Bahrain Race Strategy Analysis: Mercedes caught off guard again

Lewis Hamilton - 2015 Bahrain

The week after a grand prix, the race analysis from the various publications that bother to do this kind of thing, must be like a Chinese water torture for a team who got their strategy wrong.

Various opinions have been offered that suggest Ferrari could or should have won the race.

One view is predicated upon the fact that in 2014 there was a safety car on lap 41 and should history repeat itself, Kimi having stopped on lap 40 on the fresh softer tyre would have been in the box seat.

The safety car at times is a very important consideration in a team’s strategy planning, but prior to this year’s event, the chances of a safety car were a mere 15% based on the races run at the Sakhir Circuit since 2002. So with a low chance of a safety car, Ferrari were unlikely to factor this into their pre-race strategy.

Yet Mercedes pit wall strategy has to be questioned again because they failed to split the tyre strategy on their cars leaving them vulnerable to Raikkonen who indeed became Ferrari’s main protagonist.

It appears the timing of Mercedes pit stop and tyre decisions were reactive and based on covering Sebastian Vettel, but ignoring the possibility that Raikkonen could be in the mix later in the race. A famous F1 team can recall the severe penalty for failing in this way back in 2012.

Vettel pitted surprisingly early, lap 13 (tyres 16 laps old) when the Ferrari data from Free Practice showed they could run comfortably for 19-20 laps on the softer tyre compound. This move by Ferrari was clearly designed to force Mercedes hand and prevent them trundling around on a tyre preservation strategy as they had in China.

And it worked, because on lap 14 Rosberg was pitted and Hamilton likewise a lap later.

This created problems for Nico, because he was under two seconds ahead of Vettel when the German stopped and so he lost track position to the Ferrari driver, being forced to use up valuable tyre and braking resources to regain his place.

Hamilton was immune from this because when Vettel stopped, he was over 7 seconds ahead of the lead Ferrari.

Mercedes have said they will split the tyre strategy between their cars if necessary, though Ferrari’s surprise early stop from Vettel may have created a moment’s panic in the strategy room. With Rosberg never going to retain track position on Vettel – and with hindsight – the ‘cover all options’ decision should have been to pit Hamilton’s strategy against Vettel and Rosberg’s against whatever Kimi did.

This would have preserved track position of a Mercedes car ahead of the Ferrari on the same strategy.

Lewis would still have been able to stay out 2 laps longer than Vettel – and retain the lead, though with the advantage of starting the second stint with fresher tyres.

The reason for not leaving Rosberg out and running his second stint on the harder tyre compound may reflect on Mercedes current attitude towards their two drivers. It could be argued that Mercedes deployed Nico as a rear gunner to Hamilton, to fight with Vettel and diminish his race resources.

The encyclopaedic manual that defines the ‘rules of on track engagement’ between the Mercedes drivers, would normally see Hamilton pitted first in this situation anyway. Remember Rosberg had started the race with much better tyres than Hamilton, due to his excessively slow lap in Q2. He was not now able to use this advantage by running longer in stint one of the race.

Another reason for avoiding the medium tyre may be that unlike Ferrari, Mercedes failed to calculate the improvement in performance the medium tyre would bring – given the race temperatures were much cooler than in FP2.

So as many have questioned, could Ferrari have won the race by pitting Kimi earlier on either stint? Kimi did have a lot of rubber left in the soft tyre at the end of the race. His final lap was a 1:38 – which some observers point out was a time Hamilton had not set for several laps.

In terms of tyre degradation, Kimi may have run one lap too long at the end of his second stint, he was a second slower on his last full lap than the one previous. But this would have made no difference to the race outcome.

Should Kimi then have stopped earlier on his first stint?

He was 9.2 seconds behind Hamilton when the Brit stopped on lap 15 and by the time Kimi had fitted his new medium tyres and was up to speed on lap 18 with his new tyres, he had fallen back to 13.98 seconds behind Lewis.

Yet there was little deterioration in Kimi’s times prior to the stop. The three full laps before then were 1:41.148, 1:40.973, 1:40.898

But as we’d seen with Vettel, the newer soft tyre was about a two seconds a lap quicker so Hamilton’s first three flying laps after stop one were 1:38.145, 1:39.061, 1:39.284.

It is this lost time Ferrari are accused of wasting by not getting Raikkonen onto the prime earlier because this represents a little more than the total gap Hamilton had to the Finn before Lewis began to ease off at the end of the race.

