The Bahrain Grand Prix was set to be a good acid test of the new F1 as it is generally one of the tracks with the most overtaking and we’ve seen strategy play a key part due to the way the tyres perform on this track.
This year the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari swung Ferrari’s way due to a combination of factors, including Sebastian Vettel’s very strong pace on supersoft tyres, especially in the second stint and Mercedes’ relative weakness on them; this is something we saw with the softer compounds in Australia and there is certainly a pattern emerging.
Ferrari has understood the new wider Pirelli tyres, especially the softer end of the range, better than its main rivals.
Once again Ferrari were bold on strategy and used the undercut on Mercedes. A Safety Car, which should have upset Ferrari’s strategy, as in China, immediately followed it but this time Mercedes failed to capitalise on their stroke of luck, due to a pit stop delay and then Lewis Hamilton got a time penalty.
Meanwhile there were some strong performances in midfield, especially Sergio Perez, who stuck to a set strategy and delivered a strong seventh place from 18th on the grid.
Here we will analyse in detail the big decisions, why they were made and how they created the race result.
This year’s race took place later than last year and the temperatures were really high until Sunday, when they fell. At the same time the wind changed direction from Friday to Saturday and Sunday, when it became a headwind on the main straight and on Sunday the wind was very strong.
As a result the information gained on Friday in FP2 was not carried though as some teams expected. Critically, Mercedes was caught out on its performance on the supersoft tyre. On Friday they thought they were okay on them, on Sunday they were outpaced by Ferrari and it played a big part in why they lost the race.
However for a team like Force India, who have a driver like Perez, who can look after the tyres while maintaining good pace, they never deviated from their belief that the tyre degradation would decrease significantly from Friday to Sunday and that a two stop plan, with the first two stints on Supersofts, was the way to go. Perez also got a slice of luck from the Safety Car.
Last year was an unusual race where many cars, including the podium finishers, all changed their strategy during the race. Normally that spells disaster and this year the drivers who changed strategy during the race certainly lost out to those who stuck to their convictions and went for it.
Last year Hamilton lost a place at the start to Nico Rosberg, who went on to win the race. This year, starting from second on the grid, he also lost a place to Sebastian Vettel, who had been disappointed to qualify third.
Bahrain is the third highest ‘start bias’ of the year, meaning that it is number three in the chart of tracks where the clean side of the grid has an advantage over the dirty side. Hamilton was on the dirty side, Vettel the clean.
Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene had called on his team to be ‘coragiosa’ (bold) and the strategist Inaki Rueda again took him at his word, as in China, employing an early undercut on Bottas on Lap 10.
Mercedes could see this coming, of course, and could have pre-empted it by pitting Bottas on that same Lap 10. There was a risk for Vettel as he would be coming out into quite a bit of traffic, including Perez, Sainz and Grosjean. Mercedes saw that traffic and were hoping for one more lap to be able to pit Bottas and pre-empt Ferrari’s strike.
It was a mistake not to take it, but from there they split the strategies to try to create a compromise for Vettel with Bottas on supersofts and Hamilton on softs.
Then fate intervened again, as in China. Handed a lifeline by a Safety Car being deployed for Lance Stroll’s collision with Sainz, Mercedes had the chance to pit Bottas without losing any race time and regain the lead.
Vettel should have fallen behind him and Ricciardo, and possibly also Hamilton, who would have had to wait for service in the pit lane behind Bottas and would have lost the position to Ricciardo.
But Bottas had a slow in lap and a slow pit stop while Ricciardo was held up by Hamilton on the way into the pits, for which Hamilton was handed a five second penalty.
It all played into Vettel’s hands; he retained the lead behind the Safety Car. Given a second chance, Vettel took it and did the great work in the second stint that won him the race.
Bottas was up to a second a lap off Vettel on the same tyres in that second stint, which underlined Ferrari’s raw race pace and also indicated that the Mercedes was not working on the supersoft tyres.
Hamilton, on soft tyres, spent 10 laps behind Bottas in that stint from Lap 17, losing five seconds to Vettel. Once Hamilton got past Bottas on Lap 27, he was able to pull away from Bottas at eight tenths of a second per lap.
