Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: How Red Bull’s unique strategy helped seal their dominant 1-2 in Bahrain
Such was Red Bull’s performance superiority in Bahrain they could have won the race almost regardless of tyre strategy. However, the Red Bull RB19’s ability to be relatively gentle on the soft C3 tyre allowed it a better tyre strategy than its rivals, which only increased its advantage.
Ferrari, Aston Martin and Mercedes all ran the two-stop race with a soft/hard/hard combination. Their judgement from the practices – and testing the previous week – was that if they used the faster soft tyre for two stints, they would need to conserve the pace so much to get the stint lengths required for a two-stop (rather than a three) that it would be slower than doing two stints on the C1 hard.
Even though the C1 is an intrinsically slower tyre, it did not need to be so pace-managed to get the required stint lengths. So for those teams the soft/hard/hard sequence was actually the fastest way to run their races.
For Red Bull it was different. Both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez much preferred the feel of the car on the softs and such was the RB19’s inherent pace advantage that even when managing the tyres enough to get the required stint lengths, it was still faster than the hard-shod rival cars over those stints.
Hence it was able to run a soft/soft/hard sequence. There was a further potential benefit of this strategy, as Christian Horner explained: “We didn’t want to expose ourselves had there been a Safety Car around half distance.”
A soft-tyred rival sitting on the tail of a hard-tyred Red Bull behind the Safety Car would indeed have made them vulnerable on account of how much longer it takes the harder compound to get back up to temperature. As it happened, that scenario did not unfold but Red Bull felt they had it covered if it had.
Beaten off the line by the new-tyred Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, Perez had to bide his time, knowing he was going to be on a better tyre strategy than the Ferrari. “It was very important for me to get to Lap 15/16 still having a good tyre which I could push [after Leclerc made his stop] and make a bit of a tyre delta.”
He ran four laps longer than Leclerc in the first stint, so reducing the number of laps his next set of softs would need to last. So as he rejoined he was not only on a softer compound than Leclerc (who had switched to hards) but his tyres were four laps newer. Within a few laps he was able to catch and pass the Ferrari on track.
The tyre limitation around Bahrain’s Sakhir track is thermal degradation of the rears. They are very highly stressed laterally by the long-duration fast sweeps of Turns 5/6/7 after which they immediately have to provide traction out of the tight Turn 8 and 10 hairpins before then being stressed again through the long fast sweeps of 11/12/13, with very little straight line running in between for the tyre to recover.
With the tyre in this constant hot state, the structure steadily weakens, giving ever less support to the tread, so reducing its grip. This is thermal degradation and it will reduce the tyre’s performance until it is so slow that it will be quicker to spend the 23s cost of a pit stop to get onto fresh tyres.
This is unrelated to wear and typically the tyres coming off the cars at the stops in Bahrain will still have plenty of tread left, but are essentially spent, their energy consumed.
Although the soft tyre will suffer greater heat degradation than the hard, it starts off as an intrinsically faster tyre, the difference in Bahrain estimated at around 1.7s. But for each lap they do, so their performance begins to converge until the hard tyre’s greater resistance to heat-deg sees it become the faster tyre.
But the more the tyre is supported by downforce, limiting the sliding, the less the tread is abused. The Red Bull, aerodynamically the best car out there, was able to delay the point at which the soft becomes slower than the hard for long enough to make it a faster tyre over the stint.
They were able, in other words, to access the soft’s greater performance in a way that was out of bounds to the others, as Ferrari’s Frederic Vasseur confirmed: “[Red Bull] were able to do the second stint with soft and we had to put the hard to go to the end… we were not able to do soft-soft-hard.”
The only other team employing the soft/soft/hard strategy was Williams, but it was for different reasons. With a slower car than most, their aim was always to maximise track position and then defend, doing as much pace management as necessary.
Moving onto another set of softs at the first pit stop potentially allowed them to make an undercut work by making a faster out-lap than would be feasible with the hard. It was all about position rather than minimising the theoretical race time.
Albon managed the softs well and was always able to maintain the upper hand over the chasing AlphaTauri of Yuki Tsunoda on his way to 10th place.
One question arising from all this is why the medium C2 tyre was not seen (apart from on the six-stopping McLaren of Lando Norris). This was because the C1 – which is new for this year, softer than the old C1 and from a new family of compounds – was simply faster and more durable around Bahrain.