Debrief: Why it pays to be aggressive in Formula 1 starts and strategy
The Japanese Grand Prix saw normal service resumed with Mercedes taking a 1-2 finish that puts the team in touching distance of a second constructo...
The Japanese Grand Prix saw normal service resumed with Mercedes taking a 1-2 finish that puts the team in touching distance of a second constructors’ title, but it also hinged on some big strategy calls and illustrated how pivotal the start is to the way a race unfolds.
Sebastian Vettel felt that second place ahead of Nico Rosberg was on the cards; a result that would have been symbolic given that their battle for second in the championship. But how did the result get away from Ferrari? Meanwhile we saw some great work by Nico Hulkenberg and Force India to get a sixth place result from 13th on the grid.
Pre Race Expectations
Rain throughout Friday practice meant that the teams had very little data on the tyre performance on long runs. Added to that, Pirelli had mandated high tyre pressures, which could lead to tyres overheating and this created a sense on the unknown going into the Grand Prix. Who would it favour?
Crucially two pieces of information were there from Saturday, which dictated the main talking point on Sunday. First Mercedes was very quick in Q1 on the hard tyres on a single lap and second Ferrari didn’t have a great deal of long run data from Saturday morning’s FP3 session. Both would prove crucial to the outcome.
Ferrari vs Mercedes
After pole sitter Nico Rosberg lost the start to team mate Lewis Hamilton, his chance of victory was gone. It was a huge blow as it means that Hamilton can now afford not to win another race this season and he will still be champion, even if he follows Rosberg home for the last five races.
The key battle was all about how Rosberg recovered to second after dropping to fourth on the opening lap and this was achieved with race strategy. The battle with Vettel is the one to really focus on, as it was decided by an incredibly fine margin and afterwards there was a feeling around Ferrari that they could have held onto second place. So why didn’t they?
Vettel drove a very clever middle stint, managing the tyres at the same time as maintaining the gap at two seconds, the margin by which they felt they would be safe from the undercut from Rosberg.
This two second figure is a calculation, based on the expected pace of the Mercedes on an out lap and the expected time for Rosberg’s stop, set against what they expected Vettel to be able to do.
Of course, the best way to avoid an undercut is to pit first. But the risk there is that you pit too early and run out of tyre performance in the closing laps.
As the laps ticked by, Vettel and Ferrari were waiting to get to the point at which they could safely fit a set of medium tyres and get to the finish. The Ferrari is better on the medium tyres than the hards.
First they had to deal with their other car and set up an undercut for Kimi Raikkonen on Valtteri Bottas, which worked a treat. The older Finn pitted on Lap 28 and Bottas reacted and came in a lap later, losing fourth place to Raikkonen. Ferrari had preyed on Williams’ nervousness about committing ot too long a final stint. We’ve seen it many times before, but they seemed unwilling to take the chance and anticipate Raikkonen’s stop.
Job done for Ferrari.
While all this was happening Rosberg moved closer to Vettel, so the gap was 1.85secs when Mercedes took the opportunity - while Bottas was in the pits and Ferrari was looking at his stop relative to Raikkonen’s out lap - to pit Rosberg. It wasn’t Mercedes’ best stop, but what followed shocked Vettel and Ferrari.
Rosberg’s out-lap on hard tyres was incredibly fast; 1m 55.869s. To put it into context, it was two seconds faster than the out lap Raikkonen had just pulled to undercut Bottas and two seconds faster than Vettel managed. It showed the latent pace in the Mercedes on the hard tyres, which had been seen in Q1 and which Ferrari had possibly underestimated.
Vettel reacted to cover the stop and Ferrari’s pit stop was faster than Mercedes’ had been, but those few tenths of a second in the calculations made all the difference and Vettel lost the position to his fellow German as he came out of the pits.
If Ferrari had pre-empted the attack and stopped on the lap Rosberg was pitted, 24 laps to the end, Vettel would probably have stayed ahead to the flag.
In that scenario, Mercedes would have changed tack; Rosberg would have stayed out a few more laps and then pitted for medium tyres to attack Vettel in the closing laps. But it would have been very hard for him to overtake.
Watch out for tactical work like this next time F1 is at a circuit where the undercut works well.
Hulkenberg goes from 13th on grid to 6th
A real standout performance in Japan came from Force India and Nico Hulkenberg. The German had a three-place grid penalty for his collision with Felipe Massa in Singapore. But he got another of his trademark starts, gaining five places as he went very aggressive into Turn 1. This set him up behind the two Lotus cars and, again, aggressive strategy from Force India at the first stops gave him the undercut on both Maldonado and Grosjean.
He was now in sixth place and with no threat from behind, brought it home in the best possible position behind the faster Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams cars.
It was a perfect example of front-foot, aggressive tactics and driving and bagged him a well deserved eight points in the championship.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists, from Pirelli and from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Courtesy Williams Martini Racing
[Displays the gaps between cars - upwards line shows faster lap times - vertical axis = lap times, horizontal] Click to enlarge
Compare Hamilton’s (light blue line) second stint on hard to Vettel’s (red line) – the gap grows significantly once both cars move onto the hard tyres. We have seen this all season and it is the opposite of the relative position on supersofts we saw in Singapore.
Look at the way Bottas’ pace drops off in the middle stint of the race (dotted black line), offering the chance to Raikkonen to undercut him at the second stop. His tyres are still fine in the final laps, so he could have afforded to pit on Lap 28 and anticipate Raikkonen’s attack.
Also look at the perfect execution of Hulkenberg’s (brown line) undercut on the Lotus pair (yellow lines). He had much better pace in final stint on hard tyres.
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