The Japanese Grand Prix this year was a fairly straight forward race, largely due to the lack of competition at the front, after Fernando Alonso was eliminated at the start and Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean were thrown down the order following their collision.
Nevertheless strategy played a central part in Felipe Massa’s break-though result and led to some of the other talking points of the race, like the Perez vs Hamilton battle and Schumacher’s challenge for points from the back of the grid. Before the race, the thinking was that two stops was the way to go, the main concern was the blistering of the Pirelli tyres, which does not initially affect the pace, but does upset the balance, due to vibration. The inside shoulder of the front tyres was a particular concern. Pirelli had brought hard and soft tyres to Suzuka and the soft had proved to be a second a lap faster in qualifying conditions and around 0.4secs per lap faster in race conditions.
The hard tyres were slower, but did not blister as much as the soft tyres and were also more durable. To make it to 53 laps starting with a set of soft tyres that had already done three laps in qualifying, meant getting to around lap 14/15 before the first stop and then two stints of up to 20 laps each.
Our strategy calculator had predicted stops for new hard tyres on laps 14 and 34 was a likely strategy and so it proved, although in some cases the first stop was delayed by a couple of laps thanks to the Safety Car, deployed for the startline accidents.
Simulations showed that two stops would be faster than three stops by 10 seconds, but teams were prepared to switch to three if the tyre degradation proved too much. It didn’t.
In the end, because of the two accidents at the start, which eliminated Alonso and Rosberg and put Grosjean and Webber down the order, the race was a foregone conclusion for Vettel and strategies were conservative and the stint lengths were pretty even. Also the Lap 1 safety car helped drivers extend the first stint by a couple of laps, which made a difference.
Massa: Playing it long pays dividends!
Felipe Massa had a very strong drive in the second Ferrari, starting 10th he finished in second place, his first podium for two years.
It was built on great strategy and a fantastic start, which saw Massa rise from 10th to fourth on the opening lap, thanks to avoiding the chaos of the Webber/Grosjean collision and the Alonso/Raikkonen incident.
Because he had failed to reach the final part of qualifying, Massa had a set of new soft tyres to start the race with and two new sets of hards available and his strategy was based on making maximum use of these. Thanks to his strong start he found himself racing Button and Kobayashi for second place and his new soft tyres gave him a tactical advantage in the opening stint, as he could run a couple of laps longer than Button and Kobayashi.
The McLaren was a little harder on its tyres in Japan so Button was in on lap 13, Kobayashi a lap later. Button’s pace when he stopped was similar to Massa’s and he believes that the team stopped him too early. He’s right.
When he came out of the pits he was behind Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso, who had been between 0.8s and 1.2s per lap slower than him prior to the stop. Another lap or two at that pace and he should have cleared him, but clearly the tyres were close to the “cliff”, so McLaren played it safe.
This turned out to be crucial because Button was 16 seconds behind Massa when he came out of the pits and that went out to 19 seconds in three laps, enough for Massa to pit and clear both him and Kobayashi who was also stuck behind Ricciardo.
New tyres for Massa at the start meant that he could run a crucial three laps longer than them in the first stint and take second place by running longer.
Massa was also quick on the hard tyres and posted his best result for two years, which shows that he hasn’t lost his speed. Perhaps his problem of the last two seasons has been more psychological.
Other strategies worth noting
Sergio Perez tried to do the same thing as Massa, running a longer first stint in order to jump Kimi Raikkonen. Although behind him on the track, the Sauber was faster in the first stint than the Lotus and Sauber’s strategists tried to run two laps longer than Raikkonen, who stopped on lap 13. Raikkonen was vulnerable because he had had to substitute an older set of tyres for the start, having damaged his qualifying tyres in a spin.
Sauber’s plan failed because Perez ran out of tyre life with the result that when he came out from his stop on lap 15 he was not only still behind Raikkonen, but now also behind Hamilton.
The psychology of being behind the man he’s replacing at McLaren next season was interesting and Perez appeared keen to prove a point, but he lost control of his car when battling with Hamilton and was out.
Mark Webber recovered well from his first lap incident with Grosjean. He finished in ninth place, eight seconds behind the fifth placed car.
Webber pitted on lap one for new tyres and then had the misfortune of seeing the race restarted when he had still not caught up to the pack behind the Safety Car. He was still 17 seconds behind the last car at the restart!
He effectively did a one stop strategy from there, using another new set of hard tyres at his stop on lap 26 and driving to the flag. This showed that the revised Red Bull is not only very fast but also good at looking after its tyres thanks to updates on the rear suspension and rear aerodynamics, which improve traction and reduce wheelspin.
Michael Schuamcher also had to come through the field from 23rd on the grid after a penalty. He started on new hard tyres and his strategy made use of the fact that he had two new sets of soft tyres available, so he stopped for them on laps 17 and 36. He gained 12 places, but the underlying car pace wasn’t there as it was for Webber, so he missed out on points. He spent much of the first half of the race behind Paul di Resta.
Thanks to his start, up from 23rd to 16th, Schumacher also avoided having to pass the Caterham/Marussia/HRT cars all of which Webber had to get through in the first 17 laps.
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