Could Raikkonen have won Bahrain and did Mercedes leave Rosberg at Vettel's mercy?
The Bahrain Grand Prix was not only the best race of the season so far.
The Bahrain Grand Prix was not only the best race of the season so far. It was also a perfect example of how modern F1 at its best combines strategy and overtaking in a high-speed chess game.
The grid line-up featuring the two Mercedes and Ferrari cars on the front two rows promised a game of cat and mouse and so it proved, with some surprising outcomes, but more importantly some clear pointers for what the rest of this season is going to be like.
Kimi Raikkonen finished second for Ferrari, but could he have won the race? And did Mercedes leave Nico Rosberg out to dry when Sebastan Vettel twice undercut him at the pit stops? Here we have the answers.
Before Sunday’s Grand Prix it was clear that the default race strategy was going to be two stops for most cars, but with a few fast cars out of position, like Pastor Maldonado 16th and Daniil Kvyat 17th, there were likely to be some different strategies at play. Maldonado looked set to make a 3 stop work pretty well until problems and a penalty intervened.
It was clear from the grid line up that Ferrari was going to be aggressive, with Vettel second and Raikkonen fourth always likely to use two divergent strategies to beat the Mercedes ahead of them and Mercedes were prepared for that. So let’s look in detail at why things worked out as they did.
Could Raikkonen have won the race with different decisions?
Many fans and commentators have asked whether Raikkonen had a chance to win the race, given that he caught Hamilton at the end. Clearly no-one could have known Hamilton would have a brake issue on the last lap, which might have made anything possible had there been a couple more laps.
But based on the race we had, if Raikkonen had pitted a couple of laps earlier in his second stint, for example, when he was losing time on worn tyres, could he have had a chance to overtake Hamilton at the end?
This is an interesting question; Raikkonen was probably the fastest car in the race on Sunday, but he had two problems: he had qualified fourth out of the top four cars so he had the most ground to make up.
And he lost time in the opening stint as he could not pass his team mate. For the rest of the race, after the first stops, Raikkonen had better pace than anyone else.
He’d jumped Rosberg for third at the start, but lost the place back three laps later. This was the first of three occasions in the race when Rosberg passed a Ferrari; the other two were on Vettel.
Once the pattern was established in the opening stint, Raikkonen knew he could go faster if he was ahead of Vettel and he suggested as much on the radio but they held position until Vettel made an aggressive first stop to undercut Rosberg.
Raikkonen stayed out. Ferrari’s strategy with him was the opposite of Vettel’s; to offset him against the other cars, which they exaggerated further by putting him onto the medium tyre in the second stint. This strategy was all about having him on the soft tyre for a short final stint where he would be able to attack the Mercedes in the last couple of laps.
It went better than expected as Raikkonen had excellent pace on the medium tyre, faster in that middle stint than Vettel and Rosberg and equal to Hamilton, all of whom were on the supposedly faster soft tyre.
The key question is; did he stay out too long at the end of that stint, when he was losing up to two seconds per lap? The answer is probably a lap too long, but no more than that.
And it would not have made much difference to the outcome if he had pitted earlier as the point of that strategy is to have as large an offset as possible in tyre pace in the final laps. Raikkonen did 17 laps on the softs at the end, to do 19 laps would have been suboptimal and he would have simply come across Rosberg two laps earlier, but would not have had the pace differential necessary to pass him. It needs to all come together at the end when there’s still plenty of life in the softs and the other car is losing performance on mediums.
As it was Raikkonen caught him quickly, but spent three laps behind him, before he finally managed to pass when Rosberg suffered a brake problem.
Although it looks painful at the end of the second stint when losing a second or two per lap it’s about balancing that out against the performance difference at the end, which is what will give you the chance to overtake.
The stop was probably a lap later than ideal because Raikkonen wasn’t convinced that the soft was the right tyre to go with for the final stint and they were probably giving the driver peace of mind.
So it wasn’t that delayed final stop that cost him the shot at winning. Arguably two other factors played a bigger part; First his grid slot. If Raikkonen had qualified in Vettel’s second place grid slot, with the race pace he had, then it would have been a different race. Also if Ferrari had let him pass Vettel around Lap 8 in the opening stint he would have reached second position sooner and could have mounted a challenge from there.
Did Mercedes allow Rosberg to be undercut by Vettel?
One reason why Ferrari did not let Raikkonen pass Vettel is because they were planning to go aggressive with Vettel’s strategy and undercut Rosberg at the first stops, which were only a few laps away at that point. Some have argued that this made Vettel a sacrifice, to ensure Raikkonen's smooth passage through, as Mercedes would have to cover Vettel's stop with Rosberg and then Hamilton; in other words, Ferrari set the agenda for Mercedes here.
