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How Vettel and Alonso came close to winning in Monaco

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How Vettel and Alonso came close to winning in Monaco
May 29, 2012, 11:34 AM

[Updated]History will show that Mark Webber was the winner of this race, ahead of Nico Rosberg with Fernando Alonso third.

[Updated]History will show that Mark Webber was the winner of this race, ahead of Nico Rosberg with Fernando Alonso third. Rosberg tried a strategy gamble, to get the lead, by pitting first on lap 27, but it didn’t work out as Webber reacted to it. Sebastian Vettel surprised everyone with his strategy and from 9th on the grid came within five seconds of a winning position.

Fernando Alonso made a gain of two places to score a podium and he was happy with that. But with the benefit of hindsight, Alonso could also have won. However to do so he would have to have taken a gamble, which there was no obvious reason to take. Such is racing and the finely balanced world of race strategy.

In many ways the most important observation to make about this race is that for the fourth time in six races, the car leading on the first lap has gone on to win the race. Although some have described the 2012 season as a “lottery” due to the unpredictable behaviour of the Pirelli tyres from track to track and from day to day, this pattern shows that getting the basics right in qualifying and the start is still the foundation of a winning result.

It’s a significant point for several reasons; it highlights the importance of qualifying and starting well, but it also shows how much better the Pirelli tyres perform when they are able to run in clear air, rather than in the wake of another car.

On a circuit like Monaco where overtaking is hard, good race strategy is the only way to make up places as we will see by studying the strategies of Ferrari and Red Bull on Sunday. As last year, the tyres lasted longer than expected and the race turned out to be quite different to what was predicted by strategists, who forecast two stops for the top six cars. Vettel’s performance in the opening stint forced many to rethink.

Overview

Pre-race strategy plans were that the leading cars would stop twice around laps 26 and 52, starting the race on supersoft tyres, then taking new softs at each of the pit stops. But this was based on limited running on the supersoft tyre in practice due to poor weather. In the race they lasted much longer than expected.

Several things happened in the race which disrupted this plan and moved everyone to a one stop plan: first there was a forecast of rain around 28 laps into the race, which forced most teams to leave their cars out, as they would not want to have to stop again for rain tyres having made an initial pit stop. Second, Sebastian Vettel ran a long first stint on soft tyres, which showed that the softs were still very fast even after over 40 laps of running.

Once everyone saw this, there was no question of the leaders making a second stop, as this would give the win to Vettel. So they lapped very slowly in the second stint, preserving the tyres to the finish. Rosberg ended up doing 51 laps on his set of soft tyres.

How Alonso went from fifth to third

Understanding that the tyres needed clear air to run in, Fernando Alonso dropped back from Lewis Hamilton in the opening stint of Sunday’s race, in order to preserve the tyres. He was also practising a technique on the supersoft tyre which gave him better tyre life on a stint: the super soft doesn’t like wheelspin out of slow corners (longitudinal slide) and it doesn’t like it combined with lateral sliding. Alonso was straightening the wheels before applying the throttle, taking a little less out of his tyres at every corner than some of the others. This paid dividends at the end of the opening stint.

Alonso had started well, survived a tangle with Romain Grosjean in the run to turn one and almost passed Lewis Hamilton. He tucked in behind him in fourth place on the first lap. But he then dropped back to around three or four seconds behind the McLaren, focussing on preserving the super soft tyres.

However by the time Hamilton pitted on lap 29, Alonso had moved back up close to him. As soon as Hamilton went in, Alonso pushed hard and took advantage of the problems Hamilton was having with warming up the soft tyres, to jump him for third place when he made his own stop a lap later.

However with hindsight, Alonso could have won the race by staying out another lap or two on the supersoft as it was faster than the new soft tyre which Webber and Rosberg were struggling with. Webber did a 1m 24.518 on lap 30, which was 3 seconds slower than Alonso’s last lap on supersofts.

What probably stopped Ferrari from taking that gamble and going for gold, was Rosberg’s sector times on his first flying lap on new softs on lap 29, which was 1m 19.181s.

Seeing this and thinking quickly, Ferrari would reason that Rosberg was straight on the pace on new tyres and therefore Hamilton would likely be the same, so it was time to bring Alonso in.

But Rosberg, Webber and Hamilton all then struggled on the soft on laps 30 and 31 and the window of opportunity was there to jump them after all.

