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Strategy Report: Ferrari gifts Mercedes win, as midfield epic unfolds

James Allen analyses the Japanese Grand Prix, where Ferrari once again threw away its chances with poor decision making, while Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes cruised to another simple victory. But the real action was in the midfield…

Strategy Report: Ferrari gifts Mercedes win, as midfield epic unfolds
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There’s a saying among F1 strategists that the faster and more dominant the car, the easier the strategy calls.

This is because the margin for error is so large; if you make a mistake the car is fast enough relative to the competition that it is recoverable. The calls made in the tightly-packed midfield are much more finely balanced.

The Japanese Grand Prix saw a series of problem decisions for Ferrari in qualifying and the race, while in the midfield we saw an excellent battle between the Force India, Haas, Renault and Toro Rosso cars.

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari SF71H

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari SF71H

Photo by: Andy Hone / LAT Images

Ferrari vs Mercedes vs Red Bull

While it’s fair to say that Lewis Hamilton had the edge in Suzuka, there was a second place there for the taking for Sebastian Vettel to keep his slim world championship hopes alive a little longer. And he may even have been able to put some pressure on Hamilton in the race, if he had managed to get himself up there in qualifying.

Instead, as the dark clouds loomed before the decisive Q3 session, Ferrari sent both cars to the end of the pitlane first fitted with intermediate tyres and had to later back out of that decision. As the two drivers then faced pressure on their hot laps, with rain now falling, they made individual driving errors that confined Vettel to ninth and Kimi Raikkonen to fourth.

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF71H locks up

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF71H locks up

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Sutton Images

Suzuka often puts the teams and drivers on their mettle with changeable conditions like this, as does Interlagos in Brazil. In a championship fight the strategy team will normally assess what choice the main rival makes and cover that, but with Hamilton having outscored Vettel by 75 points to 42 from the Italian GP onwards, Ferrari clearly wanted to go aggressive.

The reason for going down the pitlane first was to have the best visibility in the rain that was expected. There were several other possible scenarios and options and no real need to show your hand.

The irony of the situation is that the track was arguably in slightly better condition at 15:59pm local time, when the Ferraris set their definitive lap times, than two minutes earlier when the Mercedes drivers and Verstappen set theirs. So the situation was still recoverable.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes AMG F1 Director of Motorsport, on the pit wall

Toto Wolff, Mercedes AMG F1 Director of Motorsport, on the pit wall

Photo by: Steve Etherington / LAT Images

In the race, Vettel made an excellent start and was soon up to fourth with the Mercedes pair and Verstappen ahead.

At this point Verstappen was on the supersoft tyres and had been given a 5-second time penalty to serve at the first pitstop. Mercedes were on the soft tyre, so likely to run longer, and were getting away up front. Vettel, also on supersofts, needed not to lose touch with them, but equally knew that Verstappen was only a temporary block.

In the end the Red Bull went to Lap 22 before stopping, so Vettel was correct that he needed to pass him and Lap 8 was way too early to think about an undercut.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB14 leads Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF71H

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB14 leads Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF71H

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Sutton Images

Another longer term consideration at this point was that Mercedes was committed to running the medium tyre in the long second stint, whereas Vettel would be using the faster soft tyre in his second stint and might therefore have the chance to attack Bottas, who was not on Hamilton’s level at Suzuka, later in the race.

Vettel went aggressive, lunging for the overtake at Spoon corner, rather than waiting for the DRS at the start of the next lap and collided with Verstappen, dropping down to 19th, an uncomfortable echo of the opening lap of the Italian GP at Monza.

Sergio Perez, Racing Point Force India VJM11, Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso STR13, Esteban Ocon, Racing Point Force India VJM11, Carlos Sainz Jr., Renault Sport F1 Team R.S. 18, Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team VF-18, Charles Leclerc, Sauber C37, Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB14, and Fernando Alonso, McLaren MCL33, at the start

Sergio Perez, Racing Point Force India VJM11, Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso STR13, Esteban Ocon, Racing Point Force India VJM11, Carlos Sainz Jr., Renault Sport F1 Team R.S. 18, Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team VF-18, Charles Leclerc, Sauber C37, Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB14, and Fernando Alonso, McLaren MCL33, at the start

Photo by: Andy Hone / LAT Images

Midfield thriller

The midfield battle has been very entertaining this season with intense battles often decided by strategy calls.

