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Analysis: After three rounds of F1 2016 why is the racing better?

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Analysis: After three rounds of F1 2016 why is the racing better?
Apr 19, 2016, 2:57 PM

After three rounds it is abundantly clear that Race Strategy has become increasingly important and dynamic this season, due to the availability of ...

After three rounds it is abundantly clear that Race Strategy has become increasingly important and dynamic this season, due to the availability of three different tyre compounds, instead of two, for qualifying and the race.

This has led to more fluid races, where there are many overtakes, but they are not necessarily dependent on DRS. It is clear that decisions made throughout the weekend and even before the weekend starts, can have consequences and increase variability in the racing. Here we'll look at how this played out in China and what we can learn from it about the season ahead.

Of the 22 drivers in the field, 13 used all three compounds during the race. And it is also clear that teams change strategy quite a bit during the race depending on how events unfold. One of the most important events is the start and in China this had a huge bearing on how the race unfolded.

Start Chinese GP 2016

The Start defines the race for many

Nico Rosberg won the race, but many would argue that he won it on Saturday when he opted to set his Q2 qualifying time on soft tyres, rather than supersofts. Practice had shown that the degradation on the supersoft was extreme and that it would probably last only four or five laps in the race before performance would drop and it would need to be replaced. Strategists were briefing that a new supersoft tyre would last longer later in the race, perhaps 10-13 laps and Ferrari saved a new set for Vettel for that purpose.

So for Rosberg, starting on a set of Soft tyres that was capable of doing a first stint of 16-20 laps would put him in a strong position to control the race. Some of the front-runners, who pitted early, would fall behind cars starting outside the top ten on soft tyres – like Alonso and Grosjean - and he would build a winning margin.

This played out, but not the way he expected, as the accident-riddled start had several consequences.

Meanwhile Ferrari’s risk-averse decision not to pursue the soft tyre in Q2, but rather to do only one run on Sebastian Vettel’s car in Q3 and save a set of supersofts for the race had consequences, as he had a less than perfect Q3 lap and qualified in fourth behind Rosberg, Ricciardo and Raikkonen. This put him in traffic running into Turn 1, which led to a collision.

Vettel missing the expected chance to start on the front row allowed Ricciardo to take the chance to attack Rosberg off the line.

Chinese Grand Prix 2016

The only weakness of the Rosberg plan to start on softs was that the superior grip of Ricciardo’s supersofts off the line, combined with Mercedes’ inferior clutch performance, opened the door to the Red Bull man getting the jump. This is what happened. But it wasn’t the end of the world from Rosberg’s point of view, as he knew he would have a clear track from around Lap 6 onwards when Ricciardo pitted.

In fact it came clear sooner than that, as Ricciardo ran over debris from the accidents on the opening lap and got a puncture, forcing a stop on Lap 3. His recovery from that terrible piece of luck was one of the stories of the race.

Rosberg was able to run at his pace and do the race in a comfortable two stopper. He managed to get 23 laps out of his first set of soft tyres (Qualifying + 20) and did a 16 lap middle stint. He could have run longer on that stint but pitted on Lap 36 to cover Vettel and Kvyat who had stopped a lap earlier in their battle for second place.

Rosberg’s first stint tyre life showed what might have been possible for team mate Hamilton, who had a difficult weekend with an engine problem on Saturday sending him to the back of the grid and then further problems in the race, caught up in another first lap tangle and with a damaged car as a result.

He stopped twice under the Safety Car to fulfil the obligation to use two tyre compounds, without losing time as the field was bunched up behind the Safety Car.

The problem was that he then had 50 laps to do on two sets of Softs if he wanted to one stop from there, or be forced to use a set of mediums. Based on Rosberg’s tyre life that could be possible, but the back up set of Soft tyres he had taken at the start had a cut in them and so were not usable again. On top of that the car damage meant an imbalance, which used up the tyres more quickly, so he had to make an additional stop for mediums on Lap 30.

Daniel Ricciardo

Ricciardo recovers from setback while leading - Vettel and Kvyat do battle

Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull led for the first time this season, but it was short lived due to the puncture mentioned above.

However his recovery was impressive, especially as he had the double whammy of a Safety Car deployment just after his forced pit stop.

There is a common misconception that a Safety Car just after a pitstop is an advantage. This is perhaps based on the infamous Renault victory for Fernando Alonso in Singapore in 2008.

It is not the case with modern F1 rules and especially not in Ricciardo’s position, because the Safety Car was deployed on his outlap, so he wasn’t able to use the performance of the new Soft tyres he had taken on, to gain time and track positions.

As a consequence his outlap was 2m19.444s; 14 seconds slower than at racing speeds. There was no gain in track positions for him, so he had all the hard work to do from 17th place with all the cars in front of him now either on new tyres or on relatively new soft tyres for a long stint.

The way to view it is that a Safety Car will save you time on a stop compared to a stop at racing speeds. In China, where a stop takes around 22 seconds, it reduces the time lost to around 10-11 seconds.

F1 Safety Car

But it’s not automatic that you take advantage of one. If you have a strategy to run long, as Rosberg and the rest of the soft tyre runners had, then you don’t take a stop under a Safety Car on Lap 4. However if it falls in or close to a pit stop window, then you usually do take it and bank the time saved versus a stop at racing speeds, as long as you can make the finish on a competitive strategy from there, in other words within the projected life of the tyres you plan to use.

We flagged up in the winter testing reports that Ricciardo’s long runs in Barcelona showed that he had low degradation figures compared to many of his rivals and he used this to great effect on the middle stint to run longer and to build an offset against the cars he would encounter later in the race, like Hamilton and the two Williams cars.

He was able to jump Alonso, Button and Sainz through the second stop phase to move up to 7th and from there he could exploit the 6-7 lap tyre offset to pick off Massa, Bottas and Hamilton and finish 4th.

Meanwhile in their battle for second place, Vettel fell to 8th on the opening lap due to a tangle with his team mate but eventually overcame Daniil Kvyat, who had been involved in triggering that collision.

Daniil Kvyat, Sebastian Vettel

He did so thanks to that Saturday tyre decision, whereby he had saved a set of new supersofts for the second stint, so he was able to cut through traffic in the second stint and make up ground and then crucially also had a new set of softs available for the final stint. Kvyat did not and was forced to go onto mediums. (This was the mistake Ferrari made in Australia and haven’t made since)

Vettel lined up the undercut at the final stop, but Red Bull read it well and they pitted on the same lap, 35, which was the earliest Vettel could stop and take a set of softs competitively to the finish.

Vettel was able to use the superior pace of the Ferrari on soft tyres to pass the Red Bull that struggled to warm up the mediums quickly after the stop.

So you can see that in addition to some great overtaking on the track, much of it not dependent on DRS, the new three tyre compound rule has meant that decisions taken as early as Saturday all have consequences and it has made for three very good races to start the 2016 season.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists, from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow and from Pirelli

Race History Chart and Tyre Usage – kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing - Click to Enlarge

Vertical axis - gaps between cars in seconds

Horizontal axis - Lap number

Look how Vettel (red line) uses the pace of the new set of supersoft tyres he had saved, to cut through traffic between laps 4 and 17 and set himself up for a battle with Kvyat in the third and fourth stints of the race.

Note also the pace advantage of the Mercedes over the field. If Vettel had started on the front row his curve would have looked much more like Rosberg’s. This has to be regarded as a missed opportunity for Ferrari which has now had its first three races undermined by a strategy mistake, reliability issue and now driver error respectively.

Williams Martini Racing

Williams Martini Racing
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