There’s a saying among F1 strategists that the faster and more dominant the car, the easier the strategy calls.
This is because the margin for error is so large; if you make a mistake the car is fast enough relative to the competition that it is recoverable.
The calls made in the tightly-packed midfield are much more finely balanced.
The Japanese Grand Prix saw a series of problem decisions for Ferrari in qualifying and the race, while in the midfield we saw an excellent battle between the Force India, Haas, Renault and Toro Rosso cars and some interesting tactics going on.
While it’s fair to say that Lewis Hamilton had the edge in Suzuka, there was a second place there for the taking for Sebastian Vettel to keep his slim world championship hopes alive a little longer and he may even have been able to put some pressure on Hamilton in the race, if he had managed to get himself up there in qualifying.
Instead, as the dark clouds loomed before the decisive Q3 session, Ferrari sent both cars to the end of the pit lane first, fitted with intermediate tyres, had to later back out of that decision and as the two drivers then faced pressure on their hot laps, they made individual driving errors that confined Vettel to ninth and Raikkonen to fourth.
Suzuka often puts the teams and drivers on their mettle with changeable conditions like this, as does Interlagos, Brazil. In a championship fight the strategy team will normally assess what choice the main rival makes and cover that, but with Hamilton having outscored Vettel by 75 points to 42 from the Italian GP onwards, Ferrari clearly wanted to go aggressive. The reason for going down the pit lane first was to have the best visibility in the rain that was expected. There were several other possible scenarios and options and no real need to show your hand.
The irony of the situation is that the track was arguably in slightly better condition at 15-59pm local time, when the Ferraris set their definitive lap times, than two minutes earlier when the Mercedes drivers and Verstappen set theirs. So the situation was still recoverable.
In the race, Vettel made an excellent start and was soon up to fourth, with the Mercedes and Verstappen ahead.
At this point Verstappen was on the super soft tyres and had been given a five second time penalty to serve at the first pit stop. Mercedes were on the soft tyre, so likely to run longer, and were getting away up front. Vettel, also on supersofts, needed not to lose touch with them, but equally knew that Verstappen was only a temporary block. In the end the Red Bull went to Lap 22 before stopping, so Vettel was correct that he needed to pass him and Lap 8 was way too early to think about an undercut.
Another longer term consideration at this point was that Mercedes was committed to running the medium tyre in the long second stint, whereas Vettel would be using the faster soft tyre in his second stint and might therefore have the chance to attack Bottas, who was not on Hamilton’s level at Suzuka, later in the race.
Vettel went aggressive, lunging for the overtake at Spoon corner, rather than waiting for the DRS at the start of the next lap and collided with Verstappen, dropping down to 19th, an uncomfortable echo of the opening lap of the Italian GP at Monza.
The midfield battle has been very entertaining this season with intense battles, often decided by strategy calls.
In Suzuka the grid had a nicely mixed-up look, with Grosjean fifth for Haas, Hartley and Gasly sixth and seventh for Toro Rosso, Perez ninth (after Ocon was dropped to 11th for a penalty and Leclerc tenth for Sauber with a free choice of starting tyres. Sainz was 13th for Renault.
And yet they finished in the order: Perez, Grosjean, Ocon, Sainz, with Gasly narrowly missing out on a point in 11th.
So how did that come about?
Grosjean held his position over Perez at the start, with Gasly between them, while Ocon slipped ahead of Hartley, who had a poor start and dropped to 10th. Leclerc slipped to 13th, as Sainz moved up to 12th.
Grosjean, like the Mercedes drivers, had started the race on the soft tyres he had used in Q2, quite an unusual move for a midfield team and one that clearly showed the confidence Haas has at the moment in the pace of its car. Normally trying to get through Q2 on the second fastest tyre is the preserve of the top teams only.
Perez was right with Gasly and 3.5 seconds behind Grosjean when he pitted on Lap 24 and switched to the soft tyres for the second stint. Grosjean and Gasly continued on until Lap 29. Ocon pitted on Lap 26 as Force India split the strategies, putting the Frenchman onto mediums.
The temperatures on race day were significantly hotter than the rest of the weekend and there were therefore some question marks about which would be the better tyre. Sainz had started on new softs and went to Lap 32 before switching to mediums.
Perez came out behind Sirotkin in the Williams and lost time, which meant that when Grosjean stopped he was able to get back out ahead of the Mexican. Ocon then suffered the same fate two laps later, but was able to pass the Russian after a lap, which was important as he was attempting to jump Gasly.
A slow stop for the Toro Rosso driver on Lap 29 didn’t help and Gasly dropped behind both Force Indias.
Gasly was not helped by the two Sauber drivers on a covert ‘spoiler’ strategy, holding him up after his stop, to make life difficult for him as the two teams are locked in a close Constructors’ championship battle.
Sainz and Renault saw the opportunity to take advantage; Sainz offset himself to Gasly, stayed out until Lap 32 and dropped five seconds to Gasly in the process. But in the final few laps his pace on mediums was stronger than Gasly’s on fading soft tyres and he was able to pass him. So Toro Rosso had the double whammy of being undercut by the Force Indias and yet running out of tyre performance before the end of the race, an unusual and very unfortunate combination.
Renault had sent Hulkenberg out on a reverse strategy at the start on the medium tyre, the intention being to get him involved in the race effort of Sainz’ rivals to help his team mate climb the ladder, so there were some interesting tactics at play one way or another.
Grosjean meanwhile had some issues with telemetry, but maintained his lead over Perez until the Virtual Safety Car was deployed for Leclerc’s retirement.
As the race restarted, Perez was sharper and forced his way through, thereby winning the midfield battle.
As is so often the case, had the midfield competition been for the overall race win, this would have been a thoroughly entertaining Grand Prix!
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.