Looking back over the last few years’ Monaco Grands Prix, a pattern emerges, where controversial strategy calls have decided the race outcome.
When it is so hard to overtake, the decision-making is critical.
Last year it was Red Bull’s misstep on Ricciardo’s strategy and then an error in the pit stop itself, in 2015 Lewis Hamilton lost the race on a bad strategy call, in 2014 he was angry because Mercedes stopped both cars on the same lap behind the Safety Car, giving him no chance to challenge.
This year Ferrari had their drivers 1-2 in the grid, but the driver who took pole ended up losing the race on a strategy call, to his team mate.
As the winner was the driver on whom Ferrari is basing all its hopes of winning the world championship, then apparently the rationale becomes clearer.
But did they really favour him at Raikkonen’s expense? Or was there more to it than that?
There has been a huge amount of interest in this story and hopefully here, with a deep and careful analysis, taking in the private views of several of the F1 team strategists who were active in the race, we will get to the bottom of it.
Theory 1 – Ferrari favoured Vettel over Raikkonen
Although they are not open about it, Ferrari’s ethos has long been that the drivers’ championship is what matters to them, not the constructors’.
They have less need to worry about the financial aspects than other rivals, who prioritise maximum team points scoring in races because the constructors’ table is what pays the prize money.
Mercedes’ ethos is always to get the maximum team score, but also to win the race, but to do that they would not sacrifice one car and have that driver finish fourth instead of second as a result. Ferrari would and they have done it as recently as China with Raikkonen.
So is that what happened here in Monaco?
Raikkonen was leading the race and the rule in Monaco is when leading don’t be the first one to make a move.
There was no real pressure from behind from Mercedes or Red Bull, even though Max Verstappen had just pitted to try to undercut Bottas. Raikkonen still had margin.
He was catching up to Marcus Ericsson in the Sauber; as he came through Turn 18 on his in-lap to the pits on Lap 34 he was 2.2 seconds behind the Swede, so he would have caught him on Lap 35 and may have taken some time to pass him.
At the same time Ferrari strategists would be looking for the gap that Raikkonen would be dropping into after his stop and it looks like they believed he would clear Button and have just Wehrlein to pass on his out lap. Another lap or two and he would have easily cleared both, but he would have encountered Ericsson anyway, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
The tyre performance was clearly dropping off; Raikkonen was doing 77 second lap times and had begun to back his team mate Vettel into Bottas in third place.
The radio traffic made clear that both team and driver felt the tyres were near the end, probably down to around 25% left on the rears. The team strategists have access to a data screen that plots the tyre degradation lap by lap and other strategists could see Raikkonen’s deg curve clearly.
However, strangely, on the lap before he pitted, Raikkonen’s middle sector was 35.799s, which was four tenths faster than his previous laps. That would normally get your attention and indicate that there is potentially something left in the tyres and some strategists, under no pressure to stop, would leave him out.
As the team operates a policy of the lead car having the pit stop priority, perhaps what Ferrari should have done is ask Raikkonen what he would like to do and let him make the decision.
They didn’t do that, made the decision for him and he pitted. His in lap was slightly slower than Vettel did later, as was his stop itself and on the out lap he encountered traffic – losing around 1.5 seconds clearing Button and Wehrlein. He passed Button in Sector 2 of the lap and Wehrlein in Sector 3.
Vettel stayed out, found great pace over five laps and managed to pit and come out ahead, which many think is what Ferrari intended all along.
Further evidence for this theory is that Ferrari did not do in the first stint what a team would normally do when seeking a first Monaco win since 2001 and ask the second car to drop back several seconds from the lead car to hold the field up to protect the lead car against Safety Cars and other risks. (They did do this in the second stint to protect Vettel’s position, with Raikkonen dropping back.)
There is no denying the fact that Ferrari would have wanted to give their lead driver the extra seven points to make a maximum 25 on a day when his main title rival Lewis Hamilton was struggling and scored just six points.
And although that was the outcome, there is another theory about how they got there, which is that Vettel won the race in a way that no-one could have predicted.
Vettel was faster on the day and had he been stopped first he would have undercut Raikkonen. The data shows that. You can also look at Verstappen’s out lap from the pitstop on new Supersoft tyres to see that Vettel would have been even faster and would have undercut Raikkonen.
So if it was pure cynical pragmatism to get Vettel ahead, that’s what Ferrari could have done, clean and simple.
At this point, because Vettel had been sitting behind Raikkonen, Ferrari would have no clarity on what the degradation curve on Vettel’s tyres looked like – because he wasn’t running at his own pace. So they would not know what his potential pace was. This was also true for Ricciardo in the Red Bull, who did the same thing as Vettel, also with a positive outcome.
What actually happened was that once Raikkonen stopped, Vettel cleared Ericsson and then over the next five laps pushed hard. The first three laps were faster than Raikkonen had been managing; on Lap 34 he did 76.5s, then 76.4s and 76.2s, which shows that he was working out the best operating window for the tyres.
What was astonishing were the next two laps, when he found the sweet spot; 75.5s and 75.2s. This is two seconds faster than Raikkonen had been doing before his stop on worn ultra softs. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo did something similar.
No-one operating in the F1 pitlane on Sunday would have seen that level of performance coming, even Vettel himself didn’t see it coming. He just pushed for all he was worth in the hope that it might give him a chance to win.
Actually the reference showed that Raikkonen was still on schedule – despite the traffic with Button and Wehrlein – to be ahead of Vettel at the start of Lap 37.
What swung it Vettel’s way was those two laps 37 and 38 which were in the 75 second range that meant when he pitted on Lap 39, he came out just ahead.
Anyone who tells you they could see the pace on those two laps coming ahead of time is lying. It was an astonishing performance and it won him the race.
Our conclusion is that this is one of the most fascinating scenarios we have encountered in the UBS Race Strategy Report since it began in 2011 and you can convince yourself either way depending on your own theories or biases.
There are a couple of things that don’t add up in Ferrari’s behaviour, which hint that Ferrari favoured Vettel, such as pitting him into traffic and also that quick middle sector for Raikkonen just before he stopped that hinted that the tyres still had some life in them.
But our conclusion – having spoken to insiders, the drivers concerned and strategists involved in the race with deep knowledge of the tyres and what they were doing – is that Ferrari got the outcome it wanted, but on this occasion favouring Vettel wasn’t what they set out to do when they triggered Raikkonen’s stop on Lap 34.
This was not Mercedes’ weekend; apart from Free Practice 1, they had problems all weekend with the tyres, getting them into the right operating window and paid a price for it, with fourth and seventh at the chequered flag.
Bottas did a wonderful job in qualifying to bag third place, but in the race he suffered with his tyres and was a sitting duck as a lone player against the Red Bull pair. Red Bull did what they often do in these situations; they split strategies with Verstappen trying the undercut and Ricciardo the overcut. If Bottas had stayed out, he would have been undercut.
Verstappen’s plan failed because his pit stop was a shade slow, due to poor position in the pit box. Ricciardo went long and, like Vettel, found good pace in the tyres to jump both Verstappen and Bottas for third place.
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.
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.
Raikkonen’s tyre degradation is clear at the end of the first stint, as it is for Bottas. Look at the astonishing pace of Vettel and Ricciardo on used ultrasoft tyres, once they clear the cars ahead.
On the Tyre Usage chart observe that, once again, the third Pirelli tyre compound, the hardest of the three, was unused again. This has been the case at most rounds.
The three tyre compound rule, which gave plenty of intrigue and interest last season, is simply not working this season as the tyres are too hard.