Lotus made a smart play, but even that fell short vs. Vettel

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The Japanese GP, at Suzuka, is one of the Formula One classics and more than lived up to the hype on Sunday.

The race at the front of the field turned out to be a strategic battle of almost military proportions, between the two Red Bulls and the lead Lotus of Romain Grosjean.

The pre-race analysis had the fastest way from lights to flag as being a two stop strategy. There wasn’t a huge amount in it, around five or six seconds of total race time over making three stops, because the pitlane loss time for a pitstop at this famous circuit is relatively small at about 21-22 seconds.

The trouble with these very basic predictions is they just work out the total time it would take a car to race around the 53 laps without any outside interference — i.e. traffic and fighting other teams. Those factors all have a big influence on tire management and therefore the ability to maintain a certain pace and stick to an optimum pitstop strategy.

When teams have their grid positions set on Saturday afternoon, they look at where they are, where their competitors are in relation to them, current start form, clean/dirty side of the track, distance to first corner and many other factors. Their race plan ‘A’ will be based on their drivers getting away from the line as expected and making it through the first couple of crucial corners unscathed.

Red Bull Racing, sitting in P1 and P2 on the grid, would have expected to very quickly pull away and settle into their own race, but surprisingly both cars bogged down as the lights went out, allowing Grosjean to tear through the pair of them and into an early lead.

What happened from there on in, was a very patient, but very calculated display of time biding and precision attack from the Red Bulls, using all of the tools at their disposal to ensure the right result.

Such was the underlying confidence of the current World Champions, the team issued very clear and measured instructions to their drivers to each maintain a two second gap. Mark Webber behind Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel behind his team mate in the early laps. They knew trying to close up and make the pass at this stage, at a circuit where that’s not easy, risked damaging tires in the turbulent air of the car in front and so by holding that prescribed gap they waited to see what Grosjean could do.

With the Lotus being kept at arms length, the decision was taken to try and make the undercut work for Webber in second position. This earlier than normal stop would not only try to force Lotus into covering them, but give him a lap on new hard tires before Grosjean could react and therefore perhaps put in a blistering out lap to be ahead as the Lotus exited from it’s own stop a lap later.

Lotus did react, but Webber was unable to make up enough ground in that single lap to make the difference and remained behind.

What this did do was leave Sebastian Vettel out in front for another couple of laps. In the back of his mind was this race from two years ago, where he and the team focused so much on staying in front of everyone by making early stops to maintain track position, they ran out of tires at the end and came under severe pressure.

Sunday, they played the long game. Vettel didn’t have the pace on his, now well used, mediums to pull out the gap required for a ‘free’ pitstop as Grosjean, now on new hards, stayed around 19 seconds back. Although we saw the odd uncharacteristic lock up from the leader, his team knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t panic when they pitted and emerged still in third position.

Splitting their strategies, they switched Webber to a three stop race. Of the two drivers in the team, Mark’s not as good at looking after tires, so it made sense for him to use more of them and set himself up for a big push in the last stint. Vettel stayed on a two stopper and the race continued.

As the end drew nearer, Grosjean, two stopping and having done a brilliant job for his team, must have felt he was under attack from all angles. He knew he’d face pressure from Webber at the end on fresh tires, but also that Red Bull’s early ‘dummy’ had drawn the Lotus driver into a far earlier sequence of stops than Vettel, allowing the German to finish on a younger set of tires, come the closing laps.

When the eventual winner picked up his last set of tires he was given the instruction from the team “It’s Grosjean up ahead…go get him” and that’s exactly what he did.

On tires eight laps younger than Grosjean’s, Sebastian made a clinical job of passing his rival and there was no looking back. With clean air ahead, he did what he does best and pulled out a gap big enough to break DRS and be comfortable and held it there.

