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Analysis: When F1 strategy turns into gamesmanship. Mercedes vs Ferrari needle in Italian Grand Prix

Analysis: When F1 strategy turns into gamesmanship. Mercedes vs Ferrari needle in Italian Grand Prix
Sep 5, 2017, 1:51 PM

The Italian Grand Prix is never the most interesting race of the season from a strategy point of view, being a certain one stop race.

The Italian Grand Prix is never the most interesting race of the season from a strategy point of view, being a certain one stop race. But in terms of strategic gamesmanship between Mercedes and Ferrari it was utterly fascinating.

It was clear from Friday practice that Mercedes had the faster package for Monza, which was not unexpected. But Ferrari didn’t get on top of the set up of the car on Friday and couldn’t fix it on Saturday because it rained.

After performing poorly in the wet qualifying, Ferrari found itself not only behind both Mercedes, but also two cars from Mercedes’ customer teams Williams and Force India.

Here we will analyse what went on from that point, which so unsettled Ferrari and how the tactic behind it may have as much to do with the next race in Singapore as with Monza.

We will also look at how Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull picked a counter strategy right out of Sergio Perez’ Monza playbook to secure a magnificent fourth place, beating the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.

But curiously Perez didn’t ‘do a Perez’ on this occasion.

Pre-race expectations

Monza has traditionally been a one-stop race, as the relative pace of the cars out on track at 350km/h compared to those travelling at 80km/h in the pit lane, makes it less attractive to do more stops.

This year once again Pirelli brought the supersoft tyre in addition to the soft and mediums. As so often this season with these harder tyres, the teams used only the two softer compounds in the race.

Both were good for 30 laps in the race and there wasn’t a significant pace deficit from the supersoft to the soft. The stop laps were fairly clear however the degradation was lower on race day than on Friday, as expected, so there was room to play with.

The race was unusual in several ways; as it rained in qualifying the teams had a free choice of starting tyre, rather than the usual constraints on the Top 10 runners of using their qualifying set. Most opted for supersoft, for better grip off the line. And it was also a race without a single yellow flag, which happens extremely rarely.

The grid had the two works Mercedes in the top four split by the customer Mercedes engined Williams of Stroll and Force India of Ocon. The Ferraris lined up fifth and sixth with Raikkonen ahead of Vettel.

Further back Verstappen and Ricciardo, with engine penalties, opted to start on the soft tyre; the early phase of the race, when they were being held up by slower cars, was the best time to use the slower tyre, then benefit from the faster tyre later in clear air. If you do this, the rule is don’t have a collision which requires an early stop as the supersoft won’t make the finish and you have to stop again (as the rules say two tyre compounds must be used in a dry race)

This is what happened to Verstappen after contact with Massa and it wrecked his race.

Alonso and Grosjean, starting at the back used the same counter strategy as Red Bull. This was unusual for Alonso, who likes to start on the same tyre as the front-runners, however lowly his grid slot.

Ricciardo does a Perez – from 16th to 4th and ahead of Kimi Raikkonen

One of the standout drives of the day was Daniel Ricciardo, who came within four seconds of a podium finish after starting the race in 16th place, due to an engine penalty. He used the same counter-strategy he had employed in 2015 to go from P15 to P8 and which Sergio Perez had used to great effect for Sauber in 2012, where he rose from P12 on the grid to P2.

The idea is to start on the harder tyre, run a longer first stint and then attack on the softer tyre at the end. It works very well at Monza because it is possible to overtake.

Ricciardo’s target was the Ferraris. The Red Bull had looked a match for Ferrari on race pace in Friday practice. But he had many cars to clear and time would be lost relative to the Ferraris, unless they were held up by Ocon and Stroll.

Vettel cleared them, but Raikkonen struggled and this sowed the seeds of his undoing.

Force India and Williams are in a battle of their own for fourth in the constructor’s championship and so were focussed on each other strategically in this race. When Ocon passed Stroll at the start, the teenager stayed with him and Raikkonen trailed the pair.

The thing to do in a situation like Ferrari were in is to let them undercut each other and stay out past that point, using the superior Ferrari pace, then clear them at your own stop.

