Analysis: Would Vettel have won China without F1 Safety Car and why did Ferrari leave Raikkonen out?
Sebastian Vettel
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  11 Apr 2017   |  10:58 am GMT  |  226 comments

After the outlier of Melbourne’s street track the Chinese Grand Prix was the first opportunity on a proper race track in 2017 to assess the new F1 cars; to judge the level of overtaking and to understand better the way that race strategy has changed with the new rules.

There was some close wheel to wheel action and with mixed conditions at the start, decision making was at the heart of the action.

In the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, whereas in Australia it was Mercedes’ decision to pit early that cost the race, in China Ferrari took the risk to make the early stop.

Their plan was thwarted, not by the early stop, but by an accident and Safety Car immediately afterwards, which handed Vettel’s rivals a free pit stop. And because the accident was on the start line, it meant that the Safety Car had to pass down the pit lane, which helped the others and made it even worse for Vettel to recuperate.

It was a shame as without that, the race could have been decided between them at several different points along the way. Again the cars and lead drivers were very closely matched, with Mercedes perhaps just having the slight edge due to the cooler conditions, whereas the Ferrari was a shade faster in Melbourne.

Here we will take a deep dive into the background stories from the race and analyse the decisions made and their effect on the outcome.

Sebastian Vettel
Pre-race considerations

Practice was cut short by bad weather on Friday, which meant all the work on slick tyres was done on Saturday morning. Red Bull looked better on long runs than on qualifying runs. No–one bothered with the overly conservative medium tyre, while the Soft tyre looked like it was capable of very long stints of over 45 laps, making it a likely one stop race in the dry. However the faster warm up of the Super Soft made that an option for some.

The problem with the SuperSoft was that it forced you into two stopping, gave far less flexibility to the strategy and defined the pit stop times. That lack of flexibility could have been costly for Red Bull if it had rained later in the race, for example. For the faster cars with more downforce there was no problem getting the soft tyre to work in the cold conditions, but for the midfield and slower teams, the Supersoft was tempting.

The outlier among the faster cars was Red Bull, which saved Supersoft tyres for both drivers (Verstappen’s qualifying was disrupted so he had new tyres anyway). This is a trend we are starting to see this year for that team to seek to take the ‘fastest’ tyre, rather than the one that gives most flexibility. It almost cost them in China and it could well cost them in a future race, where flexibility is key.

What teams did not have clearly worked out due to lack of data was the crossover from the wet to the intermediate to the dry tyres, as the Pirelli wet and intermediate tyres have had little testing. This would turn out to be a pivotal issue in the early part of the race.

Carlos Sainz
Carlos Sainz gambles on slicks at the start

Most teams sent their drivers out to do a couple of laps before joining the grid on different tyres to assess the grip levels. Lewis Hamilton arrived on the grid on slicks, while others only assessed the full wets and intermediates, thinking that it was likely to be an intermediate tyre start. The problem with a drying track in Shanghai is that beneath the two giant wing structures, which span the main straight, the track stays wet for longer.

Although that caught out Antonio Giovinazzi, whose crash at the end of Lap 3 triggered the Safety Car, in fact the area of the track some strategists were more concerned about was the final sector, which still had some damp patches affecting lap times.

The rule of thumb is that the closer to the front you are, the more risk averse you will be in a situation like this. The further back you are the easier the decision is to go to the slick tyres. Most people did the same thing, which was to start on intermediates and pit under the Virtual Safety car on Lap 2 after Lance Stroll’s car went off. The leaders did not do this, apart from Vettel and neither did Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso.

Sainz, starting from 11th on the grid, took the contrary decision to start the race on slick supersoft tyres. Although he got a positive race result in 7th place, it wasn’t because of this decision. It was in spite of it.

He got wheelspin off the line, dropping to 18th place and going off the track, brushing the barriers. He was lucky to get away with that and then picked up places when the Virtual Safety Car and then Safety Car came out.

But prior to the Safety Car, having lost lost 27 seconds at the start, he was already a pit stop behind the others anyway. What saved him and gained the places back, was the Safety Car.

