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Balancing risk and reward: The big decisions behind the Belgian Grand Prix

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Balancing risk and reward: The big decisions behind the Belgian Grand Prix
Aug 27, 2013, 10:11 PM

The Belgian Grand Prix was not one of the most exciting races of the 2013 season but the weekend featured some fascinating strategic decision makin...

The Belgian Grand Prix was not one of the most exciting races of the 2013 season but the weekend featured some fascinating strategic decision making, which had a significant bearing on the outcome of the race.

In a slight departure from the normal scope of this report, in addition to looking at the race strategies, we will also look at the strategic decisions taken at the end of qualifying on Saturday, which affected both qualifying and the race.

Decisive moments in Qualifying

In many ways the qualifying session in Spa was more entertaining than the race and it certainly featured some significant moments of decision-making. The Q1 session was wet to start with and drying at the end and the smaller Caterham and Marussia teams, with nothing to lose, successfully gambled on switching to dry tyres before the end, which led to three of the four backmarkers making it through to Q2, at the expense of both Williams and Toro Rosso drivers. However from 19th place on the grid Daniel Ricciardo was able to come through in the race, using strategy, to gain a point for 10th place.

But the really significant strategy decision faced the leading teams when rain began to fall during the final Q3 session. Those who had gone out on dry tyres were forced to pit for intermediates. Force India however gambled from the start with Paul di Resta, delaying their departure from the pits at the start of the session, to confirm their belief that rain would fall.

So he was on track on the right tyres as the others returned to the pits and he set a competitive lap time, which looked for a while like it could be pole position as the rain fell more heavily. It was a bold call by Force India, but the right one for the conditions. It was beyond their control that the rain eased off in the final few minutes of qualifying, which allowed four cars, now on intermediate tyres, to beat his time. Di Resta was fuelled for more laps, but his tyres didn't have another good lap left in them, so he was sitting in the pits when the pole lap was set.

In wet conditions the time penalty for carrying a few laps of extra fuel is minimal compared to dry conditions and the big gains come from being out on the track so you can adapt to the changing weather conditions and profit from any improvement in them, which is what Mercedes and Red Bull did.

This required the team fuelling the cars, when they pitted for intermediates, for enough laps to remain out on track at the end. Not everyone got this bit right; Hamilton, Vettel and Webber were fuelled for three laps, Rosberg, Alonso, Button and the Lotus pair for two. Rosberg did a superb job to take 4th, but wasn’t on track when the track was at its best. Alonso was but he had spun, losing the initiative, while the Lotus cars were not as competitive in the wet as they had been in the dry Q2 session.

Ferrari had short-fuelled Massa for one quick lap, so he would get out ahead of the rest and this gave him optimum track conditions for that moment. But it also meant that he wasn’t on track at the end when the faster times were set.

This is strange because although there is a clear upside in running on a clear track, there was also a lot of risk in this strategy; there was plenty of evidence from the changeover from Q1 to Q2, that the track dried very quickly. So any slight easing in the rain would leave Massa exposed, as it subsequently proved. He ended up 10th.

The key ingredient then was timing and Red Bull and Mercedes got this right with Hamilton and Vettel in particular. Hamilton crossed the line with two seconds to spare to start his final qualifying lap, Vettel was just ahead of him. So the teams gave both drivers the best chance of getting the desired result. Hamilton duly took pole ahead of Vettel.

The point here is that, although on the face of it rain makes it a “lottery” and there was some luck involved in the rain easing off at the end, by giving the drivers enough fuel to be out on circuit to the very end, they gave them a chance to master the situation, whatever may arise. As JA on F1 technical adviser and former Williams strategy chief Mark Gillan observed, “Luck? Possibly, but in my experience the better people tend to be in a position to capitalise. The timing here was exquisite.”

Q3 is only 10 minutes long and a lap of Spa in those conditions was around two minutes, so there isn’t much time and wrong calls can have a profound impact.

