Did Red Bull use Sebastian Vettel as a strategy play to help Daniel Ricciardo in Italy?
Did the Red Bull team show signs in Monza that it is already lining up behind Daniel Ricciardo rather than four times world champion Sebastian Vett...
Did the Red Bull team show signs in Monza that it is already lining up behind Daniel Ricciardo rather than four times world champion Sebastian Vettel? Was Vettel used as a strategy pawn to help maximise Ricciardo’s points haul and keep him in the title chase?
That is the question raised by the strategy the team gave to the two drivers and after the race Vettel allegedly made a comment about the amount of "faith" the team has about him at this point. So what was that all about?
And what other key outcomes in the Italian GP were decided by strategy decisions? All will become clear here.
Pre race considerations
With the conservative choice of medium and hard tyres and a long slow pit lane at Monza, this was a clear one-stop race and that reduced the strategic possibilities. It also made going aggressive a risky thing to do as there was little leeway with no further opportunities to stop for fresh tyres.
One key element to factor in was the “warm-up slope” on the new hard tyres for the second stint. This means that the new hard tyre took time to warm up and this had to be factored in when trying to undercut the car ahead. A gap of at least 1.5 seconds was the ideal margin to avoid this.
Six cars tried to copy what Sergio Perez had pulled off in 2012; a contra strategy, starting on the hard tyre and trying to pass cars later in the race on the faster medium tyre. It didn’t work this year.
Ricciardo prevails from Red Bull’s intriguing strategy decision at Monza
Leaving aside Nico Rosberg’s driving error, which handed the victory to his Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton, the most interesting talking point from the Italian Grand Prix was Riccardo beating his team mate Vettel, despite starting one place behind him on the grid and dropping to seven places behind on the first lap.
Starting 8th and 9th respectively, Vettel climbed to 5th and Ricciardo fell to 12th on the opening lap and yet from here the Australian came through to pass his teammate on Lap 47 and finish fifth. So how did he do it and was Vettel used as strategy pawn by Red Bull in this game, at the expense of his own race effort, to help Ricciardo?
When the race settled down in the opening stint, Vettel found himself behind Kevin Magnussen, who had proved so hard to pass at Spa for Fernando Alonso and who had a straight line speed advantage over Vettel of 10km/h.
Red Bull felt that Vettel was faster than Magnussen and that if they could get him in front he would stay there and he would be able to get after Felipe Massa and the final podium position. Mindful of what happened on track to Alonso at Spa, they decided to get him ahead using strategy.
They went very aggressive with his strategy and brought him in on Lap 18, which is right at the limit and six laps earlier than the optimum fastest strategy. It worked and gave him track position over Magnussen.
But it meant that Vettel would have to manage the hard tyres for 35 laps. This proved too much, especially as the aggressive strategy requires the driver to hammer the tyres in the opening laps of the second stint to make it work and undercut the car in front. His tyres faded in the closing stages and Ricciardo was able to pass him for fifth place.
However there was a double benefit to this plan - another reason for them to pull Vettel in early. And it helped Ricciardo to achieve his result. Here’s how it worked: they left Ricciardo out for a long first stint and as he was running in clear air he could preserve the tyres while running at the target pace. He did this brilliantly; it’s clearly one of his skills.
By pulling Vettel in early, it forced the cars racing against the Red Bulls to stop earlier than they would have liked. Perez, for example pitted on Lap 19, Raikkonen on Lap 20, Alonso and Magnussen on Lap 21, Button Lap 22 - all well short of the ideal lap 24. In other words it forced them off the optimum strategy.
They then offset Ricciardo by taking him up to Lap 26 and that meant that he had significantly fresher tyres for the second stint and so he was able to pass them all, including his own team mate Vettel, who ran out of tyres before the end. It was brilliant. And speaking to strategists from other teams they all say that they would have done exactly the same thing as Red Bull in the circumstances.
To be fair to Red Bull, they felt that this was Vettel’s best chance of beating Magnussen. But there is no doubt that it gave Ricciardo the 5th place result after qualifying only 9th and on a weekend where damage limitation was the name of the game. It kept him in touch with the two Mercedes drivers in the championship, with some more favourable tracks to Red Bull like Singapore coming up.
Clever use of hybrid boost the key to overtakes
Another interesting aspect of Ricciardo’s drive was the way he passed cars, not necessarily using the Drag Reduction System to do it. For instance he passed Perez and Vettel into the second chicane without DRS.
This was an example of a new strategic dimension this year, which is the use of energy from the hybrid system to pass and defend. It is becoming an increasingly influential factor in the racing, even though it’s hard for fans to see from the outside or on TV.
The Energy Recovery System can give a boost on demand, which can be used to pass or defend. At Turn 1 in Monza, for example, the car in front isn’t allowed to use DRS, so he has to use up a lot of battery boost to defend. This depletes the store and so the chasing driver can then use his battery boost into the second chicane and get enough speed to get alongside and challenge.
Smart teams and drivers focus their energy boost on areas where other people are less likely to prioritise. This is something that the hybrid system has brought to the racing this year, which wasn’t possible in the days of V8 engines and DRS – we’ve seen it at many races, but Monza was a vivid example.
We will go into this in more depth in future articles, but fans who enjoyed the battles and Monza and who have enjoyed the drives of Ricciardo and Bottas in particular this year, should be aware that a lot of the opportunities for their overtakes have been given to them from clever use of energy recovery.
And it has produced some great racing.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
If you want to leave your comment on the points raised above, please do so in the comments section below.
RACE HISTORY CHART
Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing - Click on Chart to enlarge
Contrast the lines of Vettel and Ricciardo. Vettel’s tyres start going off in the second stint and his pace isn’t there, compared to Ricciardo who pits late and has a very strong second stint.
Also compare the relative pace of Red Bull and Williams – after qualifying badly the race pace of the Red Bull is quite good relative to Williams who qualified well.
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