Spanish Grand Prix: Story from the Data

Posted on May 15, 2012


There is a lot more to this one than meets the eye. Another exciting race with passing moves (at Barcelona!) all the way to the end, variations in strategy, different cars at the front and a new winner. But behind the surface view of the race, there is a huge amount hidden in the data, which could well warrant a few more posts. First to the race itself, and figuring out what actually happened.

Race for the podium

The battle for the podium was between Maldonado, Alonso and the Lotus cars. Vettel may have got close without his penalty, but his underlying pace suggests he would have been a lonely fifth. The race history chart for the first four (+Vettel’s fit) is shown below.

Alonso is marginally quicker in the first stint on the softs, but is 0.9s slower on the hards, whereas Maldonado is only 0.6s slower. This is the key to the race. Williams had enough confidence in their tyre life to run a short second stint, leaving them 40 laps to do on two sets of hard tyres. The final stop was earlier than necessary, and they had the pace (and gap) to react to Alonso – it just goes to show that Williams were very confident that they could manage the tyre life better than Ferrari. They were right. Interestingly, Maldonado cuts his pace by a full second in the final stint, and manages the pace expertly. This was a great drive.

The Lotuses were never really in it, to be honest. They were 0.5s slower on softs, and 0.9s slower than Maldonado on hards. Stint three shows that the front two were pulling away from Raikkonen on older tyres – and at some rate. Kimi was able to close up in the last stint as, due to stopping later, he was able to maintain his pace when the cars in front had reduced their pace to get the tyres to the end. Grosjean had a lonely race – slower than Kimi on the softs, but faster on the hards (he had 0.5s gap soft-to-hard) – he would have been safe from Vettel had the German not picked up the penalty. Lotus would have been able to time its stop to keep him ahead. One other thing on Vettel – there is no sign in the data of an issue with his car when it is very clear in Webber’s trace. It seems to me that the wing broke under the generated aerodynamic loads – I think that Red Bull are trying to regain some of what is lost from the more stringent deflection tests by being clever with their materials – should  we be looking here for the reason that they are not still ahead rather than concentrating on the exhaust systems?

Pace summary (no data given if always in traffic – hard baseline is 0.7s slower than soft baseline):

Softs: Alonso, Maldonado +0.1s, Raikkonen +0.6s, Grosjean +1.0s

Hards: Maldonado, Alonso +0.2s, Grosjean +0.7s, Raikkonen +0.9s, Vettel +0.9s

Race for the Points

As this season is so close, it is difficult to select the cars to look at here, as the cars’ races are so dependent upon one another. In this part, I will look at the cars who finished in the points and highlight where their races were affected by others not on the chart. The race history chart for these cars is below, and I have included Massa’s trace as he was part of this before his penalty. I have left out Schumacher and Senna for clarity as their accident was early enough that a ‘what would have happened analysis’ is too conjectural to be worth it.

It’s a complex picture, so we’ll go through them one at a time. Note that the underlying pace analysis is difficult as the amount of time each car spends in clear air is very small. There’s enough evidence for a consistent picture, but only just – and not on both tyre types for all cars.

Rosberg is not quick. In fact Hamilton is faster (in absolute terms!) on his 10 lap old tyres once he gets free air than Rosberg is at any point in the first stint. He is the stopper in the bottle, but only Grosjean (overtake), Vettel (went longer to the second stops and had easily enough pace to negate Rosberg’s new tyres!) and Kobayashi (better tyre life in last stint) get by due (mainly) to the cars all holding each other up at different stages of the race. He did well to hang on. Kobayashi shows what might have been for Perez. His pace is up with Vettel/Raikkonen on the hards, and he is usually slower than his team mate for race pace by my analyses. Spent the first half of the race behind Button, before getting by as Jenson struggled late in stint 3, and finally passed Rosberg as the Mercedes’ tyres gave up late in the last stint. Probably wouldn’t have troubled Vettel had the Red Bull had no penalty, but is at least as quick (can’t see enough free air pace to justify claiming he was quicker).

Button and Webber did not have good races. Webber, stuck in traffic, went for an early stop, and found he didn’t have any more pace than those in front. He was as quick as Vettel in patches, but not consistently. The point where his front wing breaks is clearly identifiable on the chart – there is no evidence to suggest that it was anything other than breaking under the aero loads. Once the enforced second stop is made, he is stuck behind Hulkenburg, who had enough pace to keep him behind to the flag. Hulkenburg’s second stint was short, which jumped him ahead of the slow Di Resta/Vergne train (which was holiding up Massa and Hamilton) – he was 0.3s per lap faster than his team mate and deserved his point. Button, for his part, went slightly differently on strategy by running softs in the third stint. It didn’t work out for him, as the pace was not good enough for him to pass, and as the tyres went off he lost a place to Kobayashi and was jumped by the two-stopping Hamilton. With Vettel and Hamilton, ran long final stints at reduced pace to ensure that the tyres lasted. Which they did, although Vettel (with less old tyres) did get by. Pacewise, he was only 0.1s from Vettel, and 0.2s from Hamilton, but it was enough to leave him ninth.

