The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may not have been one of the season’s most spectacular, but it provided as many strategic headaches as any other.
After Friday’s practices, many within the paddock saw the race as a probable one stopper, perhaps removing some of the strategic options available. However, by Sunday morning, careful analysis of Saturday’s tire usage and the predicted temperature drop, almost all were resigned to stopping twice.
While eventual champ Sebastian Vettel got a great start and showed the levels of utter domination we saw in Singapore (meaning he could’ve almost stopped as little or often as he liked and still come out on top), there were a couple of team decisions that could be retrospectively questioned.
In the very early stages of the race, after a great start, Romain Grosjean found himself fourth, behind Mark Webber. Webber had not had the best of starts, as we’ve seen before, and by lap six and seven was beginning to suffer with his rear soft tires, dropping lap time by around .2 tenths a second per lap. The Lotus was close behind, still looking good on tires and pushing, was racing Webber. I’ve no doubt that Lotus would have originally set out to go deeper into the Grand Prix before pitting, but they made a key decision when Webber was forced into his early stop on lap eight for new medium tires.
Lotus opted to pit Grosjean at the same time in a bid to cover the Red Bull move, but it was perhaps that split second decision that ultimately cost him a step on the podium.
Two things surprised me a little about the call. I had expected Lotus to try and one stop;, their car is one of the best at looking after tires and though it might have been a brave call, it’s brave calls that are needed to take on the Red Bulls at the moment. I guess the memory of Kimi tumbling down the order last weekend as his tires ‘fell off the cliff’ was still too fresh in the mind.
The other option, even if they thought they’d have to two-stop, was to leave Grosjean out, let Webber pit and give him five or six laps in clear air to run at Nico Rosberg in P2. At that point there were only two cars ahead on the track, no back markers to worry about and with the tires still in reasonable shape, a chance to put in some fast laps before switching to mediums on or around lap 12. Rosberg had to stop on lap 10, so if the Lotus could’ve stayed out longer than that he’d have had a clear track to do his thing on soft tires.
As it was, Grosjean got held up behind the very fast-in-a-straight-line Force India of Adrian Sutil for a long spell in his middle stint which ultimately cost him the chance to take on Rosberg and Webber at the end of the race.
The other decision that looks questionable with hindsight was down at Ferrari. Felipe Massa, doing a great job and running one place ahead of his team mate in the middle, medium tire, stint of the Grand Prix, was brought in six laps earlier than Alonso, despite his laptimes remaining stable and consistent in the preceding laps.
Even if you accept the decision to bring Massa in in order to free up Fernando Alonso, who was arguably faster at that stage, it’s strange that the team then gave him a medium compound set of tires to go seventeen laps to the flag. The mediums were up to a second a lap slower in the race and although the team justified the decision by saying they didn’t think Massa could’ve got to the end on softs, it seems odd given that his opening stint on scrubbed soft tires, with a car full to the brim on fuel, went on for 18 laps.
Alonso, stopping later, took softs at his second stop and went on to set the fastest lap of the Grand Prix. The decision, in my opinion, cost Massa at least two places in finishing behind Hamilton and Sutil, but perhaps saved Ferrari the headache of a fiercely fought battle at the end between the feisty Brazilian, battling for his own career and the disgruntled and slightly less level-headed-than-usual Spaniard for fifth position.
Of course it’s very easy to make these points afterwards, but worth remembering the pressure that teams are under in the heat of the moment during a race. You can be sure that, whilst we in the media analyze the information we have each week, the teams themselves, with far more data to go through over the coming days, will be analyzing themselves more closely than anyone else to find out what they got right and what could be done better, should similar situations arise in the future.