First things first. If you didn’t enjoy the Japanese Grand Prix then you’re probably reading the wrong website. It was a really enjoyable race and was a result which depended on thinking how best to use the tyres as well as pure pace. Maybe a Button-Alonso-Vettel podium should not come as a surprise. There is no question that Red Bull had a pace advantage, but as Sebastian Vettel found in the first stint, it came at the cost of his tyres, and he was never able to unleash his full pace again on the options, lapping nearly a full second slower (fuel/tyre corrected) for the remainder of his time on the soft tyres. This left those who manage the tyres best to battle for the win; Button and Ferrari had enough pace which they could use to be able to beat the fastest car. The race history chart for the first seven cars is shown below – the safety car laps are normalised to Button’s trace.
It was the same story for Hamilton, only 0.3s per lap down on Vettel in the first stint. Clear degradation can be seen in the trace from lap 6 for both Hamilton and Vettel at 1s per lap – 10 times the degradation they experienced when the tyre was working. That they got more laps from the tyre in subsequent stints was due, at least in part, to driving more slowly. Hamilton was 0.7s slower for the rest of the race, and was curiously slow on the prime tyre at the end. Button by contrast was getting 10 laps from the tyres before the larger degradation kicked in, and only 0.3s per lap further degradation at that. Quite a difference. Indeed, by the end Jenson was clearly cruising. Nobody had close to his pace on tyres whiilst keeping them intact.
The intelligentF1 model gives the underlying pace of the cars given the fuel/tyre combination, and from the data is seems to be clear that the teams all saved their new option tyres for the third stint – they are all about 0.3s faster (equivalent) in this stint. Staying on strategy, the prime tyre was 0.8-1s slower than the option, and the options just about did the 12 laps required, meaning that the three stop strategy was optimal. The intelligentF1 model predictions were (pleasingly) very good, and with the safety car, most teams were able to get well beyond the lap 33 threshold before making the change to prime tyres. Except Red Bull – did the safety car save them from needing to four-stop?
Into the midfield. The Mercedes drivers were very closely matched, with Rosberg going prime-option-option-option with the safety car working nicely for him in the middle of the race. He still had good pace at the end and did well to get a point having started on the back row. Indeed Mercedes were getting good distance from the option tyre – Schumacher stopped for the third time fully 6 laps after Button and his pace was pretty consistent. Sauber again did something different with Perez starting on the prime and stopping twice. It was not the strategy that put him eighth – his pace was merely 0.2s from the Mercedes on the options, and he was a full 0.5s faster than Schumacher on the prime tyres. Had he started where his team mate did, he could have been sixth. Kobayashi, by contrast was 0.5s slower than Perez, and a full 1s slower on the primes. Sergio for Ferrari? – there is beginning to be a case to be made from the data. The midfield race history chart is below.
The fifth fastest car in practice was the Renault, and they gave us another variation on the strategy; prime-prime-option. Petrov was marginally faster than Perez on option pace, but was much slower on the primes. Relatively, Renault were slower on the primes than the options in comparison to the other teams, and therefore maybe didn’t choose the best strategy for their car. Force India followed a normal strategy, but just lacked the pace to score points. Di Resta was ahead for much of the race, but lost pace about half way through the final stint on the primes, and was passed by his team mate. Up to that point, there was again nothing to choose between them on pace.
One more note, the performance of the Lotus cars was very good indeed. Kovalainen was 0.6s per lap slower than Barrichello on the options, but was matching his pace on the primes. 18th place was scant reward.
All in all, an excellent (and fascinating) race, and there will be more in depth analysis and the underlying pace league table on the intelligentF1 site in the coming days.