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.

INDYCAR: Zach Veach ready for stronger second half of season

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If you hear Zach Veach humming or even singing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” this weekend at Road America, there’s a jolly good reason for it, as they say in England.

Much like the way teammate Alexander Rossi has nicknamed his car “Baby Girl,” Veach has nicknamed his road and street course car “Penny Lane,” thanks in part to his girlfriend being a huge Beatles fan who has helped Veach also become a fan.

The Stockdale, Ohio native also has a nickname for his speedway car: “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

Veach has had a tough rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He comes into this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ranked 15th in the standings with 147 points, but an already massive 210 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

He could easily sing The Beatles’ “Help!”, given how the season has gone so far.

The 23-year-old Veach’s best finish – and only top-10 showing thus far in 2018 – has been fourth at Long Beach – in “Penny Lane” of course, a finish he hopes to equal, if not improve upon, Sunday in central Wisconsin.

He’s struggled since Long Beach, though, failing to finish higher than 12th in the following six races: 13th at Birmingham, 23rd in both the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Indy 500, 12th and 13th at Detroit’s Belle Isle and 16th at Texas.

He also finished 16th in each of the season’s first two races at St. Petersburg and Phoenix.

But Veach hopes to be singing another Beatles song on the 4.048-mile road course: “Twist and Shout” in hopes of having a strong finish on the twisting 14-turn kettle moraine course.

Zach Veach, driver of the #26 Relay Group 1001 Honda, practices for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8, 2018. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Veach has a good reason to be optimistic for success at Road America.

“Road America has actually been pretty good to us in USF 2000 and Indy Lights,” Veach said. “I think we have four or five podiums there. In 2016 (racing for Belard Auto Racing), we set the track record in Lights, won the first race and finished third in the second. I’m hoping that speed continues (in Sunday’s IndyCar race).”

While he acknowledges this season’s struggles thus far, Veach also knows he’s learning and improving.

“I think the biggest thing is the braking capabilities of the Indy car,” he said. “You’re going from steel rotors (in Lights) to carbon pads. Honestly, it feels like you can brake 150 feet deeper going into a corner with an Indy car, but at the same time, you’re also going into that corner 40 to 50 mph faster in an Indy car than in a Lights car.

“Our first year in Indy Lights wasn’t anything spectacular, and then we came back and almost won a championship. I think that’s just the way I go about things. I take inches at a time instead of miles, but I feel like we’re getting to that point where we need to be in IndyCar.”

Veach is no stranger to Andretti Autosport, having raced with the team from 2010 to 2014 and then signed a three-year contract to drive in the Verizon IndyCar Series last fall.

“To have the opportunity to race with Andretti is almost perfect for me as far as growth and development,” Veach said. “With the three teammates I have and the skill and experience they have, it’s allowed my learning curve to accelerate that much quicker.

“That’s the tough thing. It’s a rookie season and when I look back at it and look at numbers, you may say things didn’t look good at certain races. But when I look back at them, I say to myself where that’s when I did my best fuel save, or that’s when I figured out how to fix an issue with braking. There’s so much I’ve picked up.

“But I feel like these last two race weekends have been arguably the most comfortable I’ve felt. Detroit, I was looking so great for 12th and 13th, and Texas, racing from 16th to 3rd and then I made a mistake (finished 16th). I finally feel confident enough to say I can race these guys and can race them hard and the car is finally starting to feel small, if you want to say that, like I’m driving the car instead of being stuck behind somebody else.”

While he’s learned from all of his Andretti Autosport teammates — Rossi, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay — Veach feels he is closest to fellow young driver, Rossi.

“We’re both on the younger side of the spectrum of our teammates,” Veach said of Rossi. “And he’s the newest guy learning IndyCar, so he got that experience a little sooner than the other guys as far as time.

“For me, I’m in much the same position he was in two years ago. He’s been real helpful in helping me get up to speed.”

With eight more races remaining in the season, Veach’s primary goal is to finish his first full IndyCar season in the top-10. He’s currently 66 points behind the 10th-ranked driver, teammate Marco Andretti.

“If we could be top-10 in the championship, that’d be great, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Veach said. “We want to try and be consistently in the top-10 in the second half (of the season) in race results, too. And if we could get some top-fives, that would be fantastic.

“We just have to keep improving on qualifying, which shows how well you understand the car and how you can get the most out of it. I feel our race speed has been good, but when you’re starting at or near the back, it’s hard to move forward.”

Even so, there’s still good reason for optimism for Veach.

“Andretti always gives its drivers some of the best cars, so at the end of the day, it comes down to you learning as much as you can and learning as much as you can get out of a race-winning car,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky. This is my sixth season with Andretti if you count the ladder series, and it always has felt like a family.”

And if he has a strong finish Sunday at Road America, don’t be surprised if Veach hums or sings another Beatles song, “I Feel Fine,” as he leaves the legendary road course.

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