The Singapore Grand Prix may well have been something of a foregone conclusion in terms of the eventual winner, but it proved to be a fascinating battle of strategy and decision making in Sebastian Vettel’s wake.
The ominous truth is that the RB9, in the hands of the current World Champion, was simply on another level all weekend at the Marina Bay Circuit. Such was his utter dominance, not only was he able to sit out the majority of qualifying 3 on Saturday, having set his pole position time early on his first run, but he controlled the race from turn two to the checkered flag.
In a race that was dominated by strategic decisions, that for most teams, meant the difference between success and failure, for Sebastian Vettel his race strategy was largely irrelevant. The car had so much raw pace, pace that he was able to turn on and off at will, that he could react to situations by just pulling out the required gap to the chasing pack whenever the team asked him to.
Any race strategy has to be flexible enough around the tight and twisty streets of Singapore to accommodate the, almost inevitable, safety car period.
Simulations after qualifying predicted a three stop race being quicker than a two, but with the compromise being the difficulty in dealing with a safety car spell that history suggested would almost certainly arrive at some stage.
If we take the top three cars and look at their races, Vettel was in a class of his own and won the race because he had such an incredible pace advantage over his rivals. The safety car, when it came, wasn’t at an ideal stage for Red Bull, and they chose not to pit, along with the three cars behind him. The difference between our winner and the others in the same situation, was that he was able to immediately extend his lead after the safety car spell to over 30 seconds, comfortably enough to pit for new tires and yet still come out in front. Those in second, third and fourth, not so blessed with his speed, but still to pit, found themselves exiting pitlane around the ninth and tenth positions and in traffic that would ultimately prevent them from challenging for podiums come the end.
The second and third podium spots went to two drivers who managed to use strategy to outwit the likes of Webber and the two Mercedes’.
With Mercedes knowing it was unlikely they could pit under the safety car and make it to the end of the long race on the same set of tires, they were forced to stay out and hold on for their second stop. Their car is notoriously poor at looking after rear tires and on a circuit limited by rear thermal degradation, they suffered this track’s big pitlane loss time for a second pitstop, that the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso, stopping under safety car conditions, didn’t.
The gamble for Raikkonen and Alonso was one worth taking. Both cars are traditionally light on their rear tyres and both drivers experienced and skilled enough to know what it takes to make it to the end. With both guys starting the race a long way behind the championship leader, they had to try something different and today it paid off. No one had tried a stint length of that magnitude on the prime tires throughout the weekend, but both former World Champions did enough to get to the end, although Alonso’s car in particular looked to be very close to the limit with its rear tires in parc ferme.
Certain circumstances played into the hands of the lead three today, like the McLarens of Button and Perez struggling to follow a similar strategy to Raikkonen and Alonso and holding up the faster cars of Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton to prevent a late challenge for the podium. But certain key decisions made the difference.
Lotus, starting 13th on the grid with Kimi, were the first to pit for new options on lap ten and in doing so, managed blistering in and out laps to jump Perez and Di Resta early on. That track position allowed steady progress through the field as the middle group pitted and got up to speed.
Alonso, when initially looking at three stops, was held up by Di Resta for 6 laps after his first pitstop lasted 3.4 seconds and brought him out fractionally behind the Scot. A sub 3 second stop would have got him out in front and allowed him to attack the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, in front at the time. In the end it became irrelevant.
Mercedes may rue the decision not to pit under the safety car. The traffic curtailed behind the ailing McLarens at the end might have given them a safety cushion to eek out the long last stint and perhaps challenge Raikkonen’s Lotus for the final podium spot?
These strategic decisions aren’t the kind of thing that teams spend Saturday nights deliberating over, they’re not the decisions made by computers based on endless data and permutations, they’re the decisions, often of the driver or the folk sat on the pitwall, made in the spur of the moment and in the heat of battle. These reactive decisions can be the difference between success and failure and are where experience and instinct can count over and above expensive and complicated simulators and software.
Whilst Sebastian Vettel won today’s race impeccably, but with a far superior car, the two guys joining him on the rostrum were there through great starts, tactics and superior tire management, proving that Formula One’s as much about decision making as it is outright speed.