In Suzuka the grid had a nicely mixed-up look, with Romain Grosjean fifth for Haas, Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly sixth and seventh for Toro Rosso, Force India's Sergio Perez ninth (after Esteban Ocon was dropped to 11th for a penalty) and Charles Leclerc 10th for Sauber with a free choice of starting tyres. Carlos Sainz was 13th for Renault.

And yet they finished in the order: Perez, Grosjean, Ocon, Sainz, with Gasly narrowly missing out on a point in 11th. So how did that come about?

Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-18, Sergio Perez, Racing Point Force India VJM11 and Charles Leclerc, Sauber C37 battle

Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team VF-18, Sergio Perez, Racing Point Force India VJM11 and Charles Leclerc, Sauber C37 battle

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Sutton Images

Grosjean held his position over Perez at the start, with Gasly between them, while Ocon slipped ahead of Hartley, who had a poor start and dropped to 10th. Leclerc slipped to 13th, as Sainz moved up to 12th.

Grosjean, like the Mercedes drivers, had started the race on the soft tyres he had used in Q2, quite an unusual move for a midfield team and one that clearly showed the confidence Haas has at the moment in the pace of its car. Normally trying to get through Q2 on the second fastest tyre is the preserve of the top teams only.

Perez was right with Gasly and 3.5 seconds behind Grosjean when he pitted on Lap 24 and switched to the soft tyres for the second stint. Grosjean and Gasly continued on until Lap 29. Ocon pitted on Lap 26 as Force India split the strategies, putting the Frenchman onto mediums.

Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso STR13, leads Carlos Sainz Jr., Renault Sport F1 Team R.S. 18

Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso STR13, leads Carlos Sainz Jr., Renault Sport F1 Team R.S. 18

Photo by: Andy Hone / LAT Images

The temperatures on race day were significantly hotter than the rest of the weekend and there were therefore some question marks about which would be the better tyre. Sainz had started on new softs and went to Lap 32 before switching to mediums.

Perez came out behind Sergey Sirotkin in the Williams and lost time, which meant that when Grosjean stopped he was able to get back out ahead of the Mexican. Ocon then suffered the same fate two laps later, but was able to pass the Russian after a lap, which was important as he was attempting to jump Gasly.

A slow stop for the Toro Rosso driver on Lap 29 didn’t help and Gasly dropped behind both Force Indias.

Gasly was not helped by the two Sauber drivers on a covert ‘spoiler’ strategy, holding him up after his stop, to make life difficult for him as the two teams are locked in a close Constructors’ championship battle.

Pierre Gasly, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR13

Pierre Gasly, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR13

Photo by: Manuel Goria / Sutton Images

Sainz and Renault saw the opportunity to take advantage; Sainz offset himself to Gasly, stayed out until Lap 32 and dropped five seconds to Gasly in the process. But in the final few laps his pace on mediums was stronger than Gasly’s on fading soft tyres, and he was able to pass him. So Toro Rosso had the double whammy of being undercut by the Force Indias and yet running out of tyre performance before the end of the race, an unusual and very unfortunate combination.

Grosjean meanwhile had some issues with telemetry, but maintained his lead over Perez until the Virtual Safety Car was deployed for Leclerc’s retirement.

As the race restarted, Perez was sharper and forced his way through, thereby winning the midfield battle.

As is so often the case, had the midfield competition been for the overall race win, this would have been a thoroughly entertaining Grand Prix!

Pierre Gasly, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR13, leads Sergio Perez, Racing Point Force India VJM11, and Esteban Ocon, Racing Point Force India VJM11

Pierre Gasly, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR13, leads Sergio Perez, Racing Point Force India VJM11, and Esteban Ocon, Racing Point Force India VJM11

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

Race History Chart

Race history

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.

A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.

Tyre Usage Chart

Tyre history
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