The downside of the gamble not paying off is that Alonso would have slipped to fifth place. So on balance it would have been an unreasonable gamble on Ferrari’s part and as consistency is the name of the game in 2012, the 15 points Alonso gained on Sunday took him to the lead of the championship.

Vettel changes the game

By this point another driver was bringing himself into contention: Sebastian Vettel. The world champion started the race in 9th place after a poor qualifying session. However he had two cards to play and he played them both brilliantly.

By not running in Q3, he had given himself a choice of starting tyre and went for the soft, planning a long first stint.

The prediction of rain around lap 28 laps into the race also played into his hands. The front runners were slow on the worn supersofts by the time they pitted and the gap back to him was not as large as it would have been if they were two-stopping.

By lap 31 he was leading and his pace on worn soft tyres was far better than that of the leaders on new softs. There is a strong feeling also that Webber held up the pack during this phase to bring Vettel into play. Whether it was discussed that he would hold them up until Vettel was n a position to jump all of them is not clear, but Webber did refer on the radio after the race to being grateful to the team for letting him win.

The quirk of the Pirelli tyres is that they operate in a very narrow temperature range and if you can’t get the tyres into that range they don’t perform. For lap after lap Vettel pulled away from Webber; by lap 37 the gap was 16 seconds. If Vettel could get the gap up to 21 seconds, he would be able to pit and rejoin ahead of Webber and go on to win the race.

But this was the high point of Vettel’s charge; on lap 38 Webber began reducing the gap. Now Vettel and the Red Bull strategists were focussed on when to bring him in and who he would slot back in front of.

Vettel stayed out longer, still getting good performance from the soft tyres. It was clear that Hamilton was the one they could beat and as he fell back from Alonso and was 21.4 seconds behind Vettel on lap 45, they picked that moment to bring Vettel in. He rejoined ahead of Hamilton in fourth place. Hamilton complained to the team about not warning him of Vettel’s threat. He was now down to fifth place, having started the race in third.

No wonder he was frustrated that Alonso and Vettel had beaten him through superior strategy and tyre management.

Di Resta also had a very strong result by starting on the soft tyre, pitting for the supersoft on lap 35. He did extremely well to keep them alive for 43 laps and went from 14th on the grid to 7th at the finish.

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

New tyres available at the start of the race

Webber 2x Soft

Rosberg 1x Soft

Hamilton 1x Soft

Grosjean 1x Soft

Alonso 2x Soft

Schumacher 1x Soft

Massa 2x Soft

Raikkonen 1x Soft

Vettel 1x Soft, 1 x S/Soft

Hulkenberg 1x Soft, 2 x S/Soft

Kobayashi 1x Soft, 2x S/ Soft

Button 1x Soft, 1x S/ Soft

Senna 1 x Soft, 1 x S/ Soft

Di Resta 1 x Soft, 1 x S/Soft

Ricciardo 2 x Soft,

Vergne 2 x Soft, 1 x S/Soft

Kovalainen 3 x Soft, 1 x S/Soft

Petrov 3 x Soft

Glock 3 x Soft, 1 x S/Soft

De La Rosa 3 x Soft

Pic 3 x Soft, 1 x S/ Soft

Karthikeyan 3 x Soft, 1 x S/ Soft

Perez 2 x Soft, 3 x S/ Soft

Maldonado 1 x Soft

Tyre Strategies used in Monaco

Tyre Choice at pit stop

Webber: S/Soft used at start - Soft New on L29

Rosberg: S/Soft used at start - Soft New L27

Alonso: S/Soft used at start - Soft New L30

Vettel: Soft New at start - S/Soft New L46

Hamilton:S/S used at start - Soft New L29

Massa: S/S used at start - Soft New L31

Di Resta: Soft new at start - S/Soft New L35

Hülkenberg: S/Soft New - Soft New L29

Räikkönen: S/Soft Used - Soft New L29

Senna: S/soft New - Soft New L29

Perez: S/Soft New - Soft New L34 - Drive thru penalty L39

Vergne: S/Soft New - Soft New L17 - Intermediates L70

Kovalainen: S/Soft New - Soft New L30 - S/Soft Used L73

Glock: S/soft New - Soft New L30 - Soft New L54

Kartikeyan: S/Soft New - S/Soft Used L29 - Soft New L74

Button: Soft New - S/Soft New L38 - DNF

RACE HISTORY GRAPH

Courtesy of Williams F1 Team

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