The thing about Formula One race strategies is that they need to be adaptable to cope with the unforeseen circumstances that the sport invariably throws up. No matter the plan, teams must react quickly to whatever’s thrown at them.
When the strategists at each team sit down after qualifying on a Saturday evening to ponder their options, they look at data; weather forecasts; the cars around them on the grid; their own confidence in their race pace; start performance; the amount of tires used and those they have left, as well as many other factors.
Between strategists, engineers, management and the drivers themselves, they come up with at least two or three of the most probable scenarios or plans. Those plans will cover things like what happens if they have a good start or a bad start; where they are after lap one and what they do if it all goes wrong, have contact and an enforced first lap pitstop. They’ll have a ‘plan A’ which is the optimum strategy and considered the fastest way to the checkered flag and a ‘plan B’ to cover the possibility of the tires not lasting their intended stint length.
Sunday, everyone’s optimum race strategy was compromised in one way or another, by a number of issues.
After the practice sessions, analysis showed the fastest way for the top 10 to complete the race was a two stop strategy, starting on the medium tire, stopping around lap 17 for another set of mediums, before finally stopping around lap 35 for the hard. Whilst that may well have been what most intended, excessive graining on the options, unforeseen tire failures and safety cars changed things.
When Lewis Hamilton had the first failure whilst leading on lap 7, nobody thought it would be the start of a chain reaction.
Felipe Massa’s Ferrari was next to suffer the same left rear failure at the same point of the circuit and Jean Eric Vergne followed shortly afterwards with a similar and spectacular blow out of his own. That one, not only brought out the first safety car that stayed out for seven laps, but clearly raised eyebrows amongst the teams. It was clear there was an inherent problem affecting left rear tires and that meant that teams had to decide what to do.
Some pitted under the safety car, some drivers were told by their teams to try and avoid kerbs, some increased tire pressures in their pitstop sets to try and stiffen up the sidewalls, but the teams and Pirelli furiously tried to work out what was happening.
Avoiding kerbs clearly compromises race pace, as does running with higher than preferred pressures, and therefore can have an impact on strategy, but the possibility of more failures has even more dire effects. Those that pitted mostly switched to hard, prime tires after many struggled more than predicted on options, but were still on for the two stop plan to work, so they tentatively continued with the championship leader out front.
Vettel controlled the race pace well in the lead, keeping Rosberg behind until ten laps from the end when his Red Bull Racing RB9 ground to a halt with a failure of fifth gear. With the car in an unsafe position and Race Control more than happy to slow proceedings down to prevent anymore dangerous failures, the safety car was again deployed.
This was the point where teams had to make crucial, race defining and split second decisions.
For Rosberg, now out in front, it was easy, he had a worrying tire vibration and enough of a gap behind to make the unplanned third stop without losing track position.
For those behind it was make or break time and whilst Alonso and Webber also dived in and switched to a late three stopper under the safety car, Raikkonen’s Lotus team decided to leave him out.
That decision was a bad one and ultimately cost Kimi a podium spot as he struggled on old tires in the closing laps.
Whilst stopping meant that Webber and Alonso lost places initially, the fresh mediums for the short last stint allowed them to push hard to the flag and pass with relative ease to take second and third places respectively. Their teams got it right under pressure, Kimi’s unfortunately didn’t today.
All the planning, data and analysis in the world couldn’t have prepared for today’s events, so in those instances success or failure comes down to the decisions of the drivers and their teams. Despite the obscene amount of Dollars spent on strategic simulation and predictive tools up and down pitlane, when it comes to making a last minute, split second decision in the heat of battle, it often boils down to good old fashioned human reactions under pressure. Some are better than others.
You can follow Marc Priestley on Twitter @f1elvis.