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How Button won despite five stops: A deep dive into strategy from Canada

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How Button won despite five stops: A deep dive into strategy from Canada
Jun 14, 2011, 7:49 AM

By common consent, the Canadian Grand Prix this year was an absolute classic.

By common consent, the Canadian Grand Prix this year was an absolute classic. It had everything; great racing, safety cars, rain, collisions and some very tight strategy calls, often with little data with which to work.

The strategists were really tested on Sunday and it made for a fascinating race. Jenson Button won despite a drive through penalty, five pits stops, two collisions and a whole lap with a puncture.

Even more incredible is to look at it like this; in the 70 lap race there were only 38 racing laps in total. The other 32 were safety car laps. On lap 40 Button was in last place. So how did he do it?

The answer is by a mixture of strategy, great lap times and overtakes. He and his strategists basically made it happen for themselves.

Button's race under the microscope

To understand Jenson Button's race we need to go back to McLaren's decision to run his car with a lot of downforce, particularly the big rear wing. Although he wasn't demonstrably faster than the others in really wet conditions, the downforce and balance of the car came into its own in the period of the race when he was on intermediate tyres. He made most of his progress in that condition. So, for example, having been last on lap 40 he was 9th on lap 51. An early switch to the dry tyre also paid dividends.

We could examine the pre-red flag period, but it would be academic to the outcome, as the race was neutralised. All of Button's problems, like his collisions with Hamilton and Alonso, his multiple stops, puncture and drive through penalty were all in the past by the time the lap 40 safety car came out.

This was the reset moment of his race. From here, with a well balanced car on intermediates, one more stop to make onto slicks, DRS enabled for overtakes, he made the race his, passing car after car.

He was one of the earliest to switch onto slick tyres, on lap 51 and gained the benefit of that. Webber had gone for them a lap earlier and his sector times on lap 50 showed it was the tyre to be on, so from 10th place McLaren pitted Button for slicks and he found tremendous pace on them straight away. At that point he was 27 seconds behind Vettel.

Red Bull had been playing it cautious at every step with Vettel, waiting a few extra laps in each case to be sure they were making the right call. Webber gambled on slicks first, partly to give himself a chance and partly so Red Bull could look at the data and pick the right moment to pit Vettel. They were again cautious, leaving it two laps longer than Button. By the time Vettel emerged from his final stop on slick tyres Button was just 15 seconds behind and lapping two seconds faster than the champion.

Many fans have asked whether Button could have won without the final safety car on laps 59/60. Vettel was unlucky with the various safety cars to lose a total of 20 seconds. But with regard to the last one in particular, it would have been close; he was in fourth place and closing fast on Vettel anyway. With 12 laps to go he might well have caught him without the safety car. And bear in mind that he caught and passed Vettel using tyres which were two laps older than the German's.

Second guessing the conservatism of the FIA Race Director

One interesting trend we are seeing is the FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting, being quite conservative in terms of the deployment of the safety car and the length of time it stays out, as well as the instructions to competitors, such as that they must be on wet tyres for the restart after the red flag. He seems more risk averse than in years gone by and this is now a crucial factor that fundamentally affects race strategy.

What we saw yesterday was some teams second-guessing that conservatism, such as Renault and Sauber, who gambled when the lap 20 safety car came out for heavy rain, that Whiting would stop the race.

Most teams took the opportunity of the safety car to make a stop for new wet tyres, however Renault left Heidfeld and Petrov out, Sauber did the same with Kobayashi and De La Rosa, Force India did it with di Resta while Sutil even stayed out on intermediate tyres! All were gambling on a red flag and they got one.

Although a pit stop under safety car had only taken 14 seconds for their rivals, this promoted all the gamblers up the order and when the red flag came they got the double win because Whiting said that all cars must have wet tyres fitted for the restart, so they got a free tyre change.

Heidfeld went from 6th to 4th, Di Resta went from 9th to 6th, Sutil from 17th to 13th. Kobayashi could only laugh as the likes of Alonso, Rosberg and Schumacher all pitted in front of him for intermediates and then realised their mistake as more rain fell, promoting the Japanese driver up to second place. And then he got a free tyre change under the red flag.

One has to observe that the combination of Kobayashi and the Sauber strategy team have made some bold calls in the last couple of years and made them work.

He's not just an exciting overtaker, he makes some winning bets on strategy too.

The UBS Strategy Report is prepared with input and data from strategists from the F1 teams

Race History Graph

The interesting aspects are the number of safety car periods and laps, and how disjointed the first half of the race is.

The last half of the race history is most interesting but needs to be viewed along with a race positions plot to understand the progress Button made. He made good progress during intermediate tyre phase and when everyone switched from Intermediate to Dry

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