The Russian Grand Prix was always likely to be one of those races where, with the new 2017 combination of high drag cars and low degradation tyres, overtaking would be extremely difficult and strategy games equally so.
In fact it was only the fourth race in F1 history to feature no overtaking moves after the opening lap skirmishes.
The key question is whether Ferrari could have manoeuvred Sebastian Vettel into a position to win the race, after losing the lead at the start to Bottas, if they had been more aggressive by bringing Vettel in from second place when Bottas was dealing with lapped traffic?
Last year’s race was dictated by collisions on the opening lap, which effectively took three front running cars out of points scoring positions and this year’s race was dictated by the start and by a Safety Car after yet another first lap collision.
There are some basic factors about the 5.8 kilometre Sochi circuit, which dictate race strategy; the track surface gives low tyre degradation, fuel consumption is high, so there is some management to be done and overtaking is extremely difficult.
Although Pirelli brought the softest tyres in its range, the forecasts were all saying that this would be a one-stop race.
The soft tyre was a complete waste of time so once again the most durable tyre option of the three available was barely used in the race, further narrowing the strategy options.
The supersoft and ultrasoft had almost identical levels of degradation, at 0.03secs per lap, which is very low. Yet the ultrasoft was 0.5s a lap faster, so there was a strong case for spending as much of the race as possible on that faster tyre, especially as there was no trade off on degradation.
Track position is king at Sochi, as at all tracks where overtaking is difficult.
As the degradation is so low, there is not the performance step by taking a new tyre, so the undercut tactic was not useful here.
The strategy for front-runners was to run the ultrasoft tyres as far as they would go to build a good gap to the slower traffic and then pit for supersofts, taking care to come out into a nice gap and avoid losing time with slower cars.
At the back of the field there looked to be another option, which was to start on the supersoft tyres and then switch to ultrasofts later in the race. As most midfield cars would be in a high-speed train anyway, some drivers would not necessarily be able to exploit the extra half a second of performance from the ultrasoft.
Also the pace gap between the tyres gets larger as the car gets lighter on fuel – provided you have clear track – so being on ultrasoft in the final stint would give a good performance advantage.
And, contrary to popular belief, there is no penalty off the line starting on the supersoft rather than the ultrasoft tyre in terms of initial grip; they are both good.
Sauber saw this and tried it with both cars, as did McLaren with Vandoorne. Part of the thinking was that there is a strong chance of a Lap 1 Safety Car, due to start collisions, which allows you to pit for free and then run the entire race on Ultrasoft tyres.
This tactic bought Sauber 14 seconds of race time, compared to a normal strategy. Sadly their car isn’t fast enough for that to have meant much in terms of positions.
But if some other midfield teams had tried it, perhaps on their lower placed car in a split strategy, then it could have brought some nice gains. For example, Toro Rosso had Kvyat in 12th and Sainz 14th.
If Carlos Sainz had started on supersofts and then pitted under the Safety Car, he would have rejoined right behind Stroll. If he gained at least the 14 seconds Sauber managed over the two stints on ultrasofts, then that could have put him ahead of Massa in 9th place after the Brazilian was forced to make a late pit stop for a puncture.
Did Ferrari miss an opportunity to win by not pitting Vettel sooner?
Ferrari pole positions are rare these days and as for front row lock outs, you have to go back 10 years. So they are not to be squandered! With both cars on the front row in Sochi, the conditions were ideal for a Ferrari 1-2 result, provided that the start went well.
However Bottas took the lead into Turn 2 and then pulled away using impressive pace on the ultrasoft tyres, which he had shown in Friday practice.
A number of commentators and fans asked the question whether Vettel could still have won the race, if he had pitted on Lap 25 or 26, just as the leader Valtteri Bottas began to catch slower traffic.
The answer is no, it would not have materially changed the result in itself. Basic modeling with reasonable assumptions on getting through traffic show he would have been around 1.5s behind Bottas after the Finn stopped.
However it would have applied much more pressure to the Mercedes mechanics at their pit stop – a team that has had some pit stop problems this season – and in the final stint on Bottas, a driver who’s inexperienced in leading races. Mercedes haven’t been flawless under pressure, so it was possibly worth a try, especially as by staying out Vettel encountered two sets of slower traffic anyway and then a further two sets after his stop!
So he gained nothing by staying out.
The key consideration here, however, is where he would have dropped back out had he made that early stop. The answer is that he’d have come out behind Magnussen and Sainz, who had both pitted and were basically a lap down. Ferrari didn’t pit him because if this; they held off, looking for gaps and aware that by staying out there was no concern on the tyres performance going off.
Bottas did make a mistake later, locking up a front wheel, but it didn’t affect his race outcome and with no pressure Mercedes were flawless on their stop; it was the fastest stop of the day, in fact and 0.8s faster than Vettel’s.
There’s a good battle in the lower reaches of the Top Ten this year between the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg and the Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.
The pressure is on for Hulkenberg as he’s the only Renault driver scoring points, with Jolyon Palmer having an uncompetitive start to the season.
In Sochi Hulkenberg did another superb job in qualifying, to put the Renault eighth, ahead of them. But he lost out to both on the opening lap and could not recover, despite a strategy gambit.
Once the positions were lost, Hulkenberg stayed out until Lap 40 on the ultrasoft tyres, taking advantage of that 0.03secs per lap degradation.
He came out on supersofts, which were 14 laps fresher than the Force India, but as they took advantage of the low degradation, there was no way to even try to pass them.
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 -Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – Click To Enlarge
Showing the gaps between the cars as the race progresses and also the relative pace of the cars. Time gaps on vertical axis, Lap number on horizontal axis.
This is what a race trace with no overtaking looks like, the first such race since Valencia 2009! And to a single soft tyre used from the range of three compounds brought to Sochi.
Look at the difference in pace between the Mercedes (light blue) and Ferrari (red) cars compared to everyone else. Then look at the gaps back from the Red Bull, which is in a race of its own.
The fear is that if the new lighter Mercedes also has aerodynamic and engine upgrades it could be a big step faster. Ferrari must match that upgrade in Spain, otherwise the gaps between the top three could look very large on the race trace from Barcelona!