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Making the right calls under pressure: A deep dive into race strategies from Hungary

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Making the right calls under pressure: A deep dive into race strategies from Hungary
Aug 2, 2011, 8:59 AM

The Hungarian Grand Prix was a fantastic race, again very close between the top four cars, any one of which could have won it.

The Hungarian Grand Prix was a fantastic race, again very close between the top four cars, any one of which could have won it. The closeness of competition and changeable conditions made it another race where strategy was the decisive element.

The winner put together the right combination of decisions, based on the data assembled in practice and a judgement when a sudden shower fell late in the race, not to pit for intermediate tyres but to wait it out.

Meanwhile several drivers saw their races compromised by poor strategy calls and we had three midfield runners in the points, all as a result of good strategy.

Rain had been forecast for Sunday morning but not for the race. There was a lot of doubt among teams about the forecasts.

Overtaking wasn't easy - it never is in Budapest - but the conditions helped in this race. There was much less of a headwind on the pitstraight during the race than there had been during qualifying, which is why the DRS zone wasn’t particularly successful; a lot of people were hitting the rev limiter without the wind to slow them, as it had on Saturday.

Another reason why the DRS didn’t produce lots of overtaking was down to the relatively short length of the straight and amount of wing run on the cars. They never reach terminal velocity before the braking point.

So lets' take a close look at how the decisions were made.

Button makes the right calls

Of Jenson Button's 11 Grand Prix victories, six have come in mixed conditions such as we had on Sunday. A combination of experience, smoothness at the wheel and judgement of grip level are central to this. Button started the race on intermediates, as did everyone else, then switched to supersoft tyres on lap 11.

Webber, Massa and Barrichello had come in on lap 10 and Webber set fastest sector times straight away; all the right signals were there. However Massa was incredibly tentative on dry tyres on a wet track, struggling to get them up to temperature. Button, in third place, reacted and pitted on lap 11, Alonso didn't. And neither did the leader, Hamilton nor P3 Vettel and P5 Rosberg. They waited until lap 12 to changeover. All of them except Hamilton, who had had a five second lead, lost time and positions as a result; Button passed Vettel for P2, while Webber passed Alonso.

The supersoft tyres didn't last long. Pre-race predictions were that they would be good for 20 laps, but the reality was more like 15 or 16 - less in Hamilton's case. He had a new set he had saved in qualifying and pushed very hard on them to open up a nine second lead on Button. But after 14 laps he had to pit again, Button stopped a lap later. They remained about six seconds apart, but the decisive moment came when Hamilton went for another set of supersofts on lap 40. There was no way he'd be able to reach the finish on them. Button went for soft tyres on lap 42, knowing that they would make the finish.

Here's how their decisions were reached; the used supersoft was 0.8s faster per lap than the new soft tyre, so Hamilton's tactic was to open a lead of over 18 seconds in order to pit again and retain the lead. He should have easily done this with a 15 lap stint, but in fact Button was as fast, if not faster on the softs. On lap 47 as light rain began to fall, Hamilton spun, losing the lead to Button. Now behind his team mate and on the wrong tyre, he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Vettel, who was also on soft tyres to the finish, was going to jump him at his pitstop and so was Webber.

Although Hamilton attacked Button and got ahead, he needed a game changing move, which is what the intermediate tyre might have been when he took it on lap 52, as the rain persisted. But it turned out to be the wrong call. Although the lap times went off by 11 seconds, keeping a calm head was vital as the shower died away and within three laps the times were back to normal. The drivers on intermediates had to stop again for dry tyres.

Button, Vettel and Alonso did not take the intermediate and stayed ahead of Hamilton, Webber did take it and stayed behind.

So the decision on intermediate tyres was important in the outcome, but it wasn't decisive; the soft tyre decision earlier was the decisive one.

Alonso did many of the same things as Hamilton. Judging by the lengths of his stints, he planned to make four stops, especially after losing time behind Rosberg early on. He got jumped by Webber on the switch from intermediates to slicks because he stayed out too long. His first dry stint on supersoft was 13 laps, second stint 11 laps, third stint 11 laps and fourth stint on soft was 23 laps. He jumped ahead of Webber at the third stop by pitting three laps earlier and he didn't make the mistake of going for the intermediate on lap 50 so got ahead of Hamilton. It was a good recovery from a messy first half of the race.

The two Toro Rosso drivers had strong results; Sebastien Buemi went from 23rd to 8th, while Jamie Alguersuari got points for the fourth time in five races, by again running a long middle stint on the harder tyre and doing one less stop than the others. This tactic has been so successful for them and Sauber this year it's surprising more midfield teams haven't tried it. But being kind on the tyres is a pre-requisite!

Breakthrough result for Paul di Resta

Paul Di Resta got his best F1 finish to date with seventh place, a breakthrough result in many ways. His engineers were amazed at his composure and authority in the most tense moments of the race, such as when it rained on lap 50. It was his call not to pit for intermediates on lap 50. Di Resta has struggled for results since the early races, but this one will have made other teams sit up and take notice. It was not the drive of a rookie.

And it's interesting to look at his race strategy because it exactly matches Button's.

He started on the supersoft tyres, albeit his were new because he didn't get into Q3 and so he had a spare set of new ones. Button stopped on lap 27 for another used set of supersofts and Di Resta did the same. Then on lap 42 Button went for a new set of softs and Di Resta followed suit. There is no suggestion here that he was copying Button, it's a coincidence. But it's interesting because the two slick tyre choices were based on their data from Friday practice, where they got good life and good pace from the soft tyre. So it was clear that it would do up to 30 laps on a lighter car close to the end of the race.

Di Resta was racing Rosberg, who had gone for the soft tyres in the second stint. But the Mercedes driver's decision to pit for intermediates decided it in Di Resta's favour. It was the second race in a row that Force India has finished ahead of Mercedes. While it was the seventh time in 11 races that Rosberg has finished lower than his start position.

As a side note, given that Button has now won six of his 11 races in these conditions in recent years, it's probably not a bad idea to copy him on days like these - he doesn't often get it wrong!

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Series Formula 1
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