Feature F1 Unlocked
STRATEGY GUIDE: What are the possible race strategies for the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix?
Red Bull were on pole again but McLaren are in a strong position, and tyre degradation has given the teams a headache so far this weekend. Let’s take a look at a few of the strategic options that are likely to be open to the drivers on race day in Japan…
What’s the quickest strategy?
After the initial running it became clear that tyres were struggling with the conditions this weekend, as Pirelli found the track to be a little smoother than it has been in the past despite there having been no resurfacing or special treatments applied.
It’s a slightly unusual situation and it caught some teams out, as it meant grip levels were actually a little lower as the tyre struggled to bite into the surface as easily as expected. In turn, that meant more sliding, which leads to the surface of the tyre overheating – and then thermal degradation becomes a problem.
So a two-stop is definitely the way to go based on all the data that has been gathered so far, and it’s the hard compound that is the preferred race tyre.
To try and gain track position it would be best to start on the soft tyre if lining up near the front, and run to between Lap 13 and 19 before switching to a set of hards. From there, two relatively equal stints would be targeted, with a second pit stop window of between Lap 31 and 37.
But... there is a but! Not every team has two sets of hard tyres left available to execute this strategy. In fact, pole-sitter Max Verstappen only has one set of hards, while the two McLaren drivers directly behind him on the grid both have two each. Also with two sets available are the Mercedes drivers, Fernando Alonso, the Alpine pair and Kevin Magnussen (see the chart further down).
How about a different option for the top 10?
Unusually I’m including the driver starting from pole position in this section, but as pointed out Verstappen can’t run the hard compound twice.
That’s not to say he’s in trouble, though, as the Red Bull has been particularly good on its tyres all season long so he is more likely to be able to make a softer compound work on a two-stop strategy.
Similar to the above scenario, starting on the softs would be followed by a pit stop around Lap 13 to 19 – so the same pit window – and the middle stint would also be on the hards.
This would be a stint that Verstappen (or any other driver taking this approach) would then attempt to extend to between Lap 37 and 41, allowing a return to the soft compound for the final stint.
You might think that sounds ambitious but the track will be at its most rubbered in by that stage so will offer better grip levels to reduce the sliding that triggers overheating – plus later in the afternoon the temperatures might start to cool down as sunset is relatively early in Suzuka at this time of year.
Alternatively, Verstappen could well opt to start on the medium tyre as he has saved all three sets for the race, and his first stint could then be slightly longer than the