Sebastian Vettel
Why Vettel went for the bold strategy and why Ferrari left Raikkonen out

Ferrari qualified close to Mercedes and felt that they had a chance to win the race in China, to back up their Australia win. There’s plenty of confidence in the team at the moment and their chairman Sergio Marchionne was in the garage observing them in action.

So when the Virtual Safefy Car was triggered on Lap 2, after Stroll’s incident, they assessed risk versus reward and went for the bold option – they pitted Vettel.

Both Mercedes, both Red Bulls and Raikkonen stayed out.

Ferrari now had a split strategy across the two cars. The problem was that Raikkonen had lost a place to Ricciardo at the start and sat behind him, unable to exploit the pace of the Ferrari and play his part in the game.

By pitting under the Virtual Safety Car, a stop takes around 12-14 seconds instead of 21. When the track goes green that’s a 7-9 sec gap that the leader has to build back up ahead of his own stop. As the track was drying quickly, Hamilton would surely be in a lap or two later, as would the other leading cars and Vettel could well have been in the lead (see below)

There are three main risks to doing what Ferrari did; one is that the VSC can end at any time and it would be a disaster for it to end while your car is in the pits and others get back up to racing speeds. Another is that on a cold day, if the VSC continues for a few minutes after you stop, you lost tyre temperature in the slicks and with it much of the pace advantage you’ve gone in for.

F1 safety car

But the biggest risk is that a VSC is often followed by a real Safety Car, either because the Race Director feels that the situation requires it or because someone goes onto slicks and has a heavy accident.

The latter is what happened to Vettel in China. The VSC was lifted and it was looking good for Vettel as the benchmark Sainz on supersofts was setting faster sector times than the leaders on intermediates.

Then Giovinazzi smashed into the pit wall and the Safety Car came out, which gave Mercedes, the Red Bulls and Raikkonen a free pit stop.

Red Bull were especially smart here in that they could see that the Safety Car was going to be out for several laps,. So they did not ‘stack’ their cars, forcing the second car to queue behind the first for service.

As they passed through the pit lane, the tail car Verstappen was serviced first and then the next lap through Ricciardo was serviced, so both cars gained.

Mercedes suffered a setback on Bottas’ car when the rear jack failed losing him places to the Red Bulls and Raikkonen.

Lewis Hamilton Sebastian Vettel
Would Vettel have won without the Safety Car?

It would have been very close at Hamilton’s stop. On Lap 3, after the VSC ended, Vettel was 18 seconds behind and Hamilton needed 21 seconds to stop and retain position, so there would have been a crossover point, which could have swung either way depending on the track condition at that precise moment (a similar situation to Hamilton’s dramatic last lap world title win in Brazil 2008).

On Lap 3, Hamilton and Vettel set similar middle sector times, but Vettel’s final sector was two seconds quicker, so it was starting to swing back towards him. Either way, if Hamilton had pitted or if he had continued and completed another lap, chances are he would have come out behind Vettel. But the Safety Car put paid to that.

After that Ferrari had to rely on Vettel overtaking the cars ahead of him to get back to Hamilton. They opted not to move Raikkonen out of his path and Vettel lost around 7 seconds to Hamilton as a result. This early in the season it is unusual for Ferrari to issue orders. That tends to happen only when one driver is clearly the main title challenger.

Ferrari China 2017

Vettel passed Raikkonen and the Red Bulls, but Ferrari opted to keep Raikkonen out on track, past the ideal stop time for his tyre condition relative to the Red Bulls and Bottas. This cost him the chance of a podium.

But it wasn’t looking good anyway; had they stopped him earlier he had shown no signs of being able to overtake the Red Bulls in the first stint and would have lost a place to Bottas, who had dropped down the order because of a spin on cold tyres before the restart, so they looked at it differently.

The main reason why they left him out was to try to keep him in Hamilton’s pit window so he could be ahead after Hamilton’s stop and interfere with Hamilton’s race and bring Vettel back into play. It was the only card they had left to play.

But a realistic assessment showed that it was futile. Raikkonen was inside Hamilton’s pit window on Lap 31 but by Lap 35 Hamilton had 25 seconds gap.

Raikkonen was having an off day personally and his tyres were not at their best after following Ricciardo, although it must be said the Ferrari’s benign aerodynamics mean that it can follow other cars with less damage to its tyres than any other car in the field. Vettel demonstrated that clearly in Australia and China and it could be a factor that comes into play a few times this season.

