F1 is relentless.
A week after Mercedes made a very public mistake in not pitting Lewis Hamilton under a Virtual Safety Car, there was a big decision to be made in the closing stages of the British Grand Prix; whether to stop under a Safety Car or stay out on worn tyres and defend the track positions gained.
For Ferrari and Red Bull there was no discussion, they must stop. Mercedes decided to stay out. The race leader Sebastian Vettel fell behind Valtteri Bottas as a consequence, but passed him anyway on fresh tyres to win the race. Is it a similar scenario to Austria or something else?
Battle royal between Mercedes and Ferrari at Silverstone
This was one of the most memorable British Grands Prix for years, particularly because of the late race Safety Car that bunched the field up and put some of the players onto fresh tyres for an attacking finish.
Mercedes and Ferrari were closely matched on pace in both qualifying and race conditions. Ferrari had an aerodynamic upgrade on the floor and diffuser which really worked for them, especially on a track where last year they struggled.
This year, with Britain enjoying a heatwave, the temperatures were much higher than anyone could have expected when Pirelli selected the tyre compounds. Track temperatures on race day were up above 50 degrees, which is more like Bahrain than Northampton.
This made the race strategy planning quite a challenge. On paper after Friday’s practice sessions, the fastest way was to do a one stop strategy, pitting around Lap 20 from soft to mediums. Without a Safety Car, that is what the majority would have done.
The outlier was Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull, who had been racing Kimi Raikkonen because the Finn lost track position at the start after colliding with Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull switched Ricciardo onto a two stop strategy, when Raikkonen was behind him, believing that the Finn, who had stopped early on Lap 13, would have to stop again, which he probably would have had to do. They avoided the undercut by Ferrari.
Raikkonen’s early stop, combined with the added ten seconds time penalty for causing the collision, meant that he had dropped into traffic and taken some time to clear the Force India, Renault and Sauber midfield cars to close up to Ricciardo.
Unfortunately for Ricciardo a Safety Car was deployed soon after his stop, when Marcus Ericsson crashed heavily. So whereas he had taken his stop at full racing speeds, the others were able to get a cheap pit stop under the Safety Car (10 seconds of race time instead of 22).
It was clear immediately from pictures of Ericsson’s high speed accident that a Safety Car would be deployed. But it took a few seconds for the order to go out.
At the point when the SC was finally deployed. Ferrari had Vettel in the lead and Raikkonen in fourth, Red Bull had Verstappen third and Ricciardo sixth. Mercedes had Bottas in second place and Hamilton fifth.
For Ferrari with Raikkonen on 20 lap old mediums it was a no brainer to stop. Likewise for Vettel on 13 lap old mediums, he had too much to lose by staying out. In that scenario, Bottas and Hamilton would have stopped for new softs and at the restart Vettel would have struggled to hold them behind.
Conversely for Mercedes by staying out, Bottas would get the lead and Hamilton would move up to second. Mercedes had stopped both cars late, clearly looking at a comfortable one stop. Bottas’ tyres were 12 laps old and Hamilton’s just eight laps old. There were 19 laps to the finish of which probably only 15 or 16 would be at racing speeds.
The lap times of both had been strong prior to the Safety Car, in fact Bottas had been gently reeling in Vettel, the Mercedes displaying its historic tendency to be faster on the harder compounds of rubber (although Ferrari has improved a lot in this area).
By stopping Bottas, he would have come out behind Vettel, but on used softs rather than new ones. Unlike the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers, neither Mercedes driver had a new set of soft tyres available.
It’s unusual for Mercedes to miss a detail like that, but in reality they would probably have done the same thing even if those tyres were available. Certainly with Hamilton; with Bottas in hindsight a switch to softs could have netted a podium rather than a fourth.
So it was a long shot for Bottas to win the race, defending against Vettel on new soft tyres.
For Hamilton the gamble was more weighted in his favour. He had been at the back of the field after the Lap 1 collision with Raikkonen and his recovery drive had brought him back up towards the front. By leaving him out until Lap 25, Mercedes put him back out on track into the large gap between Raikkonen and Hulkenberg so he was able to drive in clear air at his maximum pace. But he was still over ten seconds adrift of Raikkonen.
The Safety Car brought him back into contention and by staying out as others pitted, he jumped up to third place. Behind him were Verstappen and Raikkonen on fresh soft tyres. Hamilton questioned this, but Mercedes’ calculations had showed that fifteen laps on relatively fresh mediums, with the Red Bull likely to hold Raikkonen for a while, Hamilton would not be passed from behind.
As it transpired, a second Safety Car was deployed soon after when Grosjean and Sainz collided, leaving just 10 laps of racing after the second restart.
This played into Mercedes’ hands on one side, but on the other they still had the handicap of the medium tyres taking longer to warm up at the restart compared to the softs.
But the gamble also accepted that Hamilton wasn’t going to win the race either. He would finish third, or second if Bottas had problems with the tyres. They were only four laps older than Hamilton’s, but once he was passed by Vettel with a brilliant move into Brooklands, Bottas dropped back and was passed by both Hamilton and Raikkonen. Verstappen retired.
It was a great win for Ferrari of the kind that they need to roll out consistently to take this championship. The execution was perfect on every front; effective chassis updates, perfect strategy and driver. The whole thing came together and Vettel leads the championship by eight points.
They – and Vettel himself particularly – have left too many points on the table this season. But at Silverstone they looked like a team that can win the world championship.
The question mark is repeatability.
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.
Look at the gap that Mercedes was able to put Hamilton back out into after his late stop, leaving him clear air. But he wouldn’t have caught the front runners without the Safety Car. Look also at the damage the early stop did to Raikkonen, coming out into traffic.