool. The teams with more downforce, especially the top three teams, did not like the medium tyre for long runs, as it lacked stability. The teams at the back of the grid had the opposite view and it formed the basis of the one-stop strategies of Sauber, Williams and Renault particularly. These were also hoping for a well timed Safety car to give them a ‘snakes and ladders’ type opportunity to move up the order towards the points. It did not come.
Friday practice again showed that the Red Bulls had very strong race pace compared to Mercedes, while Ferrari had a better single lap pace than Red Bull, making it look like this would be one of their most competitive weekends.
In the end the weekend summed up their season; they had a better car than they were able to show in the results, for various reasons.
One has to feel for the Ferrari team; they brought a very quick car to Suzuka and qualified third and fourth, close behind Mercedes.
With Lewis Hamilton dropping the ball off the startline, on another day Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen could have both been on the podium.
But as with so many races for the Scuderia this season, the result they were capable got away from them.
Vettel had a rather cheap grid penalty from the previous race and Raikkonen got a gearbox penalty, moving both drivers behind their Red Bull rivals and Sergio Perez’ Force India.
In the race Vettel did a strong job and went to work early, making a couple of excellent overtaking moves before the DRS was available and set himself up for a podium shot.
He didn’t get it due to another curious strategy call, which he later admitted he was complicit in, but which was nevertheless hard to understand, particularly as pressure from the other Ferrari was what triggered Hamilton to make the stop which did for Vettel.
With just over 30 laps gone out of 53, Vettel was racing Hamilton, who was recovering from a poor start.
Both extended their middle stints of the race, Ferrari with the idea that they could fit the soft tyres for the final stint. But by staying out long, they offered Mercedes and Hamilton the chance to undercut them. If Vettel had pitted on Lap 33, with 20 laps to go to the end, he could have fitted hard tyres and held Hamilton behind him. Hamilton had to pit when he did as Raikkonen was coming up behind and Mercedes always planned to fit hards.
So Hamilton pitted on Lap 33, which he needed to do as Raikkonen was coming into his pit window; in other words was getting close to being inside the 22 seconds behind Hamilton that the Englishman would need to pit and rejoin ahead.
Mercedes gratefully took the gift and with Hamilton’s pace on the new hard tyres, he was able to undercut Vettel, who stopped on the next lap onto the soft tyres. This gave him a 19 lap stint to the end on softs, which was optimistic. But if he was to have any chance of beating Hamilton to the podium from this position he needed to attack him early on the soft tyres as Hamilton’s hards were coming up to temperature. He could not manage it and the podium chance was gone.
What is puzzling about Ferrari’s decision making here is that they had the track position but sacrificed it based on a soft tyre model that appeared not to have been re-tuned after the first stint, when the degradation was high.
The hard tyre was performing well, but Ferrari has always had a distrust of the harder tyres and in this case their bias against it cost them.
Ironically last year in Suzuka they lost second place to a recovering Rosberg in the final part of the race, because again they were waiting for the moment when it was safe to fit the medium tyres to be able to go to the end of the race and Rosberg undercut them.
A number of fans have been puzzled by Red Bull’s decision to bring Daniel Ricciardo into the pits behind Max Verstappen for the first stop in Suzuka. Ricciardo had lost time at the start, swerving around the slow moving Lewis Hamilton off the line and dropped to fifth, with two cars between him and Verstappen in second. On Lap 10 Verstappen pitted, having complained about the tyres losing performance. Ricciardo was running 10 seconds behind him, so Red Bull tried an audacious double stop, with Ricciardo not losing any time waiting for service. Why did they do this?
The answer is because once the lead car has pitted, that puts rivals racing the tail car (Ricciardo) on notice that he will probably be stopping soon. And so it can trigger an undercut. In this particular case, there was a real risk of that; Ricciardo had Raikkonen on his tail and the Ferrari driver may well have been sharp and pitted on the same lap as Verstappen. To mitigate for that Red Bull did the Ricciardo stop on the same lap and got him back out. It worked and not only did Ricciardo retain position over Raikkonen, he also now had Perez and the one stopping Magnussen between him and the Finn.
The downside was that he had to clear the one stopping Massa, but that was always going to happen with a Williams one stopping. Hamilton also got ahead of him by extending his first stint, but again that was always on the cards anyway.
Suzuka is a track to be aggressive on, it often brings results and Red Bull has benefitted from that many times down the years.
One stoppers hope for some good fortune
Conversely teams like Williams, Renault and Sauber went for a one-stop strategy on the medium and hard tyres, which saw them progress from their grid slots and in the case of Williams bagged some points. But with no-one retiring and no Safety Car or Virtual Safety car, there was to be no lucky jackpot result.
The decision was based on the fact that the practice sessions showed that the degradation (drop off in performance) on the medium and hard tyres was quite low, so the limitation was only the wear.
Williams had some luck with the one stop strategy in Malaysia (helped by three VSCs) and decided to do it again to try to beat the Haas cars which had unexpectedly qualified ahead of them. Haas had a poor race after an excellent qualifying and Massa and Bottas were able to finish in the places where Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified.
Sauber got Ericsson ahead of the McLarens and a Toro Rosso and Renault finished 12th and 14th, having started 16th and 18th. On a day when no-one retires it’s hard to do much better than that.
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 – Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing – Click to Enlarge
Look at the large gap Vettel has over Hamilton after the first stops. With better stint management and an earlier second stop onto hards, he probably could have held him off to the flag. Whether he could have attacked Verstappen for second place is open to question, but the middle stint shows that he had better pace than the Red Bull driver.