Before we start, let’s be clear. Vettel had this in the bag. In the second stint, when his pace was being matched by Grosjean, he was cruising. I have his pace (fuel-corrected) in the second stint at 0.8s slower than his pace in the first stint. This race was much like Monza last year – Vettel was away and the rest were fighting over the scraps.
And but for the safety car, Grosjean had second tied up. However, a bold move by Fernando Alonso at the restart left him second, with Lotus figuring that better tyre management was the way to win this race. As it turned out, it was the opposite (and much braver) move that would have seen Grosjean (or Hamilton/Raikkonen) have the best chance to win the race.
When the safety car deployed, the strategy choice was obvious – except for those planning to one-stop. Come in, get on the medium compound tyres and go to the end. When the one-stoppers decided that they weren’t going to make it (Webber’s stop on lap 38 was the clue), the pace of those who had stopped showed that there was another way to do this. We know that the Schumacher/Webber train made it to third/fourth (with the assistance of the trademark Maldonado accident in the final laps) and Rosberg made it to sixth. From way back. So what if one of the top runners had stopped?
The race history chart for the second half of the race is shown below.
The drop off in the tyre performance can be seen from about lap 49 onwards (eight to go) in Alonso’s trace, and at similar points for most of those who did not stop. Interestingly, Maldonado shows very good life from his tyres – which is what brought him to Hamilton earlier than would otherwise have happened. (Actually, you can argue that if Lewis had let Kimi by once he started struggling with the tyres and focussed on getting to the end as efficiently as he could, that Maldonado may not have caught him before the end of the race, but that’s another story…).
What we can see is that those who didn’t stop under the safety car gained track position, and then they got that position back due to having newer tyres in the final part of the race. This worked out very nicely for them. Stopping wasn’t an option for Maldonado as he was behind Schumacher under the safety car, and would (probably) have consigned himself to staring at the back of the Schumacher/Webber combination for the rest of the race. However, for those ahead, Hamilton and Raikkonen, it would have provided a very interesting opportunity. Especially if they had gone for the softer tyres.
Using the intelligentF1 model, the pace of Hamilton and Raikkonen has been simulated on the softer tyres. For Hamilton, this is reasonably accurate as he spends much time in clear air, but for Raikkonen this estimate is likely to be a bit conservative as we never really get to see his pace in clear air. Grosjean’s pace is about 0.2s up on this, so it may well be that the Lotus’ chances of winning were better than this looks.
The dashed lines are the fits for the data of Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen (colour coded as the race data). The Alonso fit assumes that the tyres do not go off in the final eight laps, and the McLaren/Lotus fits assume that the pace matches that of the first stint where the pace of the car is best shown. Hamilton is quicker than you might expect, as he was very careful with the tyres in the opening laps.
What we see is that Alonso lost about 12s over the last 10 laps due to the tyres going off. Not as serious as Montreal (for him) but a significant effect. Now if either Raikkonen or Hamilton had stopped, then would have had to do within 3 laps or so of Schumacher in order to stay ahead, but the McLaren and Lotus were faster than the Mercedes and would have pulled clear on their newer tyres. Now they would clearly have lost some time in the traffic (Maldonado, Force Indias, Perez), but their pace advantage was such that it would be an easy pass. I cannot imagine that they would lose more than the 10s lost by Schumacher, especially as the slower cars were going faster at this stage – harder to pass (a little) but there would be less time lost behind them in the parts of the track where you cannot overtake.
This leaves Raikkonen with a clear run at Hamilton for second – it is less clear the other way around as Raikkonen could probably have gone a little quicker – and it is not certain how his tyres would have fared in clear air. However, with Alonso’s tyre degradation (and Hamilton’s, and most likely Raikkonen’s), the strategy to stop would most likely have paid off handsomely. And given us a pass for the lead in the last few laps. Again.
I guess it’s not so surprising to think that a different strategy could have won Lotus the race. They looked quick all weekend. But given McLaren’s clear struggles, and Hamilton’s holding up cars for the majority of the Grand Prix, it’s quite something to realise that a different strategy could have given him a great chance to win the race. It would have been about as remarkable as a car winning from row six…