Everyone’s Silverstone race strategy suffered on Sunday

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The thing about Formula One race strategies is that they need to be adaptable to cope with the unforeseen circumstances that the sport invariably throws up. No matter the plan, teams must react quickly to whatever’s thrown at them.

When the strategists at each team sit down after qualifying on a Saturday evening to ponder their options, they look at data; weather forecasts; the cars around them on the grid; their own confidence in their race pace; start performance; the amount of tires used and those they have left, as well as many other factors.

Between strategists, engineers, management and the drivers themselves, they come up with at least two or three of the most probable scenarios or plans. Those plans will cover things like what happens if they have a good start or a bad start; where they are after lap one and what they do if it all goes wrong, have contact and an enforced first lap pitstop. They’ll have a ‘plan A’ which is the optimum strategy and considered the fastest way to the checkered flag and a ‘plan B’ to cover the possibility of the tires not lasting their intended stint length.

Sunday, everyone’s optimum race strategy was compromised in one way or another, by a number of issues.

After the practice sessions, analysis showed the fastest way for the top 10 to complete the race was a two stop strategy, starting on the medium tire, stopping around lap 17 for another set of mediums, before finally stopping around lap 35 for the hard. Whilst that may well have been what most intended, excessive graining on the options, unforeseen tire failures and safety cars changed things.

When Lewis Hamilton had the first failure whilst leading on lap 7, nobody thought it would be the start of a chain reaction.

Felipe Massa’s Ferrari was next to suffer the same left rear failure at the same point of the circuit and Jean Eric Vergne followed shortly afterwards with a similar and spectacular blow out of his own. That one, not only brought out the first safety car that stayed out for seven laps, but clearly raised eyebrows amongst the teams. It was clear there was an inherent problem affecting left rear tires and that meant that teams had to decide what to do.

Some pitted under the safety car, some drivers were told by their teams to try and avoid kerbs, some increased tire pressures in their pitstop sets to try and stiffen up the sidewalls, but the teams and Pirelli furiously tried to work out what was happening.

Avoiding kerbs clearly compromises race pace, as does running with higher than preferred pressures, and therefore can have an impact on strategy, but the possibility of more failures has even more dire effects. Those that pitted mostly switched to hard, prime tires after many struggled more than predicted on options, but were still on for the two stop plan to work, so they tentatively continued with the championship leader out front.

Vettel controlled the race pace well in the lead, keeping Rosberg behind until ten laps from the end when his Red Bull Racing RB9 ground to a halt with a failure of fifth gear. With the car in an unsafe position and Race Control more than happy to slow proceedings down to prevent anymore dangerous failures, the safety car was again deployed.

This was the point where teams had to make crucial, race defining and split second decisions.

For Rosberg, now out in front, it was easy, he had a worrying tire vibration and enough of a gap behind to make the unplanned third stop without losing track position.

For those behind it was make or break time and whilst Alonso and Webber also dived in and switched to a late three stopper under the safety car, Raikkonen’s Lotus team decided to leave him out.

That decision was a bad one and ultimately cost Kimi a podium spot as he struggled on old tires in the closing laps.

Whilst stopping meant that Webber and Alonso lost places initially, the fresh mediums for the short last stint allowed them to push hard to the flag and pass with relative ease to take second and third places respectively. Their teams got it right under pressure, Kimi’s unfortunately didn’t today.

All the planning, data and analysis in the world couldn’t have prepared for today’s events, so in those instances success or failure comes down to the decisions of the drivers and their teams. Despite the obscene amount of Dollars spent on strategic simulation and predictive tools up and down pitlane, when it comes to making a last minute, split second decision in the heat of battle, it often boils down to good old fashioned human reactions under pressure. Some are better than others.

You can follow Marc Priestley on Twitter @f1elvis.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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