Hamilton had enough in hand so that when he pitted he came out ahead of Raikkonen. Ferrari will look to Bahrain where the hotter temperatures and layout of the track mean they could be the team to beat.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History & Tyre Usage Charts

Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge

The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis. The thing to look at is the gaps between the cars and also the relative pace of the cars.

A positive sign is an upward curve indicating strong pace as lap time falls.

It is immediately apparent how the fast cars get the tyres up to speed quickly after the Safety Car while the cars with less downforce take many laps to do so and lose a lot of time in the process.

Look at Raikkonen’s trace, you can see how he would have dropped behind Bottas if he had stopped at a normal time. Ferrari were also leaving him out to try to interfere with Hamilton’s race at the second stop. After following Ricciardo for many laps he didn’t have the pace left in the front tyres to close that gap to Hamilton at the second stops, so the plan didn’t work.

Once again the pace of Vettel and Hamilton in races is significantly better than their team mates.

Chinese GP 2017

Chinese GP 2017 Tyres

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Who is this aveli guy?


A comfortable win for Seb without the safety car. Very fortunate for Mercedes.


Nobody in this community understands what the vertical axis of the lap chart graph represents, starting with James Allen and including myself
But it is definitely not “the gap behind the leader”. How is LH getting in front of himself?


The SC clearly ruined Vettel’s chances of winning this GP & it goes down to bad luck. Well done to Ferrari for taking a risk & trying that strategy to pit Vettel under a VSC – it very nearly worked. What are the chances the actual SC comes out right after? Being stuck behind Kimi & losing time didn’t help either.

Seems the Ferrari is also very fast & on pace, if not faster than the Merc in a cooler climate & front load track. Can’t wait for Bahrain. Them running during twilight, the temp will drop to what Melb was I’d say.


Interested to know why you say the layout of Bahrain suits Ferrari.

From my own knowledge it is completely about power and traction, the Mercedes has that in abundance based on what we’ve seen so far.

The Ferrari is better at late braking and will be suitable for the aero tracks.


“They opted not to move Raikkonen out of his path and Vettel lost around 7 seconds to Hamilton as a result. This early in the season it is unusual for Ferrari to issue orders. That tends to happen only when one driver is clearly the main title challenger.”

but this still makes absolutely no sense to me. If both Vettel and Kimi were competing for the win – I’d understand. But it was very clear that Vettel was faster, and had much more of a chance of a Win than kimi, who pretty much had no chance. So why not do what redbull did in monaco, and say “ok, let vettel through to have a go passing Ricciardo, if he can’t, we swap you back”. This would have been a totally reasonable thing to do.

instead of finishing 2nd and 5th, they could have finished 1st and 5th. It has nothing to do with it being too early in the season or whether 1 is a lead driver or another – its exactly these kind of points which could decide the title, 18 races later, whic could be decided by 7 points.
really baffling.


I hear what you are saying and found myself thinking the same during the race. But I’m glad they didn’t as that would demoralize the other driver completely in my view. And I feel that Kimi would have finished even lower if they did that.

Also because they didn’t call for a swap, 2 absolutely awesome passes came from it. That was F1 at its best or close to it.

The Grape Unwashed

Thanks James, interesting analysis. When Vettel pitted under the VSC I felt his chance of a win was over because his slicks would turn to ice at those speeds, but your analysis shows that he would have probably still won it, presumably because it was relatively quick to heat the tyres in the two dry sectors, once the VSC ended. Obviously, one the SC came out it was simply game over.

Have to say I loved the race (that’s two in a row!), but it’s a shame we didn’t see the two leaders go wheel to wheel. Ferrari seem to have a definite (albeit small) advantage over Mercedes in all conditions – I reckon Vettel’s got it in the bag for Bahrain. But over the course of the season I still think Hamilton will edge it, it’s going to be a thriller! 🙂


I think Ferrari were focusing on keeping Raikkonen in front of Bottas, thats why they left him out. The Red Bulls were in front of him and driving faster anyway so there was little chance of him beating them to the podium. Raikkonen´s fresh tires at the end was also a gamble on a late safety car so he might attack a Red Bull with better tires after the field is bunched up. This theory about Ferrari using him in the hope he can hold up Hamilton for more than one straight isnt believable to me.