Two factors will mean Ferrari’s strategists will sleep well at night, knowing the win was beyond their reach – barring a Lewis’ failure or a safety car.

Firstly, what Ferrari borrowed from possibly shortening the stint on the first tyre, would have been somewhat paid back by having to run the second stint longer. Also its impossible to know which exact lap a tyre will run out of ‘attack’ life.

At the time, this writer felt that Ferrari should have given Kimi just 15 laps on his final tyre, not 17. Of course he then starts his chase from further back.

Secondly, unfortunately for F1 fans, the new 2015 regulations designed to reduce downforce are definitely hurting the ability of a quicker car running close to one in front without damaging the tyre.

The 2015 front wing is higher, reducing downforce gains from underneath the car. This means the impact of the dirty air coming from the rear wings of the 2015 cars – is relatively higher than in 2014.

The FIA need to regulate to reduce downforce from the top of the cars and clean up the airflow behind the cars to promote better old fashion style drafting opportunities.

Had Kimi caught Lewis, he would have suffered a similar plight to Sebastian Vettel, who in a quicker car on newer tyres failed to pass Bottas for lap after lap. Vettel on Bottas is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of problem in 2015.

One final point of note. Had Vettel not had one of the shoddiest drives of his career, failing to put Nico on the Kimi strategy could have been even more painful for Mercedes – as the sight of two Ferrari drivers on the podium would have been eminently possible.

Of course these strategy calls are tight and no one is perfect, but Mercedes may wish to sharpen up their act in this department, before it costs them big time in a race.

29 responses to “Bahrain Race Strategy Analysis: Mercedes caught off guard again

  1. Some teams struggle to get their strategy right and McLaren were awful year after year. Where did Paddy Lowe come from !
    Mercedes made a dreadful decision in forcing Ross Brawn out and now they’re going to pay for it.

  2. tj, I urge you and anyone else who cares to go back and watch the SkyF1 pre-race and race for the commentary. It was definitely made known that Hamilton also saved a fresh set of options for the race.

    Additionally, though Mercedes was reactive to Ferrari’s much more fluid strategy, I feel it’s important to remember that both Rosberg and Hamilton were warned to look after their brakes early and often during the race. Without brake issues Merc’s various leads on the Ferraris would have been much greater, as one of the subtle sandbagging maneuvers the entire Mercedes garage pulled was having us all believe their tire degredation was much greater than Ferrari’s.

  3. Could Mercedes hand have been forced when Nico failed to qualify on the front row of the grid?

    Also I’m not sure that Seb would’ve been able to get pass Rosberg either. He was clearly the slower of the 2 Ferrari drivers when they were on the same tires as the Mercs.

    • I tend to agree, Fortis. Ferrari are closer to MB than RBR were last year but I reckon there’s still a significant gap.

      I believe Hamilton’s post-race comments about having heaps of pace in hand are true. Which means we’re pretty much still where we were last year – MB wins unless something goes wrong.

      Happily though, it would seem that some cracks are appearing in the MB armour. Despite only running hard enough to achieve and maintain 1-2 on track, both MB cars had brake trouble. And it looks like the tyre wear issues they’ve had since they rejoined the sport are still around but have been masked more recently other parts of their car being superior.

      I guess the positive is that if Ferrari can keep improving and can genuinely push the silver cars on pure pace then we might see it all fall apart for MB. None of the five key players at MB seem to handle ‘issues’ terribly well. ‘Tis a situation devoutly to be wish’d.

      • There’s a piece in today’s DN&C, whereby Toto explained what caused the brake issues. As for the issues with the tires, I’m just wondering if this is due to the new method used to construct the tires this season, because we didn’t see them having this problem last year.

        I do agree with you, that they’ve still got a significant advantage over the Ferrari’s. If they can get the tire issues under control, we could possibly see what the real gap is.

      • Agreed. All things being equal Hamilton was nearly .5 faster than Vettel in qualifying which amounts to about a 20 second win.

        After the race Hamilton said they didn’t expect brake problems and with the next brake load heavy race being Canada, and with 3 weeks between now and Spain I suspect Mercedes will suss out what problems they had and correct them.

        Until proven otherwise the Merc-Ferrari gap remains substantial —– for now. And even with Ferrari’s alleged 20-30 more hp package coming down the pike, without putting the cars on track can they know what deleterious effects that may have on, for instance, downforce, where they’re already behind Mercedes?

        • Qualifying pace and race pace are completely different.

