Now I’m not one for conspiracy theories, and although Sebastian Vettel is clearly favoured at Red Bull, I don’t think they have ever intentionally hindered Webber. However, the events at Suzuka at the weekend had me wondering if they had moved Mark out of the way deliberately. As always, I will leave it to the data to tell the story.
So, first things first; to fit the curves using the intelligentF1 model. In this piece I’m only going to look at the first three – the rest will follow later. And what do we see? Well, the first thing of note is that the fastest car is clearly Vettel. He has about 0.3s on Webber on the hards and 0.7s on Grosjean. It looks like that the Red Bull is better on its tyres that the Lotus; firstly, Grosjean doesn’t look like he could go faster on the tyre in the second stint, and then he takes it much easier at the start of the final stint – just maintaining enough gap to Vettel to ensure that he was ahead after Vettel’s stop. Indeed he drops 0.7s per lap on his second stint pace.
Let’s have a look at the fit for Grosjean. The race history chart below for the first three cars has the dashed line, which is the intelligentF1 model fit for Grosjean superimposed.
So what we see is that he looks like he tries to go a little faster in the middle of the second stint, but they decide that they can’t do this. I guess he had a few more laps possible, and I make a stop on lap 35 (five laps later) optimal, with a gain of about three seconds – plus not going as slowly in stint three. Could it have won him the race? No – but it might have beaten Webber. His start to the third stint is about 0.7s from his stint 2 underlying pace, but once Vettel is past, he goes back to his real pace – the fit and the trace are now parallel, which means that his pace is what it was in stint 2. This could be fuel saving, or tyre concerns. Either way, there was no way for him to beat Vettel.
Now let’s look at Webber. It’s the same chart, but with Webber’s fit.
In the first stint we can see that Webber’s pace was dropping off. The decision to bring him in early was most likely the correct one. Vettel’s stop was only three laps later, though. We can see from the pace fits that he was faster than Grosjean, but not by enough to go past. Which meant that to get a pace advantage to pass, he had a choice – either undercut, or go long. We can see from the chart that Webber’s pace was fine when he made his stop, so he could have gone longer, and indeed could most likely have two-stopped. But he had to make sure he jumped Grosjean. Had Webber gone longer, Lotus would still have had a chance of winning. If Grosjean stopped first, which he was bound to – chances to win don’t come along all the time, Webber would have had to pass on track. This would also have kept Vettel to Webber’s pace, and we would have had Grosjean-Webber-Vettel with less tyre age difference in the last laps. Which could have played for Lotus.
So going long was risky. Going short, however, meant a three stop and a more likely pass of Grosjean with a newer tyre pace advantage. I reckon that Webber had 1.7s pace advantage on Grosjean in the last stint – and it still took 6 laps to get by. Had he got by immediately, he could have caught Vettel, but he wouldn’t have won…
Finally, then, let’s look at Vettel’s race. Same chart again, but Vettel’s fit.
The first thing to note is that Vettel spends very little of the race at full pace. We can see evidence that he is fast from the odd fast laps he puts in during the first stint. Then we see his pace once Grosjean and Webber make their second stops. Indeed, mapping that back to the start using the model fit, we can see that Vettel has lost more than 10s following the cars in front – this is not the case for Webber. And there’s more – once Vettel has passed Grosjean, his pace is 0.6s off what he can do. So he would have plenty of pace and tyres left were Webber to have been a threat. A note on the pass of Grosjean, I figure that Vettel’s pace advantage was 1.5s, so not as large as Webber’s. Had he taken 6 laps to pass, he would have had Webber on his tail.
So what do I think? Red Bull had a big pace advantage, but there was a danger that Webber would not have got past Grosjean, and their faster car would have been stuck. So they did need to do something.
So what if Red Bull had called it the other way round, and stopped Vettel? Best guess is that Grosjean would have stopped a few laps later, holding Webber up until he did. Let’s assume that Webber stayed out until the time of Vettel’s real stop. Webber would have come out behind Grosjean with a 0.8s pace advantage, and have Vettel right behind with a 0.8s pace advantage on Webber. Unless Grosjean needed to fuel save, in which case Vettel might have jumped them both… Either way, it would have looked like a favoured strategy for Vettel – even though it wasn’t – partly because he was faster, and partly as Lotus were racing Webber, the immediate threat.
So was it a conspiracy? Vettel had the faster strategy, no question. But he was also unquestionably faster, made his first stop later, and overtook Grosjean more quickly with a smaller pace advantage. By splitting the strategy, Red Bull all but guaranteed the race win. And it was a much clearer win if they three-stopped the slower car. Did they move Webber out of the way for Vettel? Hard to say – but it was the strategy to give them the best chance of winning a race that they should not have been in a position to lose.
If you want someone to blame, blame Grosjean. If he hadn’t done such a brilliant job, Red Bull would have been cruising to a 1-2, and the first corner would probably have decided it…