Thanks for your comprehensive report James.

My take aways:

1. A race that just confirms that F1 can really be a lottery at times with Safety Cars, VSCs, yellow flags etc. that affect the best laid plans of mice and men or in F1’s case how team strategists react to situations thrown at them.

2. How will KR and VB respond to being verballed by their respective Team Principals.

3. Who will come out on top in round 3 of DR versus MV.

4. Will Ferrari – or more to the point – will Vettel be able to beat Hamilton on a dry purpose built track and in warm conditions this coming weekend and if not do we conclude that it’s business as usual.


I will admit to being a LH fan. However I feel the Merc has a little break more than they are letting on.. Lewis was on top form and seemed to have an answer to all the times thrown at him. Vettel had nothing to lose so threw caution to the wind, fair shout but to then pass LH would have been a tall order.


Not sure I’d call it a ‘disaster’ if the VSC ends while a car is in the pits. Think of it this way. For a normal, Green flag stop, the other cars are at full race speed during the entire time on pit lane. If even a part of the pit lane time is done under VSC, then it turns Green, the cars on the track have less of an advantage than the cars fully at race speed on a normal Green flag stop.

Yes, if the VSC ends, the car that is pitting gains less than the optimal advantage of the pitting during VSC. But its still better off than if it just pitted under Green at some other point in the race.


Could someone pass this message to vettel? He needs to shave clean of his face to win more races n the world title again this year.
The best part of his face is his forehead and nose. The beards jst block off his luck.


An obscure point, but:
What I’d like to know is, how was it that [according to the Race History graph] Hamilton gained a wodge of time over every driver across the VSC/live race/SC transition, including Vettel and Sainz even once neither had anyone close in front of them?

Heroics during the ~60seconds of green-flag racing; speeding in pursuit of the Safety Car; a glitch in the graph data; or…?


What do we know about all of Kimi’s complaints about being down on power at times. Was it real? Is Ferrari hushing this up. It is a big part of the story if true but nobody wants to seem to talk about it.


Why is the Safety Car a road car, at all?
If it causes so many problems with tires cooling on the race cars (a potential hazard in itself), shouldn’t it be a bit quicker – a vehicle of some description that can keep the pack at something close to race speed when not in the yellow flag area?


“On Lap 3, after the VSC ended, Vettel was 18 seconds behind and Hamilton needed 21 seconds to stop and retain position”

(Assuming no SC):-
It seems to me all Mercedes had to do was make up 4-5 seconds to Sebastian from Lap 3 in order to give Lewis a fighting chance at keeping track position. This means Sebastian would have to keep a time advantage to Lewis while trying to get past Raikkonen, Ricciardo, Verstappen, and importantly Bottas. I have to believe Mercedes (with the cooler race temps) would have kept the advantage, since at that point China would be reduced to about 4 qualifying laps (albeit on inters) for Lewis. I suspect Mercedes would have used Bottas as a block if they had to just to give Lewis the space he needed.

It also appears to me that the Red Bull philosophy for now is to use the “option” compound at every race, until the get some engine relief to compete at the front. Bahrain looks like the last real test for the 2017 Mercedes vs. Ferrari war before the proper European season starts (Russia will be even more crappy this year with the current reliable tires).


Flawed – cause it’s already a crossover point. Lewis lost 2 sec in sector 3 alone… their lap time in sector 2 was identical – the wettest part of the circuit – more Lewis stayed out more he would have lost.


There’s a great rivalry between Merc and Ferrari at this point but I can’t help but feel that one will pull away through development. Recent history would suggest that this favours Mercedes, considering Red Bull’s ability to catch up and surpass the Scuderia last year. Mercedes may have a slightly more reliable car too.

Perhaps that’s why Ferrari see the early points as so crucial and worthy of such risks. Mercedes on the other hand were turning down Hamilton’s engine in Australia, suggesting that they’re focusing on the marathon and not the sprint.

Tornillo Amarillo

Paul di Resta was amazed how Max save the car from spinning and he show the images after the race which weren’t shown before. That was really good from Max.