          On the medium tyre Kimi’s average lap time was 1:39:413 he started his stint on lap 18
          On the medium tyre Hamilton’s ave lap time was 1:38:714 he started his stint on lap 33

          Fuel adjusted the Ferrari was miles quicker

          The point about Rosberg mirroring Kimi was regarding track position – and the subsequent difficulties in overtaking.

          • Yh, I hear you, TJ, but I’m not convinced Ferrari have a faster race car just yet. For mine, I think there’s too much pace management going on by MB to get an accurate read on true relative speed.

          • But is that not still misleading judge? Both Lewis and Nico had to get those tires to the end of the race whilst Kimi could take the full life out of those tires, given he had one more stop to make.

          • @RogerD and @Fortis96, You are both correct as you cannot compare the lap times of Kimi vs Hamilton in this instance.. Lewis was pacing himself whilst Kimi was pushing all the way.

        • I think in either Malaysia or China the Ferrari’s were 20 seconds down by the end, the Williams’ 50.

  4. Hmm… Funny, I was just sitting down to work up a strategy analysis for the podcast and an article and while I find I agree with much of what you’ve written, I find I must fundamentally disagree regarding strategy. The reason being, I don’t believe that Mercedes and Ferrari have the same aims.

    Mercedes wish above all else,to win WCC again. As such even a P1-P4 finish would put them ahead of a Ferrari. Therefore, their only real mistake was in sacrificing Lewis’ lead (he also had a slow pit stop that contributed) to try and protect Nico, a mistake they did not repeat at the second stop. So I would call that more of a judgement error as if you looked at the numbers it might have been close enough to justify for the extra haul of points.

    Ferrari’s goal on the other hand is to be competitive and try and get on the top step whenever possible. Therefore running more agressive and split strategies is exactly what they should be doing and did quite well.

    Ferrari will try and use undercut to put Merc on it’s worst tyre while taking their second driver on split strategy to run long in clean air and to have a shot at overtaking at end of race. Merc will try and isolate Ferrari lead driver if its close in a sandwich as if the undercut works as Rosberg repassing Vettel slowed him down.

    Look for Mercs to run tyre saving in first stint and for #2 on road to be left to fend for themselves with lead Ferrari. This will lead, as it did in Bahrain, to some properly exciting races with Ferrari gaining on Merc in the last 10 or so laps and P2 generally up for grabs.

    I also a becoming convinced that Mercedes is down to being faster for one basic reason only, and that Ferrari have fundamentally caught up by time they get their updates implemented, though that basic reason will remain, possibly until next years engines. But you’ll have to listen to podcast for that 😉

    • Come to think of it, was it Ferrari’s original plan to go with that strategy in the first place?

      Remember how Kimi complained vociferously as to why they put him back on the prime tires rather than the options? and later before Seb had his rallycross moment, there was a message telling Kimi that he was on for a 3rd place finish. So did they only start realising that they could catch Nico after Seb off track moment?

      Didn’t understand your last paragraph Matt.

      • @Fortis “Kimi complained vociferously as to why they put him back on the prime tires rather than the options?”

        …my understanding was that Kimi wanted to stay on the prime tyre for the final stint from his radio calls

        • But that radio message was made a few laps after he had boxed for the first time.

          But say you’re correct, why would he want to do that, when he had a brand new set of options available? Staying on the primes for the final stint, would’ve pretty much seen him finish no higher than 4th if either Seb or Nico didn’t encounter issues.

          • Exactly – it was about his final tyre stop (no.2) – Kimi had it wrong the team were right to put him on the softer tyre.

          • I think that Kimi message had more to do with the feeling he got from the car on that tire. While Ferrari looked at the numbers and calculations. Kimi’s reasoning was gut feeling. Ferraris was the right one because they had the 3rd person view Wich allowed them to see more than Kimi could ever have. Kind of what Lewis had in Malaysia but the other way round. In Malaysia Lewis his gut feeling was better than the teams numbers

        • I very much enjoyed the strategist’s reply to Kimi (paraphrased):
          “Leave me alone! I know what I’m doing!”

      • I think there is a single factor that is the biggest difference between Mercedes and Ferrari, but I need to go find some numbers to be sure. If I am right, fundamentally Ferrari have caught Merc, but it won’t show till they get it sorted.

          • Well, I’d hate to be caught out and wrong as it came to me on the train ride to work this AM, but I have to go do some number crunching tonight to know if I have something or not. Regardless, I promise to come back and let you know what I was thinking in the thread.