Pre-race expectations and strategies of note

The pre-race predictions showed that the difference between one stop and two stops was only around a second, with the wear rate and degradation on the medium and hard tyres not showing significant differences. But there was a pace difference, with the medium around 0.8secs per lap faster than the hard.

With a dry race following a wet qualifying session the choice of starting tyre was open and most people opted for the softer tyre, the medium. One notable exception was Daniel Ricciardo who started on the hard tyre and did a long first stint. When he stopped on lap 16 he had risen to 13th place and he resumed in 17th. He then ran the rest of the race on the faster medium tyre and this brought him up to 11th at his second stop and he was able to come through Vergne and Perez, both on the hard tyre, in the final stint to finish 10th.

Jenson Button tried to do a one-stop strategy, the same as he had won the race with 12 months earlier. McLaren appeared confident before the race that their car had low enough degradation on the tyres to achieve this, but as it turned out Button was forced to make a second stop on lap 34, ten laps from the finish, when he was running third.

At the time there was a possible threat of rain and had that happened and had Button been able to drive to the moment when everyone needed to pit for wet tyres, he would have been on the podium. But with Grosjean, also on a one-stop strategy and catching him at almost a second a lap, Button had time to pit and rejoin ahead, which he did. So he finished where he started in sixth. Normally being forced to switch strategies like that carries a heavy penalty, but Button was helped by Massa, against whom he was racing, not having much pace in his Ferrari and not posing any threat to him.

In contrast the other Ferrari of Fernando Alonso managed to go from 9th on the grid to 2nd at the finish, thanks to a superb start, which gained him four places and he then passed Button and Rosberg. He was second when he pitted on lap 13. By staying out two laps longer than Hamilton, he was right behind the Mercedes when it came out of the pits and was able to pass him for second place. This gave him the result he would have had if he had qualified where he might have done with a perfect execution.

The other interesting decision was Webber and Red Bull opting for the hard tyre at the first stop, very much against the tide. Webber had another poor start due to a clutch problem and dropped from third to sixth on the opening lap. He stopped a lap before Vettel, who went for the medium, but ran a similar length stint of 16 laps, so wasn’t able to take the advantage of running a longer middle stint, to set him up for a quick blast on new medium tyres at the end. His lap times in the second stint, behind Nico Rosberg were almost a second slower than Vettel’s and so he wasn’t able to take the upside gain of a longer middle stint.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists, from Mark Gillan and from Pirelli

TYRE STRATEGIES

Vettel:MU MN (14) HN (30)

Alonso: MN MU (13) HN (28)

Hamilton: MN MU (11) HN (26)

Rosberg: MU MN (12) HN (25)

Webber: MU HN (13) MN (29)

Button: MU HN (17) HN (34)

Massa: MN MU (9) HN (26)

Grosjean: MU HN (22)

Sutil: MN HN (11) HN (26)

Ricciardo: HN MN (16) MN (33)

Perez: MN DT (13) HN (18)

Vergne: MN MN (10) HN (24)

Hülkenberg: MN HN (9) HN (24)

Gutierrez: HN MN (19) MN (28) DT (41)

Bottas: MN HN (14) HN (28)

Van Der Garde: MN HN (15) HN (29)

Maldonado: MN HN (11) HN (27) SG (38)

Bianchi: HN MN (14) HN (28)

Chilton: HN MN (15) HN (29) DT (32)

Retired:

Di Resta: MN HN (10) HN (25)

Räikkönen: MU MU (14)

Pic: MN

M = Medium compound

H = Hard compound

N = New compound

U = Used compound

NC = Not classified

DT = Drive Through Penalty

SG = Stop/Go Penalty (10 seconds)

RACE HISTORY GRAPH

Courtesy Williams F1 Team

The zero line is simply the race winner’s average lap time (total race time divided by the number of race laps). This is why his curve can go above the line if he’s lapping faster than his average, and below the line if he’s slower than his average or doing a pitstop.

The vertical axis is the gap behind the leader, the horizontal axis is the number of laps.

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