This year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix was highly eventful and although the three drivers who stood on the podium had been through a lot to get there, the strategy talking points were not the obvious ones.
Last year every one was surprised at how few incidents there were on the new Grand Prix street track in Baku.
A high-speed street track lined with walls and some very tight sections, the indications were that this would be a race punctuated by Safety Cars and maybe a red flag, which would have a significant bearing on race strategy. But in the end it was a relatively straightforward race.
This year we had three Safety Cars and a red flag; we also had three potential winners of the race missing the chance (Hamilton, Vettel and Perez) and arguably another missed the chance through engine failure (Verstappen).
The key to making the right moves in this race was having very good simulation software, which constantly assesses the risk. You are measuring the risk of a Safety Car once an incident happens, then the risk of a red flag, the risk of going off track on cold tyres and countless other detailed risks.
Baku is unique in that you spend more time calculating risks and making decisions on that basis, than you do looking at tyre degradation curves!
Here we will look behind the headlines to see why things unfolded as they did for the podium finishers in particular.
This was another race where the tyres were not ideally suited to the track layout and surface.
Pirelli’s softest tyre available was the supersoft but that was capable of reaching the end of the race from whatever point in the race it was fitted, so that removed a key element of the race strategy side for the teams and put the emphasis on managing risk.
Practice had shown that a simple one-stop strategy with around 24 laps on super soft, picking the right moment to stop for softs and emerge in a gap in traffic, was the best way to go. Had the ultra soft been available then it would have been more marginal and the decision making trickier.
But it quickly became clear that this was an abnormal race for other reasons; the significant issue was the tyres going cold behind the Safety Cars and having no grip at the restarts. This was critical to race outcomes as there were opportunities to pass into Turn 1 at the restart if you set yourself up properly for it. Ricciardo did and it made his race.
Interestingly, further back in the field, Sauber used the ability to pit for new hot tyres under the Safety Car (with no threat from behind) to attack at the restart with tyres at over 100 degrees when the others had dropped to 50 degrees or below. They scored a point with Wehrlein for only the second time this season and had there not been a red flag it could have been more.
Although this was smart thinking, it was born out of necessity as much as tactics as, for some teams, the main risk that needed to be managed was sliding off the track on cold tyres.
It was like Monaco where low energy from the track means that under the long Safety Car periods the tyres come down to critical levels of temperature.
Daniel Ricciardo had two weapons up his sleeve – apart from his own sense of opportunism and ingenuity – that set him up for the win. He had new sets of supersofts available and the Red Bull was very effective at warming up the tyres.
He had the new tyres because he had crashed in qualifying, so he was able to use these in the race and it gained him some advantage when he was forced to stop early on Lap 5 to remove debris from the Ferrari from his brake ducts.
Red Bull put him onto the softs at this point and then they lucked out when the Safety Car came out not long after as they could then get him off the softs and onto the faster Supersofts (and a new set what’s more) for the rest of the race.
He lost that advantage when the race was red flagged and everyone was allowed to change onto the supersofts, but he had another new set to use, while Stroll and Massa had to fit used tyres.
Using the Red Bull’s ability to warm the tyres efficiently paid dividends at the restart after the Red Flag stoppage as he was able to draft the two Williams cars, who were battling each other rather than thinking about resisting Ricciardo and he passed both.
The Safety Cars played a significant role in Valtteri Bottas finishing second, after going a lap down early on after contact with Kimi Raikkonen.
And Lance Stroll’s crew played it cool in terms of balancing the risk at the first Safety Car, pitting him on the second lap, rather than the first. Why was that?
Stroll was 4.8 seconds behind Massa and was coming through Turn 14 when the Safety Car was deployed, not quite enough to pit behind his teammate without losing time ‘stacking’. It was certainly not a major risk. But Williams didn’t want to pull him into that situation.
So Williams sent him around again. Luckily he had a large enough gap back to Magnussen and Ricciardo that he did not lose positions when this happened, as you can sometimes.
The way the Safety Car works is that for the first two laps you have to drive at a prescribed slower delta speed. So in that sense it is like a Virtual Safety Car. Once the Safety Car picks up the leader, from Lap 3 onwards, that’s when it can cost you significantly to stop, as the other cars are able to speed up to catch the back of the train behind the Safety Car.
The field closes up and you cannot afford to drop out of position then, as you will lose a lot of positions.
Stroll had looked strong and comfortable on this circuit layout all weekend, not hitting barriers or taking risks, but still turning the kind of lap times the Williams is capable of.
Once the cars ahead of him fell away and a podium beckoned, he drove without mistakes and lost the second position to Bottas because the Mercedes was much faster, rather than because of anything he did.
In fact if the race had been a few laps longer Bottas would probably have caught Ricciardo.
The Finn made a mistake early in the race running wide into Raikkonen, but his recovery drive was first class.
Being a lap down he needed a Safety Car to be able to unlap himself and once he got that he was always likely to get a good result. The advantage of lapped cars being able to unlap themselves in that situation creates the possibility for a race like Bottas and that’s certainly a good thing for the show.
Last week we highlighted how Force India could have had a podium in Canada even without the ‘team orders’ row between Perez and Ocon, when they missed a strategy play during the race.
This week was far more costly as they would have been first and second had the two drivers not hit each other, damaging the race of both.
It’s exciting that they have two well matched drivers with the rookie pushing the more experienced driver, but this kind of incident cannot be allowed as it hurts the team badly. With Stroll on the podium for Williams, Force India needed a big score.
If the team needed to have a word with Perez after Canada, the balance of fault on this one lies with Ocon, who has been sensational so far this season, but he pushed just a bit too hard this time and he will no doubt have been reminded of his responsibilities to the team. It will not have played well with his bosses at Mercedes, who prioritise team results over all else.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
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.
A typically chaotic race history chart with three Safety Cars and a red flag stoppage. Worth noting is the pace of Bottas after the stoppage and also the comparison with Ricciardo.