        • OK I didn’t have the numbers before the podcast so I didn’t talk about it, but I finally found some screenshots of fuel usage from the late laps and it has confirmed my very humble and likely wrong opinion that the main difference performance wise is the fact that Merc has better fuel use. During the race generally speaking, the Ferrari was burning 0.6l more fuel than the Merc. I would suggest that this relative inefficiency is the main difference as likely Ferrari have also shed some DF to help with fuel use. I used 0.035s per litre as my number and I am very much guessing that they run 1-2 litres more than Mercedes as 56*.07 = 3.92 and the gaps we have seen between Merc and Ferrari, barring Melbourne, have been on that order.

          Aside from that I see in race trim that the Ferrari is as fast or faster than Mercedes and that their major problem has been dirty air. This is why the SC in Malaysia worked so well for them and why Merc could not catch up to Vettel. Getting through traffic takes too much out of the tyres and the advantage for the leading car is huge as a result. Since Mercedes still dominate quali as long as they get to T1 it’s a bit like the old Vettel days, except now they no longer race off into the sunset, but drive as slow as possible to ruin Ferrari’s tyres and give themselves half a chance on the Medium tyre stint.

          Hamilton insists they have pace in hand, but I am not yet convinced it is usable pace, as look what happened to their brakes in Bahrain. Given the compound choice and Ferrari’s engine upgrade, Barca is going to be a bit massive I suspect. I would also point out in JA’s analysis of race in which he mentioned that Ferrari have a super efficient compressor and strong battery they can run aggressively whilst Merc usually have to endure a saving mode during portions of the race.

          Other strategic fun will be of course what happens when ROS finally gets one over an HAM during quali. Will the team tell him to hold station and will he ignore it as there will no longer be a chance for overtakes at the end thanks to Ferrari upping their game? For that matter, too, ROS may have come to the same conclusion and start looking for loopholes in team strategy to better his position if he is serious about challenging for WDC..

          Holes, Poking, begin…..

    • Matt – You’re smart to focus on the primary goals of the team for the race. I’ve not yet seen others do that in their analysis, and can be important.

      Prior to the race I was thinking that the primary strategic goals of each team may become well exposed in this race given that all four cars were gridded up front and the race pace was likely to be similar. That didn’t happen, in that strategies deployed didn’t make it obvious (though I may be wrong on that point).

      It’s interesting that no-one mentions the lead strategists themselves in these analyses, (James Vowles for Mercedes, and the recently acquired from Lotus Iñaki Rueda for Ferrari, who started working for Ferrari at Sepang this year). Ferrari’s strategy performance under Rueda improved immediately, following their tactical errors during qualifying at Melbourne.

  5. Bahrain is a track tough on brakes, and I think as a result of the Ferrari pace on Friday Merc went perhaps a little too aggressive on their brake cooling setup. I don’t think they needed too really, given they still have at least 0.5s in hand per lap in race trim and more like double that in quali trim when they nail the cars setup. The fact Ferrari got so close is testament to a smart bit of pitwall thinking and Kimi driving a belting race.

    What Bahrain and Malaysia, and even some races last season, have shown is that Mercedes weak spot is not the car, it’s not the drivers, it’s their strategy during races. They panic and appear to make some pretty bad calls on the face of it. They’ve obviously learnt from the Malaysia race where tyres allowed Ferrari to win, but they’re now playing a risky game of trying to win as slowly as possible. That’s got a few of adverse impacts:

    1.) The Merc in P2 becomes extremely vulnerable to the Ferraris behind – as seen in China.
    2.) Mid race rain could potentially see them lose the race.
    3.) Mid race safety cars again put them in a bad position.
    4.) Any car faults that develop (think Canada) will result in them struggling to come home on the podium, given the field is so much closer to them.

    Merc have got a top 3 driver in Hamilton and a car that still has the biggest performance advantage the sport has seen since 2004, so I don’t see them losing the championship. Fingers crossed Pirelli start bringing some nice soft compounds to race weekends and we get 3 and 4 stop strategies to spice things up a bit.

    • I believe at times we will see a less conservative set of tyre choices from Pirelli – over the coming months – given certain indications Paul Hembery has been giving off the record.

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    • Hey, welcome aboard! Nice to have someone else who pronounces words properly posting on the site. Folks are generally nice to newcomers so feel free to jump in whenever you want. I see that you’re not too far from COTA. Ever been? And what got you into F1 in the first place?

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