If the Spanish Grand Prix is anything like qualifying, then we are in for a fantastic race. Personally, I am disappointed that Hamilton won’t be in the mix at the front as it was a stunning lap, and a McLaren-Williams-Ferrari-Lotus top four is like something from when I started watching F1. Rename the Sauber team Brabham, and I could be happily transported back to the eighties.
Anyway, back to 2012, and a quick note on Friday practice. I took the Lotus pace as real, and the Red Bull/Mercedes struggles as representative, but I wasn’t quite so confident with Sauber and Williams. Just goes to show that the most obvious interpretation of the data can be right. The fast cars on Friday qualified at the front, and those that struggled didn’t. Maybe even the large difference between Alonso and Massa was real too. If so, and it is still if, then Fernando is in with a shout of victory from his front row slot. Were I a betting man, I would fancy Maldonado to hang on with a Lotus 2-3 based on the Friday times. It doesn’t appear that there is anyone outside the top five who has real pace to challenge – unless the fresh tyres saved by Red Bull make a difference. It will, however, be interesting to see how far up Mr. Hamilton is able to rise. Getting him out-of-sequence will be key unless he has a storming first few laps.
So to strategy. Given the pace difference between the hard and soft compounds (about 1.5s in qualifying – you can usually halve it for the race), it looks like minimising the time spent on the hard tyres will be important. However, the nature of the tyres where it’s full capability cannot be used if it is to last long enough (the “Schumacher gripe”) means that some of the teams seemed to have a significantly smaller gap than this in race conditions. Indeed (if the fuel levels are real), Hamilton was almost as quick on the hards as the softs. Sauber looked good on the hard tyre in qualifying as well. This makes quite a difference to the strategy.
Indeed, the degradation of the hard tyres appears to be about half that of the soft tyres – and the hard tyres seem to be lasting longer – about 20 laps (maybe more) to 15 for the softs. So, let’s start with the situation where the gap between the tyres is 1.5s. We then get the chart below:
With the soft tyres being much faster than the hards, the 3 stop strategy (as used by Button last year) is optimum. This is pretty much the situation last year, which makes the four-stoppers used by most of the front runners the wrong call. Had Hamilton or Webber gone for three stops, they would most likely have won. It is worth noting that the point at which ‘phase 2’ starts is key to whether the two-stopper is faster using two sets of hards or two sets of softs. If the hard tyres last more than 20 laps (and the softs 15), then it is better to use softs. If the softs don’t last as long, then it’s two sets of hards. However, the picture changes if the hard is only 0.7s slower than the soft – which is the best guess.
Now this is an incredible picture. This shows that two stops (hard as major tyre), three stops (using any combination of tyres) and four stops are all competitive. Three stops seems to be optimal, and if you can start on the hards, I think that seeing if you can get through on two stops is very worthwhile. Red Bull could well try this given that they have a new set of softs and new hards on Webber’s car.
If the hard tyre is any faster than this – we are looking at two stops (based on the hard tyre) as optimal (but not by much), as long as the first stop can be made late enough. Somewhere around lap 15-17 seems to be the critical point for this.
Best guess? I would think that it’ll play out similar to China – Someone will precipitate stops by going early (maybe Hamilton) and so will be covered by some of the other cars. This will lead to people trying to go long on their last set of tyres when they realise they’ll lose out if they make an extra stop – with major gains to be made if they can survive on a stop fewer. In China it worked for Vettel, but not for Raikkonen – it’s harder to pass at Barcelona, so it may get a bit more desperate. The last few laps could be worth waiting for.
Realistically, I think that most of the cars will make three stops – but some will make two, and Maldonado could well be a two-stopper. I don’t think things are as bad as Bahrain, so I don’t expect many four-stoppers.
Hamilton? He has to get out-of-sequence. His best chance is to start on hards and go long. And hope that few of the others do the same thing. Otherwise (and probably more likely) is a short stint on softs to get as many positions at the start as possible, and three stops. But I’d go on hards…
Five winners in five races? Surely only Alonso can stop that. And we have a high chance of a new Grand Prix winner – I’d be very happy to see a win for Maldonado. Or Grosjean. Or Perez. Or Raikkonen MkII.