After the washout that was Friday, there was some good dry running on Saturday morning Free Practice. 52 minutes of it, to be precise. And the good news for the predictions of race pace is that the majority of teams did a race stint (of sorts) in that time. The bad news is that the stints were short, so we can’t predict the tyre lifetimes too well, and that the teams on the front row (Red Bull and Ferrari) gave us nothing to go on.
Assessing the expected fuel weight penalties (from old races) and the qualifying times (there is no 2011 Pirelli tyre data for Hockenheim), we seem to be looking at about 81-82s for the pace of the early race laps. So in order to assess race pace, we are looking for stints of about this pace, with no laps clearly quicker. And we get this from many cars, including the McLarens.
And the picture is reasonably reflective of the pace shown in qualifying, at least in the dry. With a dry race predicted, this is the best idea we can get of the relative pace of the cars in race trim. So be fitting the curves using the intelligentF1 model, I get the following pecking order:
Hamilton, Hulkenburg, Kobayashi +0.2s
Grosjean, Perez +0.4s
Button, Di Resta +0.6s
Rosberg, Ricciardo +1.2s
Vergne, Schumacher +1.4s
There is no useful data from Red Bull, Ferrari or Williams. What this suggests is that the McLarens look quick, but the Lotus, Force India and Sauber cars are also strong. It is worth noting that despite their poor Q3 session, McLaren are ahead of all these cars, but Hulkenburg. Mercedes may have flattered to deceive – Schumacher is on the second row, but struggled in the dry Q1 session, and his race pace on Saturday looks to be poor. I cannot understand a reason why Mercedes would run so slowly if they had good pace – the only mitigating factor could be that they did their runs on the medium tyre, but even so, they are at least 0.5s (and probably more) from the pace.
Interestingly, Raikkonen and Hulkenburg seemed to have increasing degradation after about 8 laps, which would suggest using mediums for the second stint, but the McLarens and Grosjean showed better tyre life. As many of the competitive cars will have all their new soft tyres available, it may be that two stops, with two stints on soft tyres, may be the preferred option.
The big unknown, of course, is the pace of the favourites – Alonso and Vettel. It will be interesting to see if Hulkenburg can stay close – the Force India looked slow on the medium tyres in Q1, but clearly has pace on the softs. My guess is that we will see Button, Hamilton and Webber (perhaps with Raikkonen) coming through – it just depends how far behind they fall in the opening laps.
Maybe we’re about to get the Alonso/Vettel duel we’ve been waiting for.
The strategy at Hockenheim will be interesting to see – and it may well be that the teams will only decide on the final strategy when they see how far they can go in the first stint. With no previous races on Pirelli tyres (last year’s race was at the Nurburgring) , and mainly wet running, the tyre life will be a bit of a mystery. One clue is that the pace of the stints in FP3 did tend to get quicker – although there are exceptions to this. My guess is that the soft will do OK here, and that a two stop race with two stints on the faster tyre is possible. I would expect most to start on the soft tyre and reaching about lap 17 would indicate that going for another set of softs is on. Stopping much earlier than this would probably mean that two stints on the medium are necessary – or a switch to a three stop.
From qualifying, the best guess is that the medium will be about 0.5s slower than the soft (about half the difference we see on a single hot lap), and this would usually mean that running three stops will not be competitive. However, as most cars have at least two sets of new soft tyres, the pace difference will be more noticable, meaning that three stops may be quicker than running soft-medium-medium, but not as quick as running soft-soft-medium. This is shown below.
It may well be that this estimate is way out, but it shows that being able to run the soft tyres could be important, and I would expect the teams to be considering all three of these possibilities depending on how far the softs go in the first stint. Let’s see.