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Making the right calls: The strategic battle for supremacy in Canadian Grand Prix

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Making the right calls: The strategic battle for supremacy in Canadian Grand Prix
Jun 11, 2013, 9:02 AM

What made the Canadian Grand Prix unusual was the fact that after a wet qualifying session, where no dry running was done at all, teams had all new...

What made the Canadian Grand Prix unusual was the fact that after a wet qualifying session, where no dry running was done at all, teams had all new Pirelli slick tyres to race on. This meant that potentially less stops would be possible as the tyres had more life. Against that the track was green because of the rain, so no-one knew what the tyre life would be like in the first stint.

The result was a fascinating strategy battle with lots of different approaches taken by the various teams. Although it was a runaway win for Sebastian Vettel, the results behind were down to strategy.

Here's how it all came about.

Pre-race expectations

It was also hotter on Sunday than Friday, which made some teams, who were thinking about doing one stop, hedge their bets and plan for two. Also the tyre data that teams had from Friday practice did not necessarily carry across to race day, where temperatures were 10-15 degrees hotter.

This lack of precise data made for an interesting strategy battle, which decided the outcome for many of the points finishers behind the winner Sebastian Vettel. It meant that teams with a better capability on tyre analysis did a better job on Sunday.

Teams were thus divided about which was the better tyre to do the most stints on; the supersoft with its 1.2 seconds per lap initial pace advantage, or the medium with its better life? Some teams had very little data on the medium tyre, but the ones who did were able to really benefit in the race.

What would be critical would be to stay clear of traffic at the start of the stints to maximise the performance in the tyre. In the event, the medium was clearly the better race tyre; after the first round of pit stops were made the supersoft was used in only seven of the 41 stints the drivers made.

With Ferrari and Lotus both having one car at the front of the grid and one at the back, the expectation was that Massa and Grosjean would start on the medium tyre to assess its performance and play a long game. Grosjean did it, but Massa went for the supersoft at the start and went on the attack, gaining places until he came upon Adrian Sutil (see below)

The battle at the front - behind Vettel

Sebastian Vettel had the race won on the opening lap, as he pulled away from pole position to escape the one second DRS zone. He was over two seconds clear of Hamilton at the end of the first lap.

Alonso and Ferrari were stronger at the end of the race and on the medium tyre in particular, but Alonso’s problem is that he had lost track position with another frustrating qualifying performance; 6th on the grid put him behind Hamilton, Bottas, Rosberg and Webber and he had to come through them before he could challenge Vettel. He was 16 seconds behind him when they both stopped on Lap 16 and 24 seconds behind before the second stops.

Lewis Hamilton was caught by Alonso seven laps before the end, but his performance showed that Mercedes has made some progress on improving tyre life in the race. The consistency on Hamilton’s car was much better than they have had before this season.

He made a two stop strategy work by running a longer first stint, which was because Mercedes was hedging its bets, unsure how long the medium tyre was going to last. He didn’t want to leave himself with too many laps to do in the final stint and then lose ground at the finish as a result.

Hamilton wasn’t in the race with Vettel, he was just trying to do a nice fast race with well balanced stint lengths, ideally staying clear of Alonso and Webber.

The long first stint cost him some time, but thanks to his team-mate, he almost got away with it.

The Mercedes of Nico Rosberg struggled on the day and was forced to do three pit stops.

But in that second stint he held back Alonso and Webber as they tried to catch Hamilton for second place.

After Hamilton’s first stop on Lap 19 he had had a five second lead over Webber and Alonso, but while Rosberg toiled on the second set of supersfofts he had taken at his stop on Lap 14, that gap opened out over the course of the next nine laps to 11 seconds. This helped Hamilton to make it onto the podium, as Alonso only caught him near the end of the race.

Mercedes made a curious decision - which Rosberg described afterwards as "a mistake" - to take the supersoft tyre again on his car at the first stop, despite all evidence that it wasn’t as good as the medium.

