F1 Grand Prix of India - Race

Contrasting strategies at India show why Vettel continues to win

1 Comment

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.

Gutierrez hoping for more in Russia after finally banking first finish

during practice ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 18, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

An accident in the Australian Grand Prix and brake issues in the Bahrain Grand Prix was not the kind of return to competition Esteban Gutierrez was expecting.

After a one-year hiatus and two failures to finish in 2016, the 24-year-old Mexican driver for Formula 1’s new American team was finally running at the end of a race.

As he heads into this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, Gutierrez is keen to start getting any sort of momentum going.

“For sure it was a relief to finish the race finally,” Gutierrez said in Thursday’s FIA Press Conference.

“It’s been a frustrating start for me, a lot of interruptions over the weekends, but I wasn’t satisfied completely just by finishing the race of course, I want much more than that.”

Gutierrez finished the Chinese Grand Prix 14th, as the first driver one lap down to the leaders in the No. 21 Haas VF-16 Ferrari.

Notably, that is precisely where he finished his most recent five races of 2014—one lap off the pace, but running at the end of the show. Gutierrez’s last complete race came in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix when he finished 15th.

“China overall wasn’t a great track for our car,” he admitted. “Hopefully we can recover from now on, in Russia, and that this track gives us better possibilities.

“Russia offers… yeah, let’s say a medium range of overtaking so it’s not very straightforward but hopefully the strategy can be a bit more viable, that we can have more pitstops. As you say, the prediction is not the case, but hopefully we have a fun race for the people outside to watch, and have fun.”

Last year, Gutierrez spent his year working on race simulations to stay sharp. It was no substitute for race experience, but it provided a different perspective he hopes will lead to eventually finishing in a points’ paying position.

Working on a simulator in 2015 “didn’t change the approach; it changed my knowledge,” Gutierrez added. “I basically experiment a lot.”

“I feel very confident and I feel very prepared right now and everything is in front of me.”

Follow: @FantasyRace

Kvyat hopeful of continuing China form on home soil

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28:  Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Red Bull Racing waves at the crowd as he arrives on stage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Daniil Kvyat is confident that Red Bull can continue its strong start to the 2016 Formula 1 season this weekend in Russia as he prepares for his home grand prix.

Kvyat became just the second Russian F1 driver when he made his debut in 2014 with Toro Rosso, and the first to race on home soil after the addition of a grand prix in Sochi to the calendar the same year.

Kvyat finished third in China two weeks ago after enjoying a spirited battle with Sebastian Vettel, and arrives in Russia full of confidence thanks to the competitiveness of the Red Bull RB12 car.

“Lately we have been competitive on most of the tracks, any kind really, starting with Australia, Bahrain, China we always looked in quite good shape,” Kvyat said.

“I think Sochi also in the past for us maybe hasn’t been the easiest track, as a team, but now we are just coming to any track and we are just trying to extract everything the car has got.

“I believe also here we can fight for quite strong points. We will do our best and I think the car is looking in great shape.”

Kvyat came under fire from Vettel following an aggressive move at the start of the Chinese Grand Prix, but said that he has moved on from the incident.

“I think everything confirmed my point of view,” Kvyat said. “I think obviously everyone told their opinions on that incident, all the people involved. I think all in all I did what any competitive racing driver would do.

“But now I think there has been enough talk about it. Now it’s time to turn the page and move forward and now we are fully focused on the upcoming races.”

Hamilton: Red Bull F1 cockpit aero screen ‘like a riot shield’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing sits in his Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen in the garage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lewis Hamilton has made no secret of his opposition to Red Bull’s proposed ‘aero screen’ cockpit protection device, saying that it looks “like a bloody riot shield”.

Formula 1 has been working to improve cockpit safety following the deaths of Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson in 2015 from head injuries sustained while racing.

The ‘Halo’ device designed by Mercedes made its first public appearance in Barcelona in February at pre-season testing, meeting a mixed response.

Red Bull’s screen is an alternative proposal that has gained significant traction in recent weeks, meaning that it also could be implemented for the 2017 season.

Hamilton spoke out against the Halo when it debuted in Barcelona, and was just as dismissive of the aero screen ahead of its first public run-out in Russian GP practice on Friday.

“If they are going to do this, close the cockpit like a fighter jet,” Hamilton told reporters in Sochi on Thursday.

“If you are going to do it close the cockpit like a fighter jet, don’t half-ass it.

“That screen looks so bad. It’s like a bloody riot shield.”

“You’ve got this cool, elegant, futuristic Formula 1 car and you’ve got a crappy riot shield sat on top of it, and the other one [Halo], the carbon fibre structure was obviously good but obviously Fernando [Alonso] wouldn’t have been able to get out of the car potentially in his crash in Melbourne.”

However, Hamilton said he was pleased to see the FIA pushing on with its drive to improve safety standards in F1, although he believes danger should remain an inherent part of the sport.

“It is a good thing to see that the FIA do take safety seriously,” Hamilton said.

“It is a constant thing that always needs to be worked on but as long as it doesn’t affect the aesthetics and the style and the coolness of Formula 1.

“Because the reason you look as a kid, you look at Formula 1 [and think] ‘wow, these guys, they are crazy, they could die at any moment.’

“Everyone who comes to me who has just started watching Formula 1 is like ‘ah it’s so dangerous’ and that’s a large part of why they are so in awe of what you do.

“You take away all that and that person could do it almost.”

Rosberg: F1 title rivals have had a ‘messy’ start

during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nico Rosberg may enjoy a 36-point lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship, but the German driver is under no illusions about the difficult start to the season his main rivals have suffered.

Rosberg claimed his sixth consecutive grand prix victory in China two weeks ago to extend his advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ standings.

Hamilton is yet to have a clean race and go wheel-to-wheel with Rosberg at the front of the pack, while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel failed to start in Bahrain and suffered damage at the start in China.

Rosberg arrived in Sochi this week ahead of Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix full of confidence, but acknowledged that his rivals have been unlucky and expects them to respond soon.

“Definitely I’m pleased with the way I’ve been driving now in the first three races,” Rosberg said.

“For me, it’s not six in a row because the three last year were last year and they don’t count for anything in this year’s championship so for me it’s winning the first three which I’m really happy about.

“I’ve been driving really well, but my opposition had a really messy start. That’s the reality of it.

“I definitely expect them all to bounce back, especially Lewis and it’s going to be a great battle against them as always and it will be tough, even if I have some points lead now but it’s still such a long season: three races is a seventh or something of the whole thing.

“There’s like 450 points to take still and now I have 30-something in front or whatever. There’s still a massively long way to go so it’s not really changing the situation much.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live across NBCSN, CNBC and Live Extra this weekend. For more details, click here.