How Mercedes’ tire strategy derailed them in Barcelona

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All the talk after the Spanish GP was, once again, dominated by tires. The grumbles in certain areas of the paddock are becoming louder and louder as race strategies were again decided by a team’s ability to make a set of Pirellis last long enough to complete a sensible stint.

Certain teams are better at this than others and, at the end of the day, it could be said that it’s a result of them doing a better job than the ones who struggle. A Formula One team’s job, after all, is to design a car to meet the challenges of the sport in its current form. It has to be said that the loudest complainers are noticeably the ones not finding things easy right now.

With that in mind I’ll take a quick look at two differing ends of that spectrum from Sunday’s race.

Race strategies are complicated things to plan; many factors that go in to making the decision and even once the decision’s made, it has to be flexible to cope with the unpredictable parameters.

Mercedes have a car, evident from the last three races, capable of being faster than anyone else over a single lap in qualifying and indeed that’s exactly what they were on Saturday.

Planning a race strategy from pole position’s a different prospect to planning one from further down the field and should clearly be a huge advantage at a circuit where overtaking is difficult. Assuming a good start, the driver in front should be able to dictate the race to a certain extent and pole sitter Nico Rosberg, starting along with all of the other front runners on the medium compound tire, did indeed get away in front.

His biggest problem, and one that came as no surprise to all involved, is the fact that the Mercedes F1W04 destroys tires considerably quicker than everyone else. On Saturday evening when the drivers and their engineers at the team, and indeed all of the teams, sat down to figure out their best strategic options, they knew this and had to factor it into their race plans.

The white walled medium compound tire, faster of the two but less durable, was the one to qualify on, but on a Mercedes it was never going to last very long in race conditions. At the start every car’s carrying close to 150kgs of fuel and that significant extra weight, combined with a track not yet at it’s most grippy and the need to fight other cars at close quarters, has a dramatic impact on tire life and therefore race strategy.

Hamilton: Mercedes has “a lot of work to do”

Their plan was, in all honesty, a damage limitation one, staying on the medium tire for as long as they could manage while holding off the field at the front and then using the harder compound for the remainder of the GP. Initial calculations had a three-stop strategy completing the race distance about 6 or 7 seconds faster than a four-stop one and so was optimal, but it would all depend on drivers looking after the rubber to make that work. Rosberg opted for the 3 stopper of medium/hard/hard/hard, but with the only way to make the hard compound last was for him to drive at a pace so slow he became a sitting duck. He predictably fell back through the field. Perhaps a four-stop race might have helped him a little, but in truth he was never going to catch the car in front and did just about survive the challenge of Paul Di Resta behind, so the outcome would probably have remained unchanged.

The eventual race winner, Fernando Alonso, who began the race fifth, would have had to look at things slightly differently on Saturday evening to Nico Rosberg. Also having to begin the race on medium compound tires, his optimal strategy relied on a great start, something Ferrari are generally able to rely on at the moment and duly delivered.

I thought their initial plan was to three stop, probably medium/hard/hard/hard or medium/hard/hard/medium, as the the car in the last stint of the race would cope a little easier on a set of medium tires and theoretically be faster.

In the end the Ferrari, with a handful of updates for this event, was able to push at a good pace and still keep the tires in good condition for most of the GP, in direct contrast to the Mercedes. This, combined with his stunning first lap, enabled to team to switch to a more comfortable four-stop race, allowing Alonso to push hard in each stint on a medium/hard/hard/medium/hard plan and stay ahead of the struggling pack. Again the two early spells on hards allowed the fuel load to burn off and the track to rubber in, before using mediums to set some blistering laptimes and secure his position out in front. By the time the final stop came around, the only set the team had left were already used from earlier in the weekend and so, with his position fairly stable, a set of hards saw him comfortably to the end. The stop actually came two laps earlier than planned because of a suspected, and now confirmed, slow puncture, but the hard work early on ensured it didn’t cost him track position. It was a superb drive by Alonso and ensured the team had options to play with when it came to deciding how to see out the race. They weren’t forced into anything or have to react to anyone else and so could use the four stop strategy to good advantage, pushing all the way.

To win from fifth position is unprecedented at this circuit and, while perhaps a sign of the Pirelli era, it’s actually more a sign of how badly the problems are at Mercedes. Their two cars, in P1 and P2 on the grid, finished in sixth and 12th, freeing up easy places for those further back and Alonso and Ferrari made great use of their start, racecraft and ultimately their race strategy, to take a dominant, flat out victory.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

Button enjoys ‘natural’ F1 return in Monaco, but hasn’t missed driving

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Jenson Button felt his return to a Formula 1 car in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix was “natural”, but admitted he hasn’t missed driving since stepping away from the sport.

Button appeared to have made his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi last November after stepping back from his McLaren race seat for 2017, only to be drafted in for the Monaco Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button passed on the opportunity to test the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car in Bahrain last month, making his run in FP1 on Thursday in Monaco his first taste of a new-style 2017 F1 car.

Nevertheless, the transition appeared seamless for Button, even though he has not driven an F1 car in seven months.

“As soon as I exited the pits, everything felt very natural,” Button said.

“The weirdest thing is when you’re behind a car or when you let a car past, because you look at it and it’s gigantic. Then you feel really uncomfortable because you think, maybe I am too close to the barriers.