Which leaves us with Hamilton. My prediction for the race was for three stops, but I suggested that two stops was competitive as long as the tyres lasted and that someone would try it. They did – Senna was also on this strategy. As it panned out, the soft tyre life was a little shorter than I had guessed, and the ‘phase 2’ degradation was slightly worse for the hard tyre resulting in a two stop strategy not being the fastest way to do the race. However, for a fast car at the back, it was the way to go. Quite how tyre preservation and racing/overtaking go together I am not sure, but Lewis did admirably. It was a shame that he could not go further in the second stint (tyres were reasonable – the issue was not getting stuck behind Massa again) to allow a less preservation-based final stint. Now to the big question – would he have won without the penalty? The best estimate of his pace (with the caveat that he is in traffic until late in stints 1 and 2 so it is more difficult to be accurate) is that he is as fast as Raikkonen on the soft and about a tenth quicker on the hard tyre. My feeling is that the soft tyre pace is better, but they will have been well used in racing in the first stint. So, I would argue that he would have been on the podium at least given a clear run, but I’m not convinced that he would definitely have finished ahead of the first two.

Pace summary (relative to fastest car):

Softs: Hamilton +0.6s, Schumacher +1.0s, Rosberg +1.0s, Button +1.1s

Hards: Hamilton +0.8s, Vettel +0.9s, Webber +0.9s, Kobayashi +0.9s, Button +1.0s, Massa +1.1s, Rosberg +1.5s, Hulkenburg +1.8s


The midfield battle was intense. And won by Nico Hulkenburg with a great strategy call to get himself ahead of a train held up, ironically, by his team mate. The chart is shown below – inclusive of the Caterhams who were part of this race finishing just 25s shy of Massa.

Hulkenburg makes a very early second stop from the back of a queue, stays ahead of Webber, and has the pace to jump the whole queue (except Hamilton) when they stop. He holds on to the third stop, and then undercuts to the end. Great drive – and great strategy call.

His point really came at the expense of Vergne, who started well, but was undercut by the slow Di Resta at the first stops. This allowed the Hulkenburg move, but also enabled Ricciardo to catch him, and undercut at the final stops. In the end Vergne’s pace told (he was about 0.4s faster than Hulkenburg), but he was too far back to get into the fight for the last point. An opportunity missed.

The other contender for the final point was Massa. Without the penalty he would have dropped in around the Webber/Hulkenburg battle after his second stop. As it was he found himself once again trapped behind the slow Di Resta when everyone else had got by. He made it past, but was undercut at the last stop and followed the Force India to the end.

Di Resta has been mentioned a few times already in this post – and always in terms of holding people up. The Scot was only 0.3s from Hulkenburg’s pace, but this made him the slowest of the top eighteen cars. His ability to hold position allowed his team mate to score, though. Indeed, Di Resta’s pace was only about 0.2s ahead of Kovalainen’s. The Caterhams were in the race here, and had they got track position at the start, they could well have been in the thick of a race. As it was, the midfield remains tantalisingly out of reach.

The final mention goes to Perez, who had a puncture on lap 1. He then went on a charge – it killed his tyres, but it showed that the Sauber had some serious pace. The Mexican was as fast as Alonso on the softs, and as fast as Maldonado on the hards – for as long as the tyres lasted. Whether he would have had that pace if properly looking after the tyres is something we cannot know.

Pace Summary (relative to fastest car):

Softs: Perez, Di Resta +1.6s, Vergne +1.6s, Ricciardo +1.9s, Kovalainen +2.3s, Petrov +2.5s

Hards: Perez, Massa +1.1s, Vergne +1.3s, Ricciardo +1.3s, Hulkenburg +1.8s, Di Resta +2.1s, Kovalainen +2.3s, Petrov +2.3s

At the Back

The races for the Marussia and HRT cars were lonely, Glock ahead of Pic and De la Rosa ahead of Karthikeyan.

Pace Summary (relative to fastest car):

Softs: Glock +3.3s, Pic +3.4s, De la Rosa +3.9s, Karthikeyan +4.1s

Hards: Glock +2.9s, Pic +3.2s, De la Rosa +4.1s, Karthikeyan +4.1s


Williams won this one on pace. They were the fastest car in the race, and the data suggests that they may well have beaten a pole sitting McLaren had it not been put to the back of the grid. Alonso was quick, the Lotuses were quick, and the Saubers were quick. Pace shown on Fridays is translating to Sundays.

Many of the cars were within a few tenths of a second in underlying pace, and the strategy calls of Hamilton (to get him into the race) and especially Hulkenburg (to get ahead of faster cars) gave them a chance of points, which they both converted. Another great, and unpredictable race. Let’s see what they can do at Monaco. The way it’s going, we might even get overtaking.