With almost all of the running in practice and qualifying completed on a wet or damp track this weekend, it meant the amount of useful information about the all important tire compounds was severely limited ahead of a dry race.
Teams use Fridays and Saturdays to prepare their cars under controlled conditions of high and low fuel, long and short runs, different tires and of course different set up options. This weekend there was no opportunity to learn about how the two dry compounds would work in a race situation, how long they would last and therefore at what kind of pitstop strategies they might have available. To all intents and purposes the teams’ strategists were relatively blind going into the race.
On the flip side of that, the use of intermediate tires in qualifying meant free choice to all in terms of starting tire compound for the Grand Prix.
With Sebastian Vettel largely unchallenged out front as his championship rivals started well back after qualifying struggles, I’m looking at two strategies further down in the field, one that worked and one that definitely didn’t.
Force India’s Paul Di Resta had an awful day on Saturday, qualifying way down in 17th position, his only option for the race was to try something a little different, a gamble.
Where the front-runners all opted to start on the option tire, the faster of the two, Di Resta went the other way and began the race on the more durable prime, or medium compound version.
His plan was to try and make a one-stop race work, but with no knowledge of how long the two dry compounds might last, it really was a leap into the unknown. The more common two stop strategy that most others used would at least give them options in terms of when to stop and information from the first stint to help with decisions for the next two.
The Force India team got into the race and without the necessary information to be able to gauge a controlled pace to manage the tires, they just went for it.
The likelihood of a safety car appearance is high at this circuit, so with that in mind, they could hope to be able to close up any deficit in track position at some point in the race and the one less stop than most, might help them move up the order. That safety car never came, so it was Paul’s race alone that would determine his result.
Di Resta pushed at a good pace on his mediums and, incredibly, managed a unprecedented 56 lap stint before making a great call himself to pit and take a set of supersofts for the remainder of the GP. The team let Paul decide when to box and he made the decision based, not on sophisticated computer software or simulation, but on good old fashioned ‘feel’. With a massive 54 laps on his mediums, he was still setting faster and faster laptimes and the moment he felt them beginning to give up, called the team to say he was coming in.
It might’ve been easy to buckle sooner, as the tires went through a graining phase, losing grip as the surface rubber rolls away. He didn’t and knowing that careful, yet still fast driving on a circuit where it’s all about traction rather than high cornering forces, would clean them up and bring back the performance, that’s exactly what he managed to do.
A solid drive and inspired gamble paid off and brought him a rewarding 7th place.
Facing the same dilemmas about tire knowledge, the might of McLaren unfortunately got it all wrong in the race.
Button also adopted a one stop strategy, albeit the other way around, starting on the supersoft and switching to the medium for the second stint. The part that the team got wrong wasn’t necessarily the order of their tire usage, although they may’ve benefitted slightly by going the other way, it was the way they used the medium tire for the majority of the GP.
Whereas Di Resta pushed hard, raced hard, until the tire ran out of life and then stopped, Button was given a lap time to drive to by the team in order to make the tire last until the end of the race. Quite how the strategists and engineers at McLaren came up with a time delta is anyone’s guess given the minimal knowledge from Friday, in temperatures a clear 10 degrees lower than today. However they did it, they got it wrong and Button, driving way too conservatively was never going to make up the ground he needed to to find a way into the points, even with one less visit to the pits than most. Late in the race, perhaps having seen the length of stint and pace that Di Resta had managed, they cottoned on and gave Jenson license to push, but by then it was all too late to make an impression. The McLaren struggled at this track and didn’t have the pace of the Force India, but unfortunately for them, the poor decision on tire management really didn’t help their cause at all today.
Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.