But what I love more from him is how careful he was in the first lap, even if he overtook easily many cars I think he was equally careful and good at the same level. Many drivers should learn from that Max-mature first lap… hope Perez and Stroll too!

So Max controlled the car twice (second time when Vettel overtook him).
Bottas lost it twice in the same incident.
Giovinazzi lost it twice in the same weekend.
Not easy.


Torni, I don’t know if they still have the thermal imaging cameras for the tyres, but i would love to see a comparison between Max’s tyres in the wet versus everybody elses. In Brazil he seemed to gain his advantage driving off line to find more grip, but in China he seemed to be more on the racing line. In any event, it seems the more aggressive he is, the more grip he generates.


Ferrari’s logic to keep Kimi out to hold Lewis beats common sense…he couldnt hold Max in opening stint how were they expecting Kimi (who was already struggling) to hold Lewis on fresh tyres and this is no hindsight…bunch of losers who came up with such crappy strategy and reasoning


James, I really like your analysis and other articles and I enjoy reading the comment section although I very rarely comment.
In the title of this analysis you have put “Would Vettel have won…” but nowhere in the article is mentioned that he could or couldn’t have won. You only say that without the safety car Vettel would have been in front after Hamiltons pit stop. That is something that we all know and I personally think that Vettel could have won. We come here to hear your personal oppinion too and lot of us would appreciate you to write an extra paragraph with your own personall oppinion of the race, with straight up YES he would’ve won or NO he wouldn’t have won.
Thank you for all your great work.


AntonioCorleone is totally right. James we come here to hear your personal opinion too, at least that’s what started many of us coming here long ago early on, so do let fly.


Seems like safety car handed a win to Merc. Without it, might have been a good battle between Vettel and Hamilton. Vettel drove brilliantly today. Awesome passes on Kimi and Ricciardo. I’d rather see those 2 passes (and Max’s as well) than countless DRS passes. Worth all the pain and frustration of watching the laps before he passed them. I’m getting flash backs of Schumi watching him this year thus far.


@Bayan.. yes much better than DRS passes. I am starting to remember how it was in the old days before DRS. I used to think how horrible it must have been in Hind Sight from the DRS era.. but now I remember.. it wasnt horrible at all !


Mr Allen, a top shelf article as always thank you. Without safety car Vettel would have been a winner, history tell us Vettel has not lost the race while leading from the front.


Really? Canada ’11 is the prime example, spinning off b/c of pressure from Button behind. USA12, BEL14 & TUR09 are others off the top of my head.


@GoGomobil.. last year at Canada he pretty much lost the race while pulling away at the front!!


@gogomobil; not true. he was beaten by Hamilton whilst leading the 2012 US grand prix! and there are others I don’t remember now


Historyas shown…err
Think Button can kick that one over the moon.
Vettel was leading and Bingo Bango
the pressure got to him. Button went by.


Try Austin 2012, when Hamilton spend most of the race chasing Vettel and eventally got pass him when they both passed a backmarker.


Not true. Canada(Button) & US(Hamilton) & retirements to name a few


I don’t think anyone would count retirements from the lead in that, unless it was because of a driver-induced accident or collision.


But why in gods name Kimi did not followed the SC train but created a big gap with RIC? He gifted RIC a completely free pitstop during the SC.. Kimi is way off track it seems.

Tornillo Amarillo

Editor, why both RB looks so different in performance? I don’t think is only the driver, Max drove like more easily, save when Vettel overtook him. And Ric came alive at the end.

Ricciardo Aficionado

Interesting to see the downward curves after the safety car. For the first couple of laps Hamilton’s pace is mimicking the ones behind. When Verstappen gets past Ricciardo he keeps pace with Hamilton for a few laps until the tyres come up to speed and the Merc pulls away. Max would have been very threatening in the low grip conditions at the restart (akin to a wet track) if he’d been in second place.


More fantasies and hanker for Hamilton to be humbled.


If! If! If! If! F1 is IF spelt backwards……………

If only the Honda engine had more power…………..
If only Bottas hadn’t drive like a wally under the SC………..
If only the Chinese rain had held off………….
If only Max hadn’t locked his front axle at the hairpin………
If only Fernando Alonso would kindly post his salary into my bank account……

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