Australian Grand Prix: Story from the Data

Posted on March 19, 2012

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As it turns out, after all the difficulties of understanding testing and practice, the Australian Grand Prix is pretty straightforward in terms of data analysis. There is good consistency of pace between stints for the pretty much all the cars, good consistency of the effect of using new or used tyres for a stint, and only a few anomalies. So this gives us a strong indication of the competitiveness of the cars, which of course, is not quite the same as the race result.

So first the race itself. The race history chart (with the safety car laps normalised) is given below.

The first thing to notice here is that the ‘field spread’ is really quite small. Indeed in the 17 laps after the safety car pulled in, the gap between the race leader and the squabble for the final points grew by less than 30 seconds. The field has closed up quite dramatically this year. Let’s zoom in to the front of the race, and look at the McLarens and Red Bulls.

There are a few points to note in the evolution of the race. The McLarens may have disappeared up the road at the start (Button 0.3s up on Hamilton), but the pace of Vettel was clearly compromised by being behind Schumacher’s Mercedes. On being freed by problems striking the car ahead, Vettel’s pace increases, and it is clear that he has looked after his tyres better than the cars ahead of him. Indeed the first car to show signs of tyre issues is the leader, and McLaren were hanging on in the first stint to ensure that they got to their two-stop window. Jenson came in on lap 16 (I had lap 15 as the two-stop/three-stop threshold in the predictions – so I’m very happy with that), and Lewis on lap 17. However, their pace had dropped significantly at this point, and the time lost by the second McLaren (shown on the chart) by stopping later was enough to put him behind Perez, which cost further time.

There is a bit more going on here in the McLaren traces. At the start of the second stint, their pace is relatively slow, before picking up (but not as soon as Perez pits). This is most likely fuel saving, which is in line with comments from Martin Whitmarsh that they were quite marginal on fuel. Once they increase the pace, the medium tyre is 0.5s slower than the soft (for Jenson – a smaller gap is seen by the others) and the pace is consistent to the end of the race on these tyres. The only thing which realistically could prevent a one-two for the silver cars was an undercut by Vettel (which I am surprised that they didn’t try) or a safety car. McLaren were desperately unlucky – the difference in time lost for Vettel can be seen on the chart. In fact, had Hamilton stopped a lap after Button (which would have meant us missing out on some serious pit work from the McLaren boys) he could well have got ahead of his team mate to win the race. On such small things…

Webber, for his part, made a bad start, and only escaped from traffic for a few laps before the safety car came out. In this period he showed the fastest pace of the race on the hard tyre (like-for-like on tyre age and fuel). It could be argued that he looked after the tyres when stuck, but either way it shows that the Red Bull has the pace of the McLaren, and probably looks after its tyres slightly better as well.

A win for McLaren, yes, but they will certainly not have it all their own way.

Fitting the data using the intelligentF1 model gives the following underlying pace for the front four cars relative to Button, who was 0.5s slower on the harder tyres:

Button +0.0s (soft), +0.0s (medium); Hamilton +0.3s (soft), +0.0s (medium), Vettel +0.3s (soft), -0.1 (medium), Webber -0.4s (medium).

The midfield battle was intense, and the race history chart is shown below. There is a lot of data on this chart, and I have tried to highlight the key points.

Once in free air, the pace of the cars can be analysed using the intelligent F1 model, so I can say how fast the cars are in race trim. By looking at the race history chart, we can see some important trends before we put numbers on it. Starting from the top left, we can immediately see the disappointing pace of the Mercedes cars. The tyre degradation issues which had been suggested by some in pre-season testing were very evident at Melbourne – the Silver Arrows were restricted to a pace over 1 second per lap slower than the cars they qualified around. They gave away the least in pre-season testing, but I certainly didn’t see their being so slow in the race. Alonso was having no trouble keeping up with Rosberg and jumped him when Rosberg stopped. Then pulled away.

