For the winning team in Montreal this was as easy a race from a strategy point of view as you will ever see, with the main opposition falling away early.
However behind the winner, Lewis Hamilton, there was some fascinating decision making going on and a lot of attention has focussed on the battle between the Force India drivers, with Sergio Perez refusing team requests to let the Estaban Ocon try to pass Daniel Ricciardo for a podium.
However the hidden dynamic here is that, even without a team order, Force India had a clear pathway to a guaranteed podium with one of their drivers; they just didn’t see it. We will explain fully in this report.
Meanwhile Ferrari was on a recovery drive with Vettel after damage at the start, but how could they have effected things differently there and did Kimi Raikkonen have a pathway to a podium with better decision making?
All will be revealed.
Friday’s practice running was somewhat inconclusive as the long runs were compromised by a red flag stoppage.
However some indicators were available; the ultra soft qualifying tyre looked fine for a decent length first stint and the supersoft would do the rest of the race. It was the old scenario where a two stop was fast, but required a car to overtake the one stopper on track. The pace differential needed for that was around one second per lap.
Valtteri Bottas did some effective running on the soft tyre on the Friday long runs and that planted a seed for him and a couple of others that the soft might be a good race tyre, especially as the forecast for Sunday was warmer than Friday, which should play to its strengths.
However both Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo took the soft tyre in the race and found it slow. It was a mistake that both were able to recover from; Ricciardo by some great defensive driving and also by Force India missing a golden opportunity; Bottas by having no threat from behind so only time was lost, not track positions.
The post race debrief at Force India will have been a bittersweet experience; on the one hand they bagged another 18 points – their second best result of the year – from a strong double finish in P5 and P6.
But they will have to initiate a new set of protocols after Sergio Perez declined to allow Esteban Ocon to try a pass on Daniel Ricciardo for third place. The team explained that Perez was instructed to increase his pace and push up to Ricciardo otherwise the team would consider asking him to move aside for Esteban to have an attempt at Ricciardo.
The topic was discussed five times in total.
But more painfully, they will also see that there was a podium there for the taking, without even needing to resort to a team order.
The background is that Force India were able to take advantage of a great start for both drivers, which put them ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. And with Sebastian Vettel sustaining front wing damage, which forced an early pit stop, they were ahead of him too.
Raikkonen went aggressive by pitting on Lap 17, which was an attempt to pull the cars ahead of him into stopping earlier than they would wish. Force India’s response was to pit the lead car, Perez, and then to stay out and built an offset with Ocon, who did a masterful job of maintaining strong pace while looking after the tyres for 13 more laps.
This gave Ocon a substantial tyre offset; 13 laps to Perez and 14 to Ricciardo who was on the slower soft tyre.
Ten laps on these tyres was worth two to three tenths of a second every lap compared to the other car in Montreal this year. Having set up the offset strategy for Ocon however, Force India failed to enforce it as Perez was unwilling to allow Ocon to have a try.
Several F1 teams, including Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and Sauber have a developed structure for moving their cars around in circumstaces such as these, to gain the best result, which the drivers are contractually obliged to obey. For a smaller team, like Sauber, this can be hugely important as every point can have consequences in the millions of dollars. At the front end of the field it can mean a win and an extra seven points when fighting for a championship.
Mercedes have asked one driver to move over on four occasions since 2014, including the famous occasion in Hungary 2014, where Hamilton declined but said he wouldn’t block Rosberg if he tried a move – and including this year with Bottas in Bahrain.
However, what Force India missed was the opportunity to pit Perez on Lap 42; a move that would almost certainly have led to one of their drivers getting a podium.
How? Because this would have created a pincer movement with two cars on different strategies against one – impossible for Ricciardo to cover both. Ironically it would have replicated on Ricciardo what Red Bull drivers did to Bottas in Monaco last week.
In the short term it meant giving up a track position to Vettel, but his tyres were already 37 laps old and he was always likely struggle or to stop again with 28 more laps left to run to the flag.