That told the Mercedes strategist James Vowles that he had to change the strategy for Hamilton and fit used softs for the final stint rather than the planned supersofts. It was yet another compromlse to add to the start, the time penalty and the slow pit stops. Fortunately they had saved that set of used softs for the race, as had Ferrari, as an insurance policy, other teams had not, including Red Bull, who were committed to a supersoft led race.
In the final stint Hamilton’s pace was very strong. And after being allowed through under orders by Bottas to mount an attack on Vettel, Hamilton cut the gap, as Vettel managed his tyres.
However the German turned the power unit up with around six laps to go, to take the sting out of Hamilton’s attack and to show that he had some margin. He held on to win the race; a great collective effort by Vettel and the team, which is why he was so happy afterwards.
It was reminiscent of a Michael Schumacher/ Ross Brawn era Ferrari victory; bold strategy, great driving and flawless team execution.
One of the things that made this a good race was that Pirelli brought a tyre selection that led on the supersoft, a tyre that shows some degradation. This meant that the teams had to really think carefully about their strategy and we saw a real mixture of strategies, with the decision on whether to use soft tyres or supersoft tyres for the second and third stints split roughly 50-50. This is certainly what we want to see this year, rather than conservative selections where the likelihood is of almost no degradation and one stop strategies, where drivers finish in car performance order.
The soft may have been the better race tyre and Mercedes may have struggled on the supersofts, but some teams built their result on them.
Sergio Perez went from 18th on the grid to seventh by using a supersoft led strategy and sticking to it. The data from Friday’s practice showed the degradation to be around 0.18s per lap, but factored in that this would decrease on race day as the track improved and the coating of sand on the surface was lifted.
Perez has become one of the very best drivers at looking after the softer tyres for long stints while maintaining good pace. Here, like Vettel, he managed a 23 lap middle stint on supersofts, but unlike Vettel he was not running in free air, so it was a great performance.
He made a strong start, up to 13th, and then passed Palmer for 12th. The Safety Car also played into his hands, where he made his pit stop and he lost only 9.1 secs, compared to 21 for stopping at racing speeds.
This helped him to get past Grosjean, while Sainz and Verstappen hit problems. So Perez was ninth at the restart, behind Ericsson who was doing a one-stopper and Hulkenberg.
Renault put Hulkenberg onto soft tyres at the pit stop under the Safety Car, giving him the option of one stopping, but it meant that Perez was able to use his pace on fresh supersofts to pass him and he made it stick by keeping the tyre alive for 23 laps, to extend the stint. Hulkenberg switched strategy and pitted again which confirmed Perez’ result. He couldn’t get close to matching his qualifying pace in the race conditions.
Williams were probably a little surprised to see how close Perez was at the end of the race. Williams had 2 new softs, which was the best race tyre overall. The Force India qualifying pace had been relatively poor so they perhaps would not have expected to be so competitive in the race.
Massa’s middle stint was compromised by being overtaken by Raikkonen and Ricciardo and his pace suffered relatively at the end of the stint despite being on the soft tyre.
Perez has been in consideration for a Ferrari seat before and drives like this will certainly revive that consideration.
Pascal Wehrlein marked his return to F1 action with a strong performance to finish 11th in the Sauber, which is the slowest car in the field. This was done with a one-stop strategy, starting on supersofts and then switching to softs for a 45 lap final stint. He was pitted on Lap 11, so gained nothing from the Safety Car, but by going one stop he had 24 seconds of pit stop time he would save. In a slow car like the Sauber this time bleeds away every lap, but he picked up places as the cars ahead pitted for their second stops, like Kvyat, Alonso, Palmer, Ocon and Hulkenberg. The latter two re-passed him easily, but he managed to stay ahead of Kvyat and Palmer, both of whom have much faster cars.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History Chart
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.
A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.
Compare the pace of Vettel and Hamilton with their team mates, again a different class. Raikkonen’s pace in the final stint is puzzling in that it is more on a par with Vettel’s.
Observe also how Perez manages to keep the pace going for a long middle stint on supersofts to keep ahead of Hulkenberg on softs.