With the rain deciding to fall at the end of FP2 in the traditional time for the long runs which give the best indication of race pace, the teams have had to do something a little different. Some ran a full fuel stint in FP1, some in FP3, and some (frustratingly) not at all. Of those expected to be at the sharp end, neither Ferrari nor Lotus ran a race simulation, so we have little to go on there.
The race simulations are reasonably easy to pick out – consistent lap times at about 87-88s. Hamilton did his in FP1, so we have to be slightly careful in comparing his times to the others, but he was substantially quicker than anyone else we have data for, including Button. The curve fits using the intelligentF1 model give us:
Hamilton +0.0 (fastest, but run in FP1)
The most apparent thing is that the gaps between the cars are much bigger here than we normally see. This means that there is a possibility that people are running different fuel loads, but as I’m writing this after qualifying and the gaps are bigger than usual (Schumacher was 1.4s from Hamilton in Q2 for example), so maybe we will see a race which is a little more spread out than usual. Hamilton looks very good for the win, and there is little hope of recovery for Mercedes from their lowly grid positions. The big unknown is Lotus – do they have the pace to challenge McLaren? Ferrari and Williams have not let us see their pace either, but have qualified less well. Hulkenburg looks very good for points once more. Sauber have again qualified badly, and have done no race stints, but the pace we could see at Hockenheim does not seem to be evident here.
The best hope for Red Bull is that the conditions in FP1 were better than FP3 (it was cooler) and that the pace of Button (say he is 0.5s down on Hamilton) is representative. This would make them competitive, but it’s not where my money would be.
The best bet is that Hamilton will disappear into the distance, with perhaps black and gold cars for company…
The strategy options in Hungary are much the same as at Hockenheim. Much depends on how long the soft tyre lasts, but the pace difference suggests (about 1s in qualifying) suggests that the medium tyre will be the preferred race tyre. As long as the soft tyre does 15 laps, a two stop strategy using two sets of mediums is clearly achievable, and if they do 20 laps, then using two sets of softs should be possible. Otherwise, a three-stop using three sets of softs (as run by Mercedes and Force India at Hockenheim) is a viable option. Indeed, the pace difference between these options is very small. Spending more time on the medium tyre increases flexibility, but I would expect to be in the situation where we have three stoppers with soft tyres for the final stint catching two stoppers on primes. If this turns out to be as exciting as the Chinese Grand Prix, then we have much to look forward to.
As an example of the small margins on strategy (which will mean that we are sure to see a variety), check the race history simulation below. Two stops (soft-soft-medium), 2 stops (soft-medium-medium) and 3 stops (soft-soft-soft-medium) are covered by 2.5s. The assumption here is that the soft tyres hit ‘phase 2’ degradation at 15 laps. Much less than this, and three stoppers will be much more common.
It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out. The optimal strategy will not be independent of other cars, it will be about having clear air.