So once Vettel stopped a second time he’d have struggled to pass Perez on the same tyres and so the move would effectively have put Perez ahead of both Ferraris.
Now Ocon would have been clear to attack Ricciardo and he believed he had that pace offset necessary to pass the Red Bull driver, who had made the mistake of choosing the soft tyre for the second stint, which was proving too slow compared to the supersoft.
Even if Ocon had failed, Perez would then be coming up quickly on fresh tyres and Ocon would then have moved aside to let Perez try his luck in the final laps.
By doing nothing, they invited Vettel to attack them. He passed both and a potential podium became fifth and sixth.
What was the point of setting up Ocon’s offset strategy if you don’t use it? And why do a split strategy early in the race if you don’t do one later when there is clearly something to play for? In war gaming terms, this was a win-win.
Staying put and allowing the lead car on older, slower tyres to stay ahead was a lose-lose.
Last year in Montreal Mercedes had a faster car, but Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel had track position at the start and a bad strategy call to pit early lost them the chance to pull the levers, handing the win to Hamilton.
This year was different. There was nothing to choose between Ferrari and Mercedes on pace and on Saturday only an inspired qualifying lap by Hamilton was the difference.
At the start of the race, Vettel damaged his wing as Verstappen made an aggressive move into Turn 1. But due to a big accident further back in the field, the Safety Car was quickly deployed. At this stage Vettel had not had time to feel the damage to his wing, then the speed of the field was reduced behind the Safety Car, which masked it.
Now all F1 teams have a service called “Follow Me” provided by F1 Management’s broadcast service, which gives a forward facing on board camera shot of both team cars. Vettel’s showed wing damage and other teams were able to see it.
Somehow Ferrari’s on site aerodynamicist missed it and so it was not until the car went back up to racing speeds that Vettel realised he had a problem. If you click on the photo above it will enlarge and you can clearly see the damage to the left side as we look at it.
He therefore pitted two laps after the end of the Safety Car period, dropping to last place.
What did it cost him, pitting at racing speed rather than under the Safety Car? About 20 seconds of race time and four track positions.
When you consider that he missed a podium by a fraction at the end, needing just one more lap to pass Ricciardo, that was an expensive operational error.
But there was also the question of whether he could still have made it if he’d been pitted a lap earlier for the second stop. When he came out he was told that he would have eight laps to fight the Force India duo and Ricciardo. In fact he caught them with only six laps to go, so the modelling was slightly out.
Meanwhile on Raikkonen’s car, there were even stranger decisions. The decision to pit Raikkonen first on Lap 17 to trigger a rush of stops for the cars ahead was brilliant, as Ferrari had two stops in mind and tactically he had nothing to lose.
He was also being used here by Ferrari to do a job for Vettel’s recovery as it pulled the other cars into sub optimal strategies, which ended up helping him to get the Force India pair.
But why they didn’t pit Raikkonen under the Virtual Safety Car on Lap 11/12/13? The pit window for a two stop is certainly open at that point.
If they had two stops in mind for a car that has lost two track positions to the Force Indias at the start (which is entirely reasonable) then why not save the seven seconds that a stop under a VSC gives you?
The answer hangs on whether the motive was to get the maximum result for Raikkonen.. or for Vettel.
We at JA on F1 remain firmly of the belief that in Monaco they didn’t deliberately switch the cars, it was a modelling mistake compounded by Vettel pulling unforeseen performance from his tyres in the five laps that followed Raikkonen’s stop.
Here it looks like Raikkonen may have been employed doing a job to disrupt the field and help minimise the damage to Vettel’s championship lead, rather than bag a podium for himself.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race History and Tyre Usage Chart
Kindly supplied by Martini Williams Racing.
Illustrating the performance gaps between the cars during the race. A line, which moves steeply upwards shows strong pace. Sharp drops indicate pit stops.
Compare Ricciardo’s pace to the Force Indias – the Red Bull was very much on the defensive.