The game was up when Lewis Hamilton pulled into the pits for this third stop. Maybe it was a tactical undercut, but the only way Mercedes were going to win was by doing three stops to Red Bull’s four – and this made it clear that they weren’t. Over the practice days, I had become quite confident that the Red Bulls were going to need to stop four times during the Malaysian Grand Prix. What I hadn’t realised was that this was also true for pretty much everyone else… In fact there was only one person that really made a three stop work, and it got Jean-Eric Vergne a point.
Red Bull rode their luck a little. If it hadn’t rained in Q3, they may well have gone for hard tyres and qualified further back. If it hadn’t rained at the start, others may have been able to run a longer first stint and therefore make a three stop work. As it was, they had just enough to stay ahead, and were very careful to take care of their tyres at the beginning of the early stints.
If we look back to the Friday/Saturday practice times, the underlying pace in the race itself was about 0.5s slower for the Red Bulls and between 0.5s and 1s slower for most of the others. And the race history chart suggests that Red Bull worked out how to bring the tyres in better than the others, and used the fact that they qualified at (or in Webber’s case raced to) the front to help. Today’s first chart shows the first four, and highlights how careful Red Bull were with the tyres in the early stages. I’ve normailsed out the wet part of the race to make it easier to see.
On race pace, I have Webber fastest, with Vettel 0.1s behind and the Mercedes a further 0.1s behind. So it was close. Vettel caught Hamilton before there is any clear evidence of fuel saving on the trace – he was faster due to being on newer tyres. Once Vettel got past, Hamilton’s pace dropped, and the fit for the last stint shows that he was about 0.9s off his previous pace. The curve fits are really good for this race – the stint-to-stint gradients match really well for just about everyone, so the pace assessments should be good.
The slow pace of Hamilton’s final stint brings two questions. Firstly, could Rosberg have challenged Red Bull, and second, could Button have got on the podium as he though he might. As the curve fits are good, we can get a good idea of this from the intelligentF1 model. So what I have done is to add the trace of Button and curve fits for Rosberg, Button and Webber (dashed lines) for the final 20 laps. There is quite a lot on this chart, so there is a fair bit to explain.
So, given a normal final stop, the curve fit for Button shows that he would most likely have been ahead of the Mercedes cars after their fourth stops, and that given the reduced pace of Hamilton, he would have stayed ahead, unless he had the same tyre problems as Perez. Except that, in this case, Mercedes would have had something to gain by allowing Rosberg to pass his team mate. On the assumption that Rosberg could have stayed at his real pace (and wasn’t too fuel critical), he would have had about 1s per lap advantage on Button (pace + newer tyres) and would have had no problem claiming the podium spot. Could he have beaten Webber? Well, the curve fits suggests he could have caught Webber, but also that Webber had speed in hand, and was just bringing it home. I don’t think Mercedes lost any points with the team orders decision – but only because Button wasn’t there. Things are looking up for McLaren.
Of the others, Ferrari were a disappointment with Alonso never showing his pace, and Massa being the same pace as Button, but four-stopping. Had Alonso showed the race pace advantage over Massa he had in Melbourne, he would have been in the thick of the battle for the win, but we’ll never know if he had that pace. The midfield battle is shown in the chart below.
Hulkenburg may have gained much when it was damp, but the Sauber didn’t have the pace of the other midfield cars in the dry, notably Lotus and Force India. I have Raikkonen fastest of all in clear air on the medium tyres, but both Lotus cars struggled on the hard tyres – with Raikkonen being particularly slow. And it’s clear that a three-stop was marginal, even for a Lotus – both cars are struggling for pace in the closing laps. Di Resta was very quick up to his disaster stop – faster than Button and Massa – but had lost a lot of time in the first pitstops. Things look good for Force India. Perez was again as quick as Button in the third stint, but had real problems in the fourth and needed an extra stop. It all went wrong for McLaren in the last quarter of the race – but they were thereabouts in Malaysia.
As last week, I’ll post the underlying pace of the cars in a driver-by-driver format in the coming days.
I didn’t expect Red Bull to win this one. But I can’t decide whether Red Bull fooled me that they were in trouble, or that the other teams fooled me into thinking that they weren’t. Given the way the race panned out, I think Red Bull did more or less what was expected. It’s just that the others weren’t able to take advantage.