Behind, Grosjean knew there was still a threat from the sister Red Bull, even though he perhaps couldn’t see him coming. When Webber  pitted for his third and final stop he came out around 5 seconds behind the second place car, but a series of very fast sectors quickly brought the gap down to nothing. For the three stop plan to have any hope of overhauling his team mate, he needed to not only pass Grosjean, but get passed him immediately.

The Lotus did a valiant job of defending, and although Webber finally got past, he’d lost too much time to attack Vettel and had to settle for second spot.

It was a well-executed strategic play from Red Bull on two fronts, both cars had a genuine shot at victory here. Sebastian’s play was a calm and patient one, knowing he’d deliver when asked to by the team and Mark’s was switched up to play to his strengths of aggressive attacking driving.

It was huge credit to Romain Grosjean and Lotus that they were the only combination to be able to take the race to the sport’s top team and although the starts were crucial, they played the best hand they could as the race panned out.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway can have 10,000 fans for IndyCar races

Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans
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Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have crowds for its NTT IndyCar Series race weekend next month, the first time fans are allowed at the track this year.

The track announced Friday that up to 10,000 fans will be allowed in the grandstands daily from Oct. 1-4. The IndyCar Harvest GP race doubleheader will be held on the track’s road course Oct. 2-3.

IMS has played host to several events this year without fans, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 and a NASCAR-IndyCar weekend July 4-5 that included the Brickyard 400. Plans originally were made to have fans at the Indy 500 before reversing course a few weeks ahead of the race. In a letter last month, Roger Penske vowed that fans would return for the 2021 Indy 500.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS president Doug Boles said in a release. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

Fans will undergo temperature screenings upon entry and also be required to wear face coverings at all times on property. The track said each attendee will receive a mask and bottle of hand sanitizer.

The Friday, Oct. 2 race will be shown at 3:30 p.m. ET on USA, and NBC will broadcast the Saturday, Oct. 3 race at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Here’s the release from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 – For the first time in 2020, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will welcome fans to the Racing Capital of the World for the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR weekend. Up to 10,000 spectators can be in the grandstands each day of racing action Oct. 1-4, per approval from the Marion County Public Health Department.

Tickets are available now via IMS.com and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

The massive facility, which holds more than 300,000 people, will provide two spectator zones with up to 5,000 fans in each. The zones will be located in Turns 1 and 4 of the oval, offering strong sightlines of the road course. Strict health and safety rules will be in place, including the following:

  • Face coverings must be worn throughout the property at all times;
  • All fans will receive temperature screenings before gate entry;
  • Grandstand seats will be marked for distancing;
  • Attendees must use pre-assigned gates and remain in their designated zones.

Global Medical Response, the world leader in compassionate, quality emergency medical and patient relocation services, will be the presenting sponsor of the penultimate weekend of INDYCAR racing this season.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

The plan, which includes each attendee receiving a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer upon entering the track, was developed in consultation with state and local health officials.

This event weekend is highlighted by an NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader, with races Friday, Oct. 2 and Saturday, Oct. 3. It will be the penultimate event of the series’ season as the field pursues the champion’s prestigious Astor Challenge Cup to be awarded Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The INDYCAR Harvest GP will pay tribute to a storied IMS event, the Harvest Classic in September 1916. The Harvest Classic was the only racing event held outside of May at IMS from 1911 through 1993. The event featured three races, all won by legendary driver Johnny Aitken.

Fans also will see a host of facility improvements during the event weekend, including more than 30 new LED video boards, refreshed concession stands and restrooms, and 5G wireless connectivity throughout the facility.

The first race will air at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Friday, Oct. 2 on the USA Network. NBC will broadcast the second race at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Oct. 3, with WTHR-13 airing the action live in Central Indiana.

Also racing that weekend will be the first pairing of two major sports car series — the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli and its North American counterpart, GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS. Former Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe is among the drivers in the Indianapolis 8 Hour event held Sunday, Oct. 4.

The event also will showcase drivers in SRO America’s Pirelli GT4 America, GT Sports Club America and the TC America series.

The full on-track schedule is available at IMS.com.