Close run, but Could Hamilton have lost to Massa in Abu Dhabi another way?
The final round of the 2014 world championship saw a bold strategy play by Williams, attempting to win the race and coming within 2.
The final round of the 2014 world championship saw a bold strategy play by Williams, attempting to win the race and coming within 2.5 seconds of the winner Lewis Hamilton, so could he have won it?
It also saw great drives on counter strategies from Daniel Ricciardo, who went from the pit lane to fourth and Nico Hulkenberg, 12th to 6th.
So here is our final deep dive of the season into the how the strategies affected the outcome of the race.
Hamilton vs Massa
The race result shows that Felipe Massa finished 2.5 seconds behind Lewis Hamilton after the Williams team took a bold decision to take the more aggressive tyres for the final stint to attack Hamilton. So how close did they come to winning the race and was there any way it might have happened?
With Abu Dhabi being unusual in that the temperatures drop over the course of the race as night falls, the Williams team was adamant that the supersoft was a better tyre for the final stint, when the conditions would preserve it for longer than in the opening stint.
In fact if you overlay the degradation of the supersoft tyre in both Massa’s first and final stints, there is little difference. So that is one reason why the bold plan didn’t come off. Another is that Hamilton reacted and did just enough to hold Massa off, while at the same time not pushing his car too hard, knowing that Rosberg’s car had hit ERS problems and the same could happen to him.
When Hamilton was informed that Rosberg was out of contention due to his ERS problems, he backed off. This was partly due to not wanting to bring on any problems for his own car and also knowing that the title was in the bag. Arguably he backed off too much and the tyres dropped out of their ideal temperature window, which meant he had some lock-ups, with the result that they didn’t go as long as planned in the middle stint.
At the same time, Williams were satisfied that they had consolidated their valuable third place in the Constructors’ Championship and, seeing that Hamilton was coasting, they decided to go aggressive with Massa and try to end the season with a win. When Hamilton pitted on Lap 31, Massa took the lead and stayed there until Lap 43. At this point, one option was to take that set of tyres to the end of the race, forcing Hamilton to pass him on track.
Another was to pit later on and then attack Hamilton on the super soft tyres, which are much easier to overtake with.
Mercedes convinced Hamilton that he needed to push in his final stint and he traded off increasing his pace, with not overstressing the car, driving to a pace given to him by the team, which was based on their predictions of the rate at which the supersoft would degrade on Massa’s car in the final stint.
Williams would have needed to run a shorter, flat out final stint, but Hamilton would always have been able to turn everything up and resist in a car, which had more fundamental pace. So it was worth a shot by Williams and they did all the right things, but Mercedes had it covered.
Ricciardo and Hulkenberg – making the counter strategy work
The other big strategy talking point was the cars, which started the race on the soft tyres. This was a really good option in Abu Dhabi because the soft is a better race tyre generally than the supersoft, which is quite weak and, once pushed, suffered front right graining which was not recoverable.
The teams wanted to get off the supersoft as quickly as possible, but it wasn’t necessary to be too extreme. Ferrari got this wrong with Alonso, pulling him in on Lap 5. He lost out as a result of the early stop. He also had poor pace as he was down on power with his Ferrari engine, due to it being close to the end of life. Perhaps for reasons of pride they had not wanted to take a sixth engine, as Vettel did, in Austin even though they were in a similar situation to Vettel, having lost an engine on Alonso’s car at Monza.
A number of cars tried the counter strategy on Sunday, including the two Red Bulls, which had to start the race in the pit lane after disqualification on Saturday and Hulkenberg, who qualified 12th. This was the fifth time in the last six races that Hulkenberg had been forced to start on the harder compound, largely due to the fact that the Force India had been outdeveloped by the other teams and therefore qualified behind them. But here once again Hulkenberg turned that into a 6th place finish, turning in another brilliant drive, as did Ricciardo who once again demonstrated his outstanding ability to push hard at the right moments and still look after the rear tyres.
The thinking behind the counter strategy on a fast car out of position is this: as the supersoft is a weaker tyre and you cannot push it early on in the race when the car is heavy you take the soft because you want to run as much of the race as possible at your normal speed. The weakness of the plan is that if there is a Lap 1 Safety Car, you lose out. Everyone else comes in to get off the supersoft tyre and you’ve not drawn full advantage.
You have however gained track positions from all the cars in front of you pitting, which is a nice compensation, but it makes for a different kind of race.
A word on Pirelli in 2014
The final thing to say this season as we close the book on 2014 Race Strategy is a word on Pirelli. After enduring a nightmare 2013 with exploding tyres and heavy criticism from drivers, they did an excellent job in 2014.
Yes, there is work to do on the supersoft and wet tyres and yes, they were too conservative in some of the tyre compund choices, like in Sochi. But in general the tyres in 2014 made for great racing and there were many memorable overtakes and exciting battles as a result.
Yas Marina Circuit has never been one for great racing, so the fact that this was the best Abu Dhabi Grand Prix of the six we have had so far shows how big a part the tyres played in this season.
The strategies have been interesting on many occasions and added interest, especially in so many races where Mercedes has dominated. If that had happened on Bridgestones it would not have been anything like as interesting.
Pirelli has been criticised a lot over the last three years, fairly on a number of occasions, so it’s only fair to give them praise now for a job well done in 2014 and for their contribution to a lot of great racing and great strategy.
The UBS Strategy Report is prepared by JA on F1, with input and data from several F1 teams' strategists and from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow.
Race History Chart
Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing - Click to enlarge
Note how Hamilton’s (blue) lines are notably more ‘saggy’ then normal, showing that he’s not pushing like he usually does without the threat from Rosberg. His pace drops off around lap 24 after he is informed that Rosberg has ERS problems and is out of contention. He is also relatively slow in the opening part of the final stint.
In contrast note Massa’s consistency of pace on the long second stint and his attack mode on the final stint. Hamilton had reacted in time, to cover it off.
Also look at Ricciardo (dotted purple) and his long first stint on softs, where he gets to Lap 27 still with good pace and is able to pit and rejoin with most of the cars he’s passed staying behind him. It’s a textbook counter strategy play.
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Close run, but Could Hamilton have lost to Massa in Abu Dhabi another way?
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