Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: Three different tyre strategies on show – but which was the quickest way to the flag in Japan?
Max Verstappen’s superiority around Suzuka, as he clinched Red Bull the world constructors' championship, was such that he could have won the race with any tyre strategy.
For the record, he was actually on a slightly disadvantageous combination of tyre compounds in this two-stop race, having to do two medium stints and only one hard on a day when the hard was the better race tyre. He hadn’t saved two new sets of hards through practice like McLaren and Mercedes, not that it mattered.
But he could probably have won the race by even more than the 20s advantage he had over Lando Norris’ McLaren at the chequered flag.
The tyre degradation rate was much higher than anyone had anticipated. Teams came here expecting an optimum one-stop race on the C1/2/3 range chosen by Pirelli. It quickly became apparent in the practices that it was a two-stop and possibly even a three.
The track surface was measured as having a 15% reduction in grip compared to last year. The working theory at Pirelli was that it was to do with the untypically high track temperatures on a very hot weekend.
But, because it was only really discovered during the first free practice session, many teams – Red Bull included – had already used up one of their allocated two sets of hards by the time the high degradation rate became apparent.
Thermal saturation of the rear tyres meant that the soft and medium tyres were losing around 0.2s of performance per lap, with even the hards losing around 0.1s.
Each car is allocated 13 sets of tyres for the weekend, two sets of hard, three mediums and eight soft. All the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers used a set of hards in FP1. McLaren and Mercedes did not. There was nothing particularly pre-meditated in the order in which they’d chosen to run their tyres, but it came to have a profound tactical impact.
What you’d done with tyres in FP1 determined how you reacted to the new two-stop reality. It all meant that by the end of qualifying Verstappen had only one set of hards and three mediums. The McLaren and Mercedes drivers had a more advantageous two hards and one medium. The Ferrari drivers (and Sergio Perez at Red Bull) had one hard and two mediums.
A useful indicator of how much better the hard was over a race stint than the medium can be gained by comparing Norris’s first two stints with those of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
They both started on the medium and ran a first stint of 17 laps. They were separated by just 2.2s at the end of those 17 laps, meaning Norris had averaged just 0.1375s per lap faster when on the same tyre.
But Leclerc was then obliged to run his second stint on another set of mediums while Norris was able to get onto the more durable hards, which allowed him to push harder. In the next 17 laps of their second stints, Norris pulled out just over 10s on Leclerc, for an average of 0.588s per lap faster.
The tyre behaviour also had an impact on the competitive order on race day. Drivers had to manage the pace, especially through the Esses (where the tyres get no respite for over 20 seconds) to preserve their rubber. The greater the inherent pace of the car, the more the driver could back off for the sake of the tyres.
The Ferrari, which invariably has greater tyre degradation than the Mercedes, was inherently faster around Suzuka, so that usual degradation comparison between those cars did not play out.
Leclerc was able to run untroubled by the Mercedes cars of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell throughout and, even though Hamilton managed to undercut past Carlos Sainz, the Ferrari was able to come back at him in the race’s late stages.
In a further strategic complication, Russell managed to pull off a one-stop strategy. By heavily managing his pace in his second stint, he got the hard to go a full 29 laps. Mercedes chose to do this partly to separate its two drivers, as Hamilton and Russell had diced furiously wheel-to-wheel in part of the first stint.
But it was also because Russell had no undercut threat from behind forcing him to come in for his first stop so could run for as long as his starting set of mediums would last. This allowed him to make that first stop late enough (eight laps later than Hamilton) that he could shorten the required second stint length.
The degradation rate was too high to allow Russell’s one-stop strategy to beat the two-stoppers and in the race’s late stages he was being caught by Hamilton and Sainz, both on much newer tyres. Mercedes was faced with a dilemma of whether to have Hamilton use DRS from Russell to protect his team mate from Sainz and then swap around at the end, so still allowing Hamilton’s better strategy to play out.
The alternative was to have Russell allow Hamilton past, with Hamilton then giving Russell his DRS to help keep Sainz behind. They chose the latter as the less risky option, with Hamilton going through.
“They are using my trick against me,” said Sainz in reference to his Singapore tactic of having given Lando Norris his DRS to use the McLaren as a buffer in keeping the newer-tyred Mercedes off his back. But here Sainz was able to pick off Russell before he was able to benefit from Hamilton’s DRS.
All this was put in place by the unexpected pattern of tyre behaviour.