It was the other Ferrari, though, which hid the pace of the cars in the first stint. Massa’s great opening lap put him ahead of cars, we were to find out, which were much faster – and indeed the time gained by Alonso over Maldonado, Raikkonen and the Saubers came in useful in keeping him ahead of these cars for the rest of the race. Ferrari were nowhere near third fastest – Alonso’s fifth place finish is a minor miracle. Gradually, though the cars got past Massa (then he stopped) and a more realistic picture began to emerge. Williams (in the hands of Maldonado at least) were fast (see the pink curve on the chart) – only about 0.8s down on Button’s pace, Lotus were not quite as fast (at about 1s off Button’s pace) and Sauber (orange) were also fast even with Perez on the medium tyres. It turns out that the pace of Perez on the soft tyres is about the same as Maldonado once the analysis is all done. Ferrari? Slower than all these teams on the soft tyre (due to degradation) at 1.3s off Button, but competitive with Williams/Sauber on the medium tyre due to the degradation being more under control. Mercedes have a similar story, and are slightly quicker on the soft (Alonso had new softs in the first stint and Rosberg’s were used – the new tyres work out at being worth about 0.3s per lap as last year), but a few tenths slower than Ferrari on the medium tyre. It may well be that both these teams will do better on the harder compunds in Malaysia, or that they will struggle as the tyre wear will be harder to control. This one could go either way.

The second stint confirms the pace of Williams (pink), Sauber (orange) and Lotus (yellow), and shows Mercedes (grey) to be struggling. Perez showed very good pace on his new soft tyres, and was likely to be ahead of Maldonado after the Williams’ stop with a good gap to the cars behind. The safety car changed all that and left him with Maldonado ahead, and a train of newly tyred cars behind – that he would (probably) have held position to the flag if the Williams had not crashed on the last lap marks a stunning drive. Kobayashi supported well, but is again looking like he will be overshadowed by his Mexican team mate.

At the back of the midfield we had Toro Rosso (purple) and the Force India of Di Resta (blue). The group led by Perez with his old soft tyres were being restricted to his old tyre pace, and this allowed the Toro Rossos to join in the final lap chaos. Their pace was similar to the rest of the midfield – Vergne was slower than Perez on mediums in the first stint, but only a few tenths per lap down. Ricciardo was fortunate that the safety car brought him back into play, and showed very similar pace to Vergne. Force India (or perhaps just Di Resta) were struggling – he was passed by both the Toro Rossos in the final stint, and his pace was slower than all the midfield – except (almost unbelievably) Massa.

The relative pace of the cars (to Button as before) is below:

Ferrari: Alonso +1.3s (soft), +0.7s (medium); Massa +1.8s (soft), +1.5s (medium)

Mercedes: Schumacher +1.1s (soft); Rosberg +1.1s (soft), +0.7s (medium)

Lotus: Raikkonen +1.0s (soft), traffic on mediums

Force India: Di Resta +1.7s (soft), +1.5s (medium)

Sauber: Kobayashi +1.2s (soft), +1.2s (medium); Perez +0.8s (soft), +0.8s (medium)

Toro Rosso: Ricciardo +1.0s (soft), +0.9s (medium); Vergne +1.0s (soft), +1.0s (medium)

Williams: Maldonado +0.8s (soft), +0.7s (medium); Senna +1.7s (soft), +1.7s (medium)

It’s extremely close, and the pecking order changes depending on which type of tyres is being used. There will clearly be different strategies being used as the cars try to use the tyres which are most effective for them. Right now, Williams and Sauber look the best, but it seems that the Ferrari and the Mercedes are inherently faster cars which cannot get the best use from the tyres. It will be fascinating to see if the big teams can get the tyres to last, and begin to show more of the pace which is in their cars. For now, it will be important for the smaller teams which have started well to maximise the early season points scoring opportunities. Williams, especially, must score well in Malaysia.

At the back, there is little to report. The Caterhams were at about 2.6s slower than Button, which would put them close to the midfield from last year, but as the midifeld has moved on, they are still adrift. They are 1.6s up on Glock’s Marussia on race pace, though.

So an interesting first race of the season. McLaren make a winning start, but the Red Bulls have the pace to beat them. Ferrari and Mercedes with degradation problems allowing the midfield to be faster than them. Sauber and Williams leading the chase, with Toro Rosso and Lotus right in there. Force India perhaps struggling a little, and Caterham finding that someone has moved the goalposts.

I’ll put up some more numbers to show the relative performance of the cars in the race (including an underlying pace league table), and comparisons to last year (the pace was just over half a second slower) during the week. And there will be a strategy prediction and analysis of practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix.

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