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Japanese GP: Behind the chaos some cool decision making under pressure

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Japanese GP: Behind the chaos some cool decision making under pressure
Oct 7, 2014, 7:42 PM

The 2014 Japanese Grand Prix will be remembered as the race which featured the terrible accident of Marussia’s Jules Bianchi, which led to the ra...

The 2014 Japanese Grand Prix will be remembered as the race which featured the terrible accident of Marussia’s Jules Bianchi, which led to the race being red flagged with nine laps to go.

Up to that point it had been an intriguing race, from a strategy point of view, with teams making decisions on the hoof in changing conditions about which tyre to take and when to stop for the best possible outcome.

There were some bold decisions, such as Jenson Button’s move onto intermediate tyres after the restart and we saw some interesting tactics within teams, with Red Bull finding drivers switching position as a result of strategy calls.

Jenson Button

Jenson Button sets the tone

After an early stoppage due to heavy rain and nine laps behind the Safety Car, it was decided that the race was safe to start. F1 rules mandate the fitting of full wet tyres for a safety car start and everyone wanted to get off those tyres as soon as they felt it was safe.

The Pirelli wet tyre is simply not as good as the intermediate and that is why teams are reiuctant to use it unless they have to.

Jenson Button, who had qualified 8th, has a track record for being the vanguard when it comes to early decision making in these situations and he followed the safety car into the pitlane for an immediate stop onto intermediates. Maldonado did the same.

Although it would be sure to gain Button several track positions - he ended up running third due to this move - this was a bit of a gamble as an early stop for intermediates means that the extra laps on the tyre could be a factor as no-one had a clear idea of how long a set of intermediates would last on this very high energy track.

Button’s pace was good and this led to others following his lead. What really helped him, however, was the very slow pace of the Williams cars on the wet tyre. Williams has struggled in wet conditions this season and here they were in particular trouble, despite running in their same grid positions of third and fourth in the opening laps. This held up the cars behind them and meant that Button was able to undercut more cars than he would have normally been able to do.

Sadly he was himself undercut by the Red Bulls after a slow second stop due to a steering wheel change.

Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo

Team mate battles: Vettel vs Ricciardo

In the rush to get onto intermediate tyres in those opening exchanges, there were some interesting team mate battles and significant changes of position, such as that between the two Red Bull drivers, which is worth examining.

Daniel Ricciardo, who was running fifth, ahead of Kevin Magnussen and Sebastian Vettel, was encouraged by his engineer to move onto intermediates as soon as possible and he pitted on Lap 11. Vettel stayed out on wets for another lap and his in-lap was three seconds faster than Ricciardo’s had been, which was enough to move him ahead of the Australian and of Magnussen who had lost time with a steering wheel change, which wrecked his race.

Interestingly Felipe Massa did not get ahead of his team mate Valtteri Bottas with a similar strategy, but down at Force India that same strategy did work out for Nico Hulkenberg, who got ahead of Sergio Perez thanks to an in-lap which was four seconds faster than his team mate.

It didn't work out for Lewis Hamilton either, as he made a mistake at Spoon Curve on his in-lap and lost the chance to get ahead of Rosberg at the first stops. Due to their massive pace advantage, Mercedes had the luxury of waiting to see everyone else's pace on intermediates before stopping themselves. They had complete control of the race throughout, although Rosberg suffered oversteer and he almost came within range of a pit stop threat from Vettel.

From this point, Ricciardo followed Vettel through the field. The Red Bulls were set up with more downforce than many of their rivals, which is why they had lacked pace in the dry qualifying session. But in the wet they were very strong. They cut through the Williams cars with some lovely overtaking moves and closed on Button in third place.

At this stage, around Lap 25, the Red Bulls were almost two seconds a lap faster than the leading Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who was struggling with the rear tyres and was passed by his team mate Lewis Hamilton on Lap 28.

Hamilton then disappeared up the road, but Red Bull sensed that Rosberg might be vulnerable and set about a plan to beat him. At the half way stage, Vettel was 24 seconds behind Rosberg, all of which had been lost in the four laps either side of the pit stop, due to being held up by the Williams cars.

Vettel pitted again on Lap 29, having built up enough leaving him 24 laps to the finish. Interestingly he dived into the pits once again when the safety car was deployed after Bianchi’s accident. The race was red flagged at that point.

So why did Vettel pit again on Lap 44 with just nine laps to the finish? His tyres had done 14 laps at this point and he would be concerned that after potentially four or five laps under safety car they might not warm up again.

He had enough gap to do a pit stop to Button (who had stopped on Lap 42) at that time, without losing track position to him. He was to lose only one position to Ricciardo who elected to stay out. That meant he had a chance to re-overtake Ricciardo then chase Rosberg once the race was restarted after the Safety Car.

As both Red Bulls were set-up for wets (wetter track condition at toward the end of the race!) and Vettel's pace was a lot faster when his intermediates were still fresh than Rosberg, who overheated his rears after 6-7 laps.

One other point to note was Williams; despite poor pace in wet conditions, they were very confident in their startegyl leaving both cars out on long stints on the intermediates. They lost track position to Hulkenberg as a result, but got away with it due to his problem at the end when he had to stop again for tyres.

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 - Click to enlarge

Look at Vettel's pace between Laps 19 to 29. It’s clear that by stopping under the safety car on Lap 44, he felt an attack on Rosberg after a Safety Car restart at the end could be on.

Look also at Hamilton’s pace once clear of Rosberg and how precisely Mercedes are able to pit him on lap 35 with the gap back to Ricciardo sufficient to clear him and retain track position.

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