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What might have been: A deep dive into race strategies from Korean Grand Prix

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What might have been: A deep dive into race strategies from Korean Grand Prix
Oct 18, 2011, 3:11 PM

The Korean Grand Prix was a fascinating race from a strategy point of view, with many talking points and there have been lots of questions from fan...

The Korean Grand Prix was a fascinating race from a strategy point of view, with many talking points and there have been lots of questions from fans about whether Mark Webber could have won the race if he hadn't pitted at the same time as Lewis Hamilton or whether Fernando Alonso could have got on the podium if he'd been released from behind Felipe Massa, as he was in Suzuka. Hopefully the answers are all here.

This was one of those races where strategy was always going to be decisive, but where it was vital to be flexible and adaptable.

As soon as Pirelli announced its very aggressive tyre choice for the weekend, bringing the two softest compounds to a track with quite a few high energy corners, all the strategy engineers realised that they were up against it. Throw in rain all day Friday meaning that there was almost no data on tyre wear on long runs and it really was a voyage into the unknown.

Pirelli brought the soft / super-soft compound pairing (usually used on slow street circuits) because they were worried about the graining evident on the Bridgestones last year. The soft tyre this weekend was between 0.8s and 1s per lap slower than the super-soft.

There were several tactics at play in qualifying with Red Bull saving sets of soft tyres for the race, while Ferrari and McLaren prioritised saving supersofts.

In the end the supersoft turned out to be a far more durable race tyre than expected and pre race predictions of three or four stops were revised as the race went on and strategists and drivers were thinking on their feet. A Safety Car one third of the way through the race - one of several this year happening at this critical juncture of the race after the first pit stops - again changed the game for several drivers. The four-lap Safety Car period (laps 16 – 20) helped to conserve tyres and 18 of the 21 finishers ended up doing two stops.

Vettel changes plans and still wins the race

After losing out to Lewis Hamilton in qualifying, Vettel knew he needed to pass the McLaren early in the first stint. He muscled his way past on the opening lap and was never really tested after that in the race. He was able to use his car pace advantage to open a 1 second gap over Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap and that gap was out to 4.7s by the time Hamilton pitted on lap 15.

Vettel had saved sets of soft tyres, thinking they would be the tyre of choice for the race. But having managed 16 laps on the used supersofts, the team switched plans and put him on the same tyre again for the second stint, this time lasting 18 laps. This took him to the window for putting on a set of softs and going to the finish on a two stop plan, one less than pre-race predictions.

After the Safety Car appeared on lap 16, giving Vettel a ‘free’ pitstop and fresher tyres, Hamilton had to turn his attention to Mark Webber behind, who was particularly quick on the prime tyre. Vettel cruised to victory, the winning margin over Hamilton 12s.

Could Mark Webber have won the race if Red Bull hadn't pitted him with Hamilton?

One of the real talking points of this race was the decision by Red Bull to pit third place Mark Webber on the same lap as Lewis Hamilton (lap 33) when Webber, running on soft tyres, was faster than the Englishman on supersofts.

Why did Webber make his final pitstop on the same lap as Hamilton, when he’d radioed the team to say his primes were holding out okay? He was very frustrated after the race,

"I think at the second stop we did the worst thing," he said. "We didn’t stop before or stop after [Hamilton], we stopped on the same lap. That was disappointing as clearly we had some good pace to pull away from Lewis."

Webber had caught Hamilton who was due a stop. By lap 32 Hamilton's lap times had dropped off by a second a lap. Webber had been sitting behind him since lap 27 and as the car behind had the tactical advantage of being able to stop first without Hamilton being able to react and cover him. With Red Bull having the fastest pit work, it is likely that had Webber dived into the pits on lap 32 he would have undercut Hamilton as he had a car pace advantage of 0.5 secs over the McLaren plus the out lap on new soft tyres was substantially faster than Hamilton managed on lap 33 on used supersofts (his in-lap).

However staying out a lap longer would not have done the job, as even with a car pace advantage believed to be 0.5s/lap over the McLaren, Hamilton’s new tyres would more than offset that advantage.

