In a day of tough decisions for both drivers and Race Control, it may have been the strategists who had to make the toughest decisions in a lightning-quick abbreviated Japanese Grand Prix.
After the race restarted on mandatory wet tires behind the Safety Car, after two laps before the original red flag start, it was always the biggest decision to get on the intermediate tyres, both up and down the pit lane.
Where you sat in the pack played a decisive role in what the best strategy was. With the race scheduled to time out about 45 minutes after it finally restarted, you’d probably finish the race on the intermediate sections once you transitioned from the extremes to them. So there would probably only be one stop – and when it would be make or break.
Although a Safety Car start requires everyone to fit fully wet tyres, it was immediately clear to the drivers that the track would be ready for intermediates very quickly. The wet weather tire is very sluggish in all conditions except deep standing water, so it is competitive always the pressure to get to the intermediate track as quickly as possible in drying track conditions.
With 18 cars in full rain behind the Safety Car, the worst of the standing water on the racing line quickly dissipated, and when the Safety Car’s lights went out on lap three, it was time to decide. But it was made more difficult by the fact that it was still raining – and started to fall even heavier towards the end of the lap, from the hairpin to Spoon and the next straight.
The forecast was that the rain would pass soon enough. But the risk — especially if you were up front — of coming right in for intervals, just as the rain picked up, was obvious. It could ruin your race, either strategically, by an extra pit stop or by being stuck in the haze of slower traffic, or terminally, with your car between the crash barriers.
The decision was also one of game theory, in that what was right would also depend on what your opponents chose to do, something that can’t be called if you queue in front of them. So in those laps behind the Safety Car, the drivers’ assessment was hugely important to the pit wall call-up as to whether to come in immediately for intermediate tires that could potentially be whole seconds faster than the wet tires, or wait to see what the weather would be like. can do.
It was lap three behind the Safety Car when Verstappen reported: “I think it’s raining a little more now, don’t you?”
“Not here on the pit wall,” was the reply.
“I think it would be nice here.”
Also in the cockpit of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, which circulates right behind Verstappen.
“So the rain intensity in the pits is the same as before, but increasing in Sector 2,” he was told.
“I don’t understand that there should be circumstances in which we could race now,” he replied.
But that discussion was called into question when the Safety Car’s lights went out. The apparent increase in rainfall had made the decision for Red Bull and Ferrari and they would stay out, along with almost everyone else. The peloton was released with Verstappen at the head, Leclerc hard in his wheel tracks.
But further back there were opportunities and much less to lose. Nicholas Latifi and Sebastian Vettel, 15th and 16th respectively, clearly planned to retire immediately in advance. Behind the Safety Car, their plans were not announced over the radio: they simply followed the Safety Car into the pit lane and their teams were ready for them.
This turned out to be a great strategy in retrospect. Neither were particularly quick in their out-laps, but as the rain eased, Vettel’s sector times on his first flying lap suggested the inter would be about 4 seconds faster than the wet. It jumped up for both Latifi and Vettel as most of the field stopped two laps later.
Both Lando Norris and Valtteri Bottas came in one lap after Latifi/Vettel before the two started moving fast. But running back into the spray, there seemed to be nothing to lose. “There’s a lot of fog,” Norris reported. “In clear air I would go much faster. I’m happy to give it a try. It’s better than sitting here.” “She [Vettel and Latifi] don’t go any faster at the moment, but we could do it if you want,” replied his engineer. “You would lose three positions.”
“Let’s do it.”
This – lap 6 – was actually probably the optimal time to stop in terms of tuning the tire to the track condition. But if we compare it to the Vettel/Latifi timing, there wasn’t that much free space driving and so the two factors compensated for each other.
On lap 7, almost everyone – including Verstappen and Leclerc – came in. In hindsight it was probably a lap later than optimal and if Leclerc had been brought in on lap 6 he would probably have undercut himself past Verstappen. But neither he nor Ferrari’s pit wall seemed confident enough to try something with so much potential that it would turn out to be a costly mistake.
In fact, he was locked out for almost another round too long. “Box versus Verstappen”, he was told as he came through the chicane, which would mean staying out as Verstappen came in a few seconds later. But at the last minute, that call was overridden by an urgent “Box, box, now” as the implications of the Vettel and Norris times became clear.
Mercedes kicked themselves for not taking Hamilton out of fourth on lap 6 – because if they had, not only would he probably have undercut Esteban Ocon, but George Russell wouldn’t have had to be behind him either, as happened on round 7 when both Mercs were knocked out. This lost Russell around 5s and dropped him several positions.
Red Bull also brought in both their drivers on lap seven, but so big was the gap that Verstappen had already pulled back, Perez didn’t need to be stacked, so no time was lost there.
Alpine faced the same dilemma as Mercedes, as Alonso was not far behind Ocon. But instead of stacking Alonso, it left him out the extra lap and got him into lap 8. This proved to be less time consuming than stacking Russell.
Late in the race, another strategic intrigue became apparent. Zhou Guanyu, running backwards with nothing to lose, had stopped for a second set of intervals. These turned out to be 4s faster than his old set. Alonso, who could not find Vettel and was quickly caught by Russell, was brought in by Alpine after seeing Zhou’s times.
This worked well: within four laps Alonso had made up for his pit stop loss, passed Russell and put himself back on Vettel’s gearbox.
No one else was in a position to do this, as they would have lost too many places – probably more than they could have recovered. Alonso lost only two direct places with the late second stop. For example, if Leclerc had tried at the same time, he would have dropped from second to seventh.
They all underline that there was no ‘one size fits all’ strategy on these craziest days.