He was clearly not acting defensively here. The defensive choice, when he pitted on lap 15, reacting to cover fourth place Mark Webber’s stop on lap 14, would have been the medium tyre. The team knew that Webber had gone to the medium tyre, but they went for supersoft for a bit of extra pace.

It didn’t last and he lost two places during that stint. It also meant that he couldn’t make the finish on Lap 70 from his second stop on Lap 31, so he needed to make a third stop and his strategy was compromised.

Rosberg had Webber and Alonso covered on the same tyres in the first stint, so arguably if Rosberg had gone onto the same medium tyre as them for the second stint the same would have applied.

In that scenario he would have kept them behind him for longer and Hamilton might have finished second.

Over-qualifiers split the field

There were some stunning performances in the wet qualifying session, most notably Valterri Bottas , Jean Eric Vergne, and Nico Hulkenberg. But with race day warm and sunny, this group were always likely to fall back and in doing so, drag the rest of the midfield back with them, opening out a gap between the front runners and the rest.

Bottas went backwards through the field, Vergne did an excellent job to maintain position but the midfield was soon cut off from the front-runners.

The question was how do you escape that and get to run your own race? Managing that was what separated the ones who had a clean race in the midfield and those who spent the race scrapping in traffic.

Di Resta makes a one-stop strategy work

Paul di Resta was one of the drivers who was able to have a clean race with consistent lap times and able to gap everyone, to the extent that in the second half of the Grand Prix he could decide when he wanted to make his stop. He went from 17th on the grid to 7th at the flag.

After another mistake in qualifying where he wasn’t in a position to set a quick lap at the right time in changeable conditions, di Resta did a great job on Sunday to come through from 17th on the grid to finish 7th. He did it with a long one stop strategy, covering 56 laps on the medium tyre. Impressively his times in the final laps of that marathon stint – the longest by far of this 2013 season – were competitive.

One of the keys to Di Resta’s result was that his team mate Adrian Sutil held Massa back in the second stint. The Brazilian had cut through the field in the opening stint but couldn’t pass Sutil. Di Resta was ahead of them and able to run at his own pace, matching the lap times of the two-stopping Vergne ahead.

This is another good example, like Mercedes, of how you team mate can affect rivals’ performance to the benefit of your race.

Grosjean in contrast, tried the same one stop plan, but wasn’t quick, couldn’t avoid traffic, used up his tyres and ended up making a second stop which lost him track position and compromised his race.

McLaren try two plans, neither of them works

It was a wretched weekend for McLaren. They underperformed in qualifying and in the race. Given that their underlying car pace is similar to Force India and better than Toro Rosso, they should have finished where Vergne and Di Resta finished. They set the 7th and 8th fastest race laps, to illustrate that.

Instead they finished the race 11th and 12th.

Jenson Button found himself on the wrong side of race strategy in Montreal. He did a one-stop strategy, clearly hoping that there would be a safety car, of which there is a high probability at Montreal. But he did it with supersoft in the first stint and medium in the second. He complained afterwards that the team had given him too conservative a lap time to drive to on the medium tyre and he could have attacked more.

If you are going to try to one-stop you have to trap the two stoppers behind you after their second stops otherwise it has been a pointless exercise. To do that you have to risk a certain amount on the tyres.

This goes back to the knowledge of tyres from the Friday session.

It is odd that on the first race of the season where tyre life was clearly not an issue and everyone was able to push, McLaren were driving to a conservative lap time.

That said, he started behind his team mate Perez, who did an opposing strategy of two stops and finished with Button, so that didn’t really make a big difference. It was just a race to forget for the Woking team, which saw both its cars lapped by its former driver Hamilton.

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

RACE HISTORY GRAPH

Courtesy of Williams F1 Team

The relatively flat curve in Vettel’s middle stint, compared with the final stint, shows that he could have pushed harder had he needed to. It was a fairly easy win for the reigning champion.

Once Alonso gets in clear air his pace matches Vettel’s especially in the final part of the race, but lost track position before the start due to his qualifying 6th costs him dearly.

Look at how Massa was held up by Sutil and this allowed Di Resta to stay ahead to the flag, even though the Ferrari was very fast in the closing stages.

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