As for passing Vettel in the undercut, Webber was quick to point out after the race that Vettel's lap times (lap 31: 1:42.433s; lap 32: 1:42.281s; lap 33: 1:42.044s) were still getting quicker at this stage of the race, so he would not have jumped his team mate. Red Bull cannot therefore be accused of trying to stop him from winning. However they probably did lose him a second place by not stopping him before Hamilton.

Red Bull were cagey after the race (and keener to talk about the big picture of their constructors’ championship success) but it's likely that the team thought that Webber had taken more out his tyres than Seb, due to his scrapping with Lewis. So they didn’t think he’d lap significantly faster in clear air.

It is also possible that Red Bull fancied their chances of winning a "pitstop race" with McLaren under pressure, given their track record this season (as highlighted in my pre-race UBS Strategy Briefing). Sadly for them that's one race they lost this time.

Either way, it failed and Webber ended up staying behind Hamilton.

Could Alonso have finished second?

The Ferrari with its experimental front wing, was slow in qualifying, but Fernando Alonso was very fast on the soft tyre in the race. He spent the opening 34 laps stuck behind his team-mate Felipe Massa, costing him about 0.5s per lap if you compare their lap times when Fernando was in clear air, having jumped Massa in the pit stops, from lap 38 onwards.

After making his second stop on lap 37, Alonso was seven seconds behind Button, yet that gap was down to one second within 10 laps. All of the leading cars ran the same new soft tyres in the final stint and they set similar lap times, but Alonso had exceptional pace on the tyre.

Although he said after the race that he did not lose time behind Massa, it is very clear therefore that had Alonso been closer to Button at the second pitstops, he could have got the undercut and challenged Webber and Hamilton. His radio message, “I give up” at the end of the race, was a clear message to Ferrari’s management, which he rowed back from in the past race interviews.

Rosberg's heroic efforts to stave off Alguersuari

Nico Rosberg did a phenomenal job to do 28 laps – four laps longer than anyone else – on the soft tyres for his final stint. It was a surprise to see any car – and particularly a Mercedes – last that long.

His opening stint was 13 laps on used supersofts. What wrecked his race was that he only did 14 laps – four of which were behind the Safety Car – on a new set of soft tyres for his second stint because he was forced to pit early after flat-spotting this new set while scrapping with Massa.

Although he kept soldiering on near the end, the tyres were finished and he was passed on the final lap by Jaime Alguersuari for seventh place.

One third distance safety cars becoming a trend

This year we have seen quite a few Safety Cars deployed at one-third race distance. These favour the drivers running the longer opening stints. The ones that started on the soft tyres and ‘going long’ were Adrian Sutil, Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez, and they all benefited from the Safety Car. Jaime Alguersuari was running the supersoft tyre but hadn’t stopped either so his tyre performance and pace was very impressive and he benefitted from the Safety Car.

Toro Rosso's low tyre wear and very high straight-line speeds were the two biggest factors behind Alguersuari and Buemi finishing in the points. They were first and second fastest through the speed trap in the race (Buemi 320.6kph, Alg 320.5kph), whereas Vettel was just 14th fastest (312.9kph). They were also first and second fastest in sector 1 (Alg 35.0s, Bue 35.1s, Vet 35.6s).

Buemi did the longest stint of anyone on the option tyre in the final stint. He pitted for options on lap 36 and his final lap of the race was 1.5s slower than team-mate Alguersuari on the primes.

Why did some drivers run out of fuel?

Rosberg and Alonso ran out of fuel on the slow-down lap in Korea, and Button had a similar problem at Suzuka. It begs the question, why? Four laps behind the Safety Car at Yeongam should have given the teams ample opportunity to save fuel.

It appears it’s down to the teams being a lot more aggressive with their fuel tank sizes this year and the need to use aggressive engine modes at the start and re-starts.

THe UBS Strategy Report and Briefing is prepared by James Allen with input from strategists from several F1 teams.

RACE HISTORY CHART

This is a graph representation of the Race History sheet showing the gaps behind the leader and the leaders's own performance relative to his average lap time.

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