Spanish F1 Grand Prix - Race

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.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: 2016 Monaco GP

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Dubbing the Monaco Grand Prix as the ‘jewel in Formula 1’s crown’ may be an overused cliche, yet it also perfectly describes what is unquestionably the biggest event of the sport’s season.

Off-track, the rich and famous come out to see the on-track warriors enter battle at one of the most challenging circuits in world motorsport.

Nico Rosberg remains the championship leader upon arrival in Monaco, and he is also the man to beat around the streets where he grew up after winning the last three grands prix in the principality.

However, with Red Bull riding high after Max Verstappen’s victory in Spain and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton keen to end his win drought, the German is unlikely to have things all his own way.

As ever, MotorSportsTalk editor Tony DiZinno and lead F1 writer Luke Smith have made their predictions for the weekend ahead. Let us know your picks in the comments section below.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg may have won the last three races around here, and Red Bull may have led the way during practice, but I’m backing Hamilton to get back into the title race on Sunday. With rain forecast, it’s about time the three-time champ delivers one of his career-defining drives, dominating proceedings while the rest flounder.

Surprise Finish: Esteban Gutierrez. After such a miserable start to the season, I’m backing Guti to end his luckless streak and score his first points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday.

Most to Prove: Nico Rosberg. Around the streets he grew up, Rosberg needs to truly prove his title credentials this weekend by defeating Hamilton in a straight fight… which we’re still yet to get this year…

Additional Storyline: Max in the spotlight. After his victory in Spain two weeks ago, Verstappen is the man of the moment. Quite how he manages to cope with the pressure in Monaco and build on this result will be fascinating to see.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. There is nothing on current form that makes me confident in this pick but man if there was a place for Hamilton to make some sort of comeback to his season and erase the negativity after the Spanish GP start dust-up, it’s here.

Surprise Finish: Nico Hulkenberg. Again, nothing on current form suggests any sort of Hulkenberg result is imminent, but frankly, given how poor his run is – he hasn’t even finished lately – he’s gotta be due for some points score. Right?

Most to Prove: Max Verstappen. Yeah, what are you gonna do for an encore, kid? After turning the F1 world on its head two weeks ago with an incredible, near impossible to believe win on debut for Red Bull, how will he follow up this week?

Additional Storyline: Pirelli ultra-soft tire debut. They’re the most popular tire choice and the fascinating element will be just how long they last.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Max Verstappen Red Bull

Ricciardo takes Red Bull top in second Monaco GP practice

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo proved that Red Bull’s race-winning pace in Spain two weeks ago was no flash-in-the-pan by comfortably finishing fastest in the second practice session for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday.

Ricciardo arrived in Monaco hopeful of emulating teammate Max Verstappen’s victory in Spain, armed with an updated Renault power unit for the weekend.

Fitted with the new ultra-soft tire that is debuting in Monaco, Ricciardo dominated proceedings to finish six-tenths of a second clear of the field in FP2.

A fastest lap of 1:14.607 was enough to give Ricciardo P1 at the checkered flag, firing a warning shot to Mercedes heading into the rest of the weekend.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had eased to a one-two finish in FP1 earlier in the day, but they were forced to settle for second and third in the afternoon.

Verstappen followed closely behind in fourth for Red Bull, while the Toro Rosso pair of Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. impressed to finish fifth and sixth in FP2.

Kimi Raikkonen finished seventh in a difficult session for Ferrari that saw Sebastian Vettel hit the wall twice. The German driver escaped any serious damage, but could only finish ninth overall. Sergio Perez split the pair, while Jenson Button rounded out the top 10 for McLaren.

Much like FP1, the session was interrupted by a handful of on-track incidents. Romain Grosjean sustained damage to the front of his car after hitting the wall at the exit of the tunnel. Rio Haryanto also required repairs after a similar error, clattering the rear of his Manor into the barrier.

It proved to be a session to forget for Renault as both Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen hit trouble. Palmer missed the first hour of running due to an issue on his car, while Magnussen shunted his front-end at the final corner, prompting a Virtual Safety Car period.

Practice and qualifying in Monaco takes place on Saturday, with Friday being the traditional ‘off’ day.

Vettel reflects on early success in wake of Verstappen’s victory

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 15: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing is congratulated on his first F1 win on the podium by Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 15, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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In the wake of Max Verstappen’s shock maiden grand prix victory in Spain two weeks ago, four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel has reflected on his own early success in the sport, saying it can be “difficult to grasp”.

Verstappen became the youngest winner in F1 history at the age of 18 in Barcelona, breaking Vettel’s record that had stood since the 2008 Italian Grand Prix.