“I’ve really enjoyed practice, both the long and short runs. FP2 was a bit of a struggle to really find my feet with the car. I’m braking so much later than what I’m used to here and carrying so much speed into the corners.

“Adjusting to that takes time, so with another day with the engineers and a look through the data, I’m confident that I can improve for Saturday.”

Button finished 14th in FP1 and 11th in FP2, lapping less than one-tenth of a second off the pace of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the afternoon, giving McLaren hope of its first points of the season.

Button remains coy about his chances, though, insisting there is still more pace to be found.

“I haven’t really thought about where I hope to finish. It’s a very mixed-up grid at the moment which I’m sure will all change again on Saturday,” Button said.

“The guys understand where I’m coming from. They know what they need to do to improve the car to suit me a little bit more and to give me a little bit more confidence. Hopefully we’ll see a step in performance on Saturday.”

Will this one-off return stir a desire to be back racing full-time for Button? Don’t count on it.

“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning, I had a little giggle to myself,” Button revealed.

“Have I missed it? No, but when you jump in the car, you definitely enjoy the moments that you have.”

Sainz refusing to get carried away with Toro Rosso’s Monaco pace

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Carlos Sainz Jr. is refusing to get carried away despite making a strong start to the Formula 1 weekend in Monaco as Toro Rosso got both of its cars inside the top five in second practice.

Toro Rosso currently sits fifth in the F1 constructors’ championship amid a close midfield battle, but appeared to pull clear of rivals Williams and Force India in Monaco on Thursday.

Sainz and teammate Daniil Kvyat both reached the top 10 in FP1 before sharing the lead for much of the early part of FP2 before the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull went quicker.

Kvyat ultimately finished the session fourth-fastest, 0.6 seconds off pace-setter Sebastian Vettel’s time, while Sainz followed in P5, but the Spaniard urged caution in the Toro Rosso ranks after the session.

“I think that we did what we needed to do on a Thursday in Monaco, building the speed up little by little and trying different configurations to give myself confidence with the car,” Sainz said.

“After today’s two practice sessions, it’s safe to say that we’re quite happy with everything. Obviously, from Thursday to Saturday a lot of things could change so we can’t let ourselves get carried away with today’s result.

“But it’s definitely a good starting point! I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

“Since our problems in Barcelona, where we had a number of updates, we’ve learned a little more on how to get a better balance with the car,” Toro Rosso technical chief James Key added.

“Both drivers seemed to be reasonably happy in FP1, so it was a case of fine-tuning the car a little bit for FP2. We ran a slightly different tire program to other teams, concentrating on our own work, car setup and understanding.

“During the afternoon session we made reasonable progress and, even if there are still some issues to resolve, the session went well.

“We will now be working hard overnight and tomorrow to look at the data and optimize the car as best we can.”

Stroll crashes out of Monaco FP2, seeking PlayStation gains

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Lance Stroll’s difficult start to life in Formula 1 continued on Thursday in Monaco when he crashed out of second practice following an error on entry to Casino Square.

Stroll, 18, is yet to score a point through his rookie F1 season, and suffered another setback in Monaco on Thursday when he shunted his Williams into the barrier with 35 minutes to go in FP2.

Stroll was unharmed, but the incident acted as the latest setback through what has been a baptism of fire for the young Canadian in F1 despite significant efforts to prepare for his rookie campaign through private testing.

“The track is great and I was really happy with the car, but then there was the crash at the end. I just basically centered in looking for the limit, got onto the dirt a little bit and lost the rear,” Stroll explained.

“It was a typical street circuit mistake. I got into learning the circuit pretty quickly and I was happy with the day until then. What is good here is the tire seems to be hanging on quite a bit, so we are able to do multiple push laps.

“In FP3 I am just going to build up my rhythm in that area, but I think I know pretty clearly in my head what I did wrong. I am going to look at the little areas I can improve on for Saturday, as I know we can do that and have a good day.”

Stroll’s pursuit of added lap time may be aided by an unusual influece: his experience of racing around Monaco on his PlayStation game.

“I think corner eight and the last corner are the two places I need to improve on,” Stroll said.

“But it really annoys me because every time I play the PlayStation game it has always been those two corners that I couldn’t get right, and in reality it is still those two corners!”

Hamilton puzzled by ‘night and day’ tire difference in Monaco practices

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Lewis Hamilton was left puzzled by his lack of pace in the second Formula 1 practice for the Monaco Grand Prix after feeling a “night and day” difference in his tires from morning to the afternoon on Thursday.

Hamilton posted the fastest time through FP1, but could not match F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel’s pace through second practice, finishing over 1.1 seconds off the pace in eighth place.

Hamilton felt a significant change in his tires between the sessions, and while he is unsure as to why, he is confident Mercedes can get to the bottom of the matter.

“We didn’t have the greatest day today. Practice one was actually really good and we were quickest, but then in second practice we just struggled to extract the grip from the tires and we were sliding around a lot,” Hamilton explained.

“I’m not sure why the tires weren’t working but the difference between the two sessions was night and day. We’ve got some work to do ahead of Saturday, that’s for sure, but I’m confident the team can work it out.

“Monaco is always amazing to drive, but this is definitely the best car I’ve driven around here. Ferrari are very quick again and Red Bull are also looking good this weekend.

“We’re looking forward to a real fight on Saturday.”