Mercedes knew the undercut was coming; they expected it from Lap 12 onwards and in fact Ferrari was less aggressive than it might have been, because they didn't have a big enough gap back to Sergio Perez on Lap 12, so waited until Lap 13.
In this situation the lead car is always at a disadvantage. The car behind can suddenly pit, take on new soft tyres and then attack on the outlap, looking to make up the target 2.5 seconds on the other car, which is what the new tyre gives you.
The lead car reacts, pits to cover the undercut, but if the other car has done his job and gained all of that 2.5 seconds of new tyre advantage, then you lose the place. Vettel was perfectly placed at 1.8 seconds behind before his stop on Lap 13.
If Rosberg had pitted on Lap 13 to pre-empt the undercut, he would simply have been more vulnerable to the soft tyre attack from Raikkonen at the end.
However, there is another side to this. In order to make the undercut you have to push the tyres very hard on the opening lap, which overheats them and causes problems later in the stint and you also deplete the ERS battery fully. This leaves you vulnerable on the following lap, when the car you’ve just undercut now has the new tyre advantage and he’s got a full ERS battery to deploy on the main straight. It’s very cat and mouse stuff, but this is what goes through the minds of F1 strategists in these races.
This scenario is precisely what happened on Lap 15, when Rosberg re-passed Vettel as they came down the straight, with Hamilton exiting the pits ahead. That overtake was all about Rosberg having full ERS power to deploy and Vettel still recuperating from his fast out lap.
It is true that Mercedes made mistakes, which allowed Vettel to undercut in the first place. The stop was slow, around 0.8 seconds slower than optimum and the strategy team hadn’t quite allowed enough gap to Vettel in the first place. But Rosberg was able to make up for it and repass.
It was risky by Mercedes and they didn’t get it right, but Rosberg saved their blushes.
However the second undercut was different; here Mercedes had no choice but to leave Rosberg out to dry when Vettel pitted, because stopping Rosberg first risked compromising Hamilton’s race victory, which was Mercedes’ priority by this stage.
Vettel pitted on Lap 32 and the optimal lap for Hamilton to pit was Lap 33, so Mercedes brought him in first, rather than cover Vettel’s stop with Rosberg and then brought Rosberg in a lap later. They had to do this with Hamilton once Vettel had stopped in case of a sudden Safety Car or another incident. Any team would do the same thing in the circumstances.
But, inevitably, it meant that Vettel had once again got ahead of Rosberg. However, luckily for Mercedes, Vettel made another mistake, running wide and damaging his front wing, which gave Rosberg the place back and took Vettel out of the fight.
He then fell behind Valtteri Bottas who was going along well on an optimal strategy with stops on Laps 14 and 34. Vettel could not pass the Finn and ended up fifth.
It would have been very interesting if Vettel had not damaged the wing as he would have been caught and easily passed by his team mate in the closing stages had he kept to his original plan.
So what does this tell us about the racing we can expect in the season ahead?
First it shows that Ferrari has a very strong race car and a new strategy and engineering team, which is already impressively cohesive and disciplined and has a mandate from the boss to be aggressive. This is enormously encouraging for the races ahead.
One of the reasons why the Ferrari is such a strong race car is because it has an aggressive engine mode, with a strong battery and an efficient compressor, which it is able to use all race long, whereas Mercedes has to dip into a more conservative mode at times during races. This gives Ferrari a chance and means that over a race distance there is now little to choose between the two power units. Qualifying is still Mercedes’ forte, which gives it a track position and thus a strategic headstart. But if Ferrari keeps up the current relative development rate then we could have a championship fight on our hands.
Raikkonen’s middle stint on medium tyres showed that in warmer temperatures, Ferrari can match Mercedes for pace on the the harder tyres. This was not the case in the cooler conditions in China a week earlier, where Mercedes pulled away.
It also shows us that the cat and mouse strategy game around undercutting, depleting the ERS to do so and all the associated tactics, makes for some great racing.
Sometimes in F1 race strategy has been used instead of overtaking, here and hopefully often this season, it has been used with overtaking as one of its by-products.
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 and Tyre Usage Charts
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.
Note Raikkonen’s impressive middle stint on mediums matching Hamilton’s on softs.
Look at Vettel’s trace; it shows what might have happened if Vettel had not had to change his front wing. He was put on mediums again - at the stop to replace the wing - as he didn’t fancy 21 laps on a set of softs.
Note how the gap between Ricciardo’s Red Bull and Bottas’ Williams is as big as the gap between Bottas and the Ferraris. The pecking order is very clear in this part of the grid at this stage of the season and the gaps are big.
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