Both drivers were members of the Red Bull junior programme, making their way through Toro Rosso before racing for the energy drink giant’s senior F1 team.

When asked by NBC Sports in Wednesday’s pre-Monaco FIA press conference for his thoughts on Verstappen’s success, Vettel noted that at the same age he was only racing in Formula 3.

“I was in Formula Three so I can’t possibly share…” he said.

“But yeah, in both cases probably the circumstances were very new. It wasn’t an expected win, probably little bit less for me at the time.

“Still, I think your first grand prix win is something. You’re over the moon. Something very difficult to grasp.

“I’m sure he felt now how it was and he wants to do it again. That’s how I felt back then.

“It’s up to all the rest of us to ensure it doesn’t happen too often.”

Verstappen has been subject to a great media focus in his native Netherlands after becoming the nation’s first grand prix winner.

“Yeah, it was pretty crazy in Holland,” Verstappen said.

“The first Dutch winner I think it’s always very special, so I can call myself now the youngest and the oldest – something I’m the oldest in!

“Luckily, I didn’t go out too much in Holland on the streets, just enjoying my time a bit with family and friend but of course hopefully we’ll see more fans [at races], that’s for sure.”

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: What’s next for Max, Mercedes, Ferrari?

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 25:  The Drivers Press Conference with Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing, Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari, Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing, Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1, and Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain and Renault Sport F1 during previews to the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 25, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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As we prepare for arguably the biggest weekend on the motorsports calendar, with the Monaco Grand Prix, the 100th Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 all in a row this Sunday, we do have to take a look back on some of the bigger stories that have occurred in the last few weeks.

Luckily, Stefan Johansson has checked in with another new installment of his blog, in an interview with Jan Tegler.

And the last Grand Prix two weeks ago in Barcelona, where the Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates crashed into each other on the opening lap, then Max Verstappen took his maiden Grand Prix victory, provided no shortage of story lines.

Let’s talk the Max factor, first. Johansson was quick to praise Verstappen’s racecraft, but also made the note that the nature of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya can lend itself to surprise race scenarios.

“I think he did a phenomenal job and no doubt, he’s the future of Formula One. But Barcelona is also a track which maybe more than any other track on the calendar lends itself to a scenario like this,” Johansson writes. “Don’t forget, Pastor Maldonado won a race there too under very similar circumstances, when Alonso was chasing him the entire race but could not find a way past.

“The speed difference between the Ferraris and the Red Bulls wasn’t large enough to make passing realistic. As long as Verstappen didn’t make a mistake – and full credit to him for being mistake-free – all he had to do was drive his own race. He didn’t have to fight for the win the way he might have had to at another track. Still, he did a sensational job.”

Johansson added a line that Verstappen’s now former teammate at Scuderia Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz Jr., got almost no love in the immediate aftermath despite a career day of his own with a sixth place finish.

“On the other hand, Carlos Sainz has gotten almost zero credit and he also did a sensational job. He finished 6th in a car that’s clearly not anywhere near as competitive as the Red Bull. But that’s F1. The media build guys like Verstappen way up. Then if they fail, they bury them just as fast.”

How Verstappen got in the win situation to begin with came courtesy of the controversial first lap contretemps between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the Mercedes teammates.

So what did Johansson think of the proceedings?

“I really think it was just a racing incident,” he writes. “A combination of things came together in a fraction of a second, literally. I don’t think there was any intent from either driver to do anything particularly sinister. It was a chain reaction triggered by Rosberg’s lack of power.

“My argument has always been that you race fairly and you should leave at least a car width if someone gets a good run on you. But that’s not the ethic these days. So the nature of racing now means that this can happen. You act on instinct with these rules in place and in this case, I don’t think you can blame one or the other. It was a racing incident.”

Proof, then, that not every incident needs a single person or driver to take the full blame.

Beyond Red Bull and Mercedes, there is Ferrari, a team near and dear to Johansson’s heart considering he used to race for the Scuderia.

But with results not coming at all – the team won three Grands Prix last year but has got off to a less than perfect start to 2016 – the question is when will Ferrari win again?

Johansson makes the point that good relationships need time to blossom, build, gel and take time.

“When Ferrari was winning everything (1999-2004) they had a dream team that will probably never exist again in Formula One. Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Michael Schumacher – these are some of the best guys ever in F1 and they all made a pact to stick together and drive Ferrari forward through thick and thin. That’s what made them successful,” he writes.

Can Ferrari turn it around? We’ll see starting this weekend in Monaco.

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.