Why couldn’t Lotus catch Vettel? Look to the tires

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Saturday’s qualifying showed it was clear certain teams had decided to play a tactical game this weekend, over going all out for the highest possible grid slot.

It’s not something the purists like to see, but a Formula One team will analyze every situation and do what they think is best for them, not what’s best for those watching.

With teams opting to either sit out the final qualifying session, or set a time on the slower, more durable race tire, it provided something of an anticlimactic Saturday afternoon, but set the scene for a fantastic strategic battle Sunday.

This weekend Pirelli not only brought a new rear tire construction as part of measures to ensure no repeat of the Silverstone fiasco, but brought two compounds which, at this track, gave a significant performance difference between the two. Typically, when this situation occurs between two tire types, we’re served up a Grand Prix with a mixture of different strategies and it’s rarely clear until the last few laps, how things might pan out. Today was no different.

Before the race began we all tried to calculate how the front six cars, starting on the soft compound, might fare against those starting farther back. The soft was only likely to last a handful of laps with cars full of fuel from the start, while the rest would potentially come into play in the last 10 laps when they too, fitted the considerably faster, soft-option tire.

Questions surfaces whether Mercedes had come up with fixes for their, now traditional, heavy race tire degradation. The answers came early. A poor start from Lewis Hamilton on pole position gave up track position to both Red Bulls, but more telling was his pace and early lap 6 pitstop to switch to the primes. Mercedes’ race with both cars was severely compromised by excessive thermal degradation of the rears, something today’s high track and ambient temperatures made much worse than earlier in the weekend.

The team desperately need track time to work on this area, but while everyone else we be learning at the upcoming Young Driver Test, Mercedes will miss out due to their penalty from the International Tribunal a few weeks back.

The predicted time difference between a two and three stop race was minimal here and the race finish proved it so.

Out front it looked like a three car battle, with both Lotus’ chasing down Sebastian Vettel on similar race plans. With Lotus unable to find enough pace to get past the Red Bull, they were forced to try something a little different to get past.

Romain Grosjean, running second, tried to undercut the leader and dived into the pits on lap 40 for new mediums, but couldn’t find enough on his out lap to jump Vettel, who responded a lap later. Kimi Raikkonen, now leading, but with one less stop, was faced with a tough call and a number of options to see the race out.

He could follow the other two and pit for mediums and race them to the flag, but the status quo would’ve likely resumed.

He could stay out and try and get to the end without another stop, hoping to hold off Vettel and co when they inevitably caught up by the last couple of laps, but the stint length would’ve been 36 laps on his medium tires. After Friday’s running this looked possible, but the higher temperatures today meant it was a long shot.

In the end, with Vettel and Grosjean held up slightly in traffic, Kimi opted to stay out. This gave him the option of gauging tire life a bit longer and deciding wether to try and get to the end, or attempt to open up a gap big enough to stop again and come out in front.

Clearing the traffic quickly meant the chasers just stopped Kimi from edging out the required gap and his choices were limited again. His big push had taken valuable life from his medium compound tires and the decision was taken to get to lap 50 and switch to softs.

The hope was that the faster soft tire would enable him to take the challenge to the Red Bull in the last couple of laps, despite the pitstop bringing him out at the back of the three car train.

Fernando Alonso, who’d remained largely anonymous during most of the race, did the same and came out behind Kimi.

Where the Lotus plan failed to a certain degree, was that the soft tires that went onto Kimi’s car were used ones from qualifying, they had no fresh ones left. This meant the expected gain in laptime wasn’t quite there in the first couple of laps and he didn’t close up quickly enough. Coupled with a delay in issuing team orders to let Kimi past Grosjean, it meant Vettel had just enough in the bag to hold on for his first win on home soil.

Teams all look to a variety of reasons why their races weren’t quite perfect in the end. Backmarkers, safety cars at the wrong time, temperatures or bad starts, but in the end perhaps using the extra set of soft tires in qualifying was the difference. Alonso, who did save soft tires on Saturday and pitted at the same time as Kimi, put in some blistering lap times at the end to bring himself right back into contention, challenging for third place.

You can follow Marc Priestley on Twitter @f1elvis.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.