That did not happen in this case because Raikkonen was calling for new tyres insistently, before Ferrari pitted him on Lap 15. The problem with that move is the undercut only works when the new tyres in your garage are significantly faster than the ones on your car. In this situation, at the end of Lap 14 with low degradation, this was not the case.

Raikkonen got Stroll, because the Canadian had a slow stop, but Ocon was easily able to cover off both and retain position.

All of this played into the hands of Ricciardo and Red Bull. He ran a long first stint, and then picked Raikkonen off when his new supersofts were superior to Raikkonen’s used softs.

He almost caught Vettel for third place at the end, but the Ferrari driver held him off.

What was going on here? Force India and Williams further ahead of midfield pace than normal

So let’s go one step back and consider the role of the two outliers in this race situation. The race history graph (below) is quite telling this week; the Force India and Williams cars enjoyed a larger performance margin over the other midfield runners than normal and more than they had in Canada, another low downforce circuit. So why was that?

Well one theory has to do with the way Mercedes may have chosen to run the engines in Ocon and Stroll’s cars on Sunday (as well as in the works cars)

Finding themselves in a position where they had Stroll and Ocon as a buffer between themselves and Ferrari, there was a further opportunity; not only to maximise the points gained over their rivals, but also to embarrass them on home soil, which would inevitably have consequences.

These hybrid F1 engines have various modes in which they can be run and it relates to the ‘damage’ that the supplier will allow the drivers to do to the engine by running at the maximum regime. You normally run the maximum for the start of the race and after a Safety Car but apart from that you turn it down to try to minimise the damage and hence increase the reliability and longevity of the engines.

Force India and Williams are usually strong cars in straight line speed anyway, it's a speciality. However close analysis of the data on end of the straight speeds at Monza on Sunday indicates that Mercedes allowed Hamilton and Bottas as well as their two customers Ocon and Stroll, to have more damage on the engine for longer in this race than normal.

For example, through the speed trap into Turn 1 the Mercedes engined cars were doing between 328-330km/h without a tow (with a tow it was up to 350km/h). Interestingly there is not much distinction between the works cars using the series 4 engine and the customers using series 3 here. This went on for much of the race.

Meanwhile the Ferrari was doing 316-318km/h consistently, a deficit of around 10km/h every lap on the straight.

Vettel finished 36 seconds behind the winner Hamilton after 53 laps and the customers spoiled Raikkonen’s day. On the podium Hamilton even said, “Mercedes power is better than Ferrari power” just to rub it in.

Afterwards, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne called it ‘embarrassing’.

There is an old insiders' saying, "In F1 you are either giving pain or taking it."

It is tempting to read this race as follows: Mercedes knew that they were going to win Monza anyway, but the race presented an opportunity to inflict some pain on Ferrari at their home Grand Prix, when the red team is always on edge anyway. And by maximising all their assets to try to unsettle Ferrari, it might have a knock on effect on their preparations for the next race, one that Ferrari is expected to win, in Singapore.

Back at Maranello, Ferrari has to be really strong now to quickly forget Monza and be sure to bring their A game to Singapore. Vettel was right after the race to focus on the positives, rather than to let rip on the negatives, as the chairman Sergio Marchionne did.

Vettel knew that Monza was not going to be Ferrari’s weekend before he arrived in the paddock on Thursday, but he doesn’t want to let the team lose focus before Singapore; a race they now quite simply must win.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.

RACE HISTORY GRAPH, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing - click to enlarge

Showing the gaps in seconds between cars and therefore the performance difference. An upward curve indicates good relative pace, downward curve the opposite. Sharp drop indicates a pit stop.

Look at the pace of Ocon and Stroll in the first stint compared to the rest of the midfield runners (eg Toro Rosso, Renault) with whom they are normally closely matched. It is greater than normal. This is partly due to the unusual situation of the Mercedes engine being run at a high regime.

Look at the difference in stop lap between Raikkonen (L15) and Vettel (L31) Raikkonen could have waited for Stroll to attempt an undercut on Ocon and then pitted later to overcut them both.

Also note the progress of Ricciardo once he managed to get some clear air. He didn’t panic when his tyres were getting hot in traffic but drove through it and got his rewards at the end of the race with fourth place.

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