Contrasting strategies at India show why Vettel continues to win

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The Indian Grand Prix proved to be another fascinating tactical battle between teams and drivers, showing that there’s often more than one way to get the best out of a race situation.

When the teams ran in Friday’s free practice sessions, it quickly became clear that the two nominated tire compounds had vastly different characteristics. The soft tire, or option, delivered a lap time around a second faster than the medium, or prime, but deteriorated significantly within a handful of laps. The medium was slower, yet withstood the abrasive surface of the Buddh International Circuit and showed almost no signs of degradation or wear for long spells, even on heavy fuel loads.

This all meant that race strategy, even more so than normal, had to be planned out before qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

The two most obvious race strategies were to qualify, and therefore start the Grand Prix, on the faster option tire, run that for a short spell, before doing two long stints on prime to the end; or conversely qualify and start on prime, even though it meant taking a hit on lap time and therefore grid position, before another stint of the same and switching to the options right at the end of the race.

There wasn’t much on paper between the two, but in fact most simulations had the latter version coming out as being slightly quicker by four or five seconds over the course of the entire race. Both were therefore feasible options and a few teams chose to cover both bases and split their two drivers.

You might ask why, if one strategy shows up as being four seconds faster than another, doesn’t everyone just go with that one?

There’re many factors to be taken into consideration before deciding on race plans, some aren’t always obvious to the outside world.

First, teams need to look at their two drivers and pinpoint their individual strengths and weaknesses. If one driver is clearly better than the other at looking after tires, he could manage a longer stint on options, or even in extreme cases, look at one less stop than his teammate. We saw this in Japan between the two Red Bull drivers.

Another consideration is a driver’s ability to cleanly overtake the pack if he comes out into traffic after a pitstop. Again, we saw the difference between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in Japan when both of their strategies needed them to catch and pass Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Vettel did it quickly and cleanly, without losing time or hurting tires behind his rival. Webber spent two laps fighting under the Lotus’ rear wing and lost time on the track to his teammate, but took valuable life from his Pirellis, which meant his strategy failed.

The ability to deliver a qualifying lap late in the session, under pressure and without the need to do multiple runs will determine how many new sets of tires the team have to use in the race. This obviously has a big impact on strategy.

In India, those who qualified and started on options had already taken three laps of life from their tires before the race had even begun, those who were able to save options and then set Q3 times on primes, were able to keep a brand new set for the last race stint. On a circuit where soft tires only lasted a few short laps, that was where part of those four or five seconds difference would come from over the alternate race strategy.

The team know their drivers inside out and so the best strategy for one, may not be necessarily the best for the other.

Other factors that come into play when deciding how to approach a race include the nature of the circuit. The first one or two turns can be crucial after the race start when the field’s bunched up, adrenaline’s high and nothing’s quite up to temperature. If the run down to turn one’s short and the corner tight, a team might prefer to go all out in qualifying to be at the front and in relative safety, over a seemingly preferable race strategy that might have them on alternate tires but further down the pack, like Webber did on Sunday. While Vettel got through the first few turns in the clear and unscathed, his teammate got caught up with other cars and compromised his original plan just a little bit.

The statistical chance of a safety car at any particular circuit can have a huge impact on deciding a team’s race decisions. The chance of the safety car playing a part generally diminishes after the first two laps of any race. In India, those who started on option, like Vettel, would’ve benefited had that happened early on, enabling them to pit and ditch the soft tire, spending the rest of the race on mediums.

When Webber stopped on lap 29 today, he took soft, option tires, perhaps not the ideal tire for that part of the race, but he did it with a safety car in mind. If an incident had occurred, he too could’ve used the ‘free’ pit stop to switch back to the prime and finish the race on them. If he’d taken primes at the stop and the safety car had then come out, it would’ve ruined his Grand Prix as he’d have been forced to stop and take options, having not yet used them, and been left with an unmanageably long last stint.

In hindsight this was over-cautious. In the three years we’ve been racing in India, the safety car hasn’t yet made an appearance and at that middle stage of the race, it was highly unlikely it was going to. His fastest way to the end was to stay on primes and take the new options for a very fast, but short final stint, when the car was at its lightest and the field at its most stretched. In the end it was academic as he retired with an alternator failure.

Weather; track evolution; the amount of time lost in pitlane for each stop; the car’s characteristics like top speed or traction and many other parameters are all carefully considered before heading into qualifying. Of course depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoons, the whole thing needs looking at again, the simulation models updated with grid positions, another look at the forecasts, start performance and so on.

Many people, both at the track and back at the team’s European bases work through the night to give the drivers and engineers the best possible scenarios before Sunday’s race, but once the lights go out it’s a constantly morphing model and the team need to be able to react as the race unfolds.

Often it’s the ability to think on one’s feet, that sets a good team apart from a great one.

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.

Pagenaud leads Penske 1-2-3-4 in Practice 3 at Road America

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Team Penske continued its domination this weekend at Road America, with Simon Pagenaud leading third practice for the Kohler Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Pagenaud pipped teammate Will Power in the final seconds to take fast lap honors in third practice, with Pagenaud’s 1:42.0439 edging Power’s 1:42.0698.

Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden ended third and fourth, making it a Penske 1-2-3-4 for the second consecutive session this weekend (they did the same in second practice on Friday). Scott Dixon ended the session fifth, the best of the Honda runners.

Several drivers had off-course excursions during practice as they pushed the limits ahead of qualifying this afternoon. Most notably, Newgarden brought out a brief red flag when he spun into the gravel in Turn 14, the third spin in turn 14 this weekend. Newgarden did not have any contact with the tire barriers, but the No. 2 Devilbiss Chevrolet was beached in the gravel and needed a tow. He suffered no damage, however, and rejoined the session after it resumed.

Of note, Marco Andretti and Spencer Pigot enjoyed strong sessions to end up sixth and seventh, while Mikhail Aleshin was 20th after arriving at the track earlier in the morning, with immigration issues delaying his travel.

Times are below. Qualifying begins at 4:00 p.m. ET (3:00 p.m. local time), and airs on NBCSN at 5:00 p.m. ET.

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Leclerc takes emotional Baku F2 victory, extends points lead

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Charles Leclerc extended his points lead at the top of the FIA Formula 2 championship on Saturday by taking an emotional victory in the feature race at the Baku City Circuit.

Racing just days after the death of his father and with tributes on both his car and helmet, Leclerc went unchallenged en route to his third victory of the F2 season, leading home Nyck de Vries and Nicholas Latifi.

Leclerc made a clean start from pole to retain his advantage through the opening stint, only losing the lead for a handful of laps after pitting when a handful of drivers tried to make an alternate strategy work.

Despite multiple safety car periods and the race finishing under a red flag, Ferrari youngster Leclerc was able to finish 3.4 seconds clear of de Vries in second place, with Latifi a further 2.9 seconds back.

Leclerc’s title rival, Oliver Rowland, was classified fourth, with the results of the race being counted back to Lap 24 after it was red flagged late on.

A spin for Sean Gelael at the tight Turn 8 section by the castle caused a blockage, preventing cars from getting through, meaning that the race had to be called off.

Leclerc’s championship lead now stands at 22 points ahead of Sunday’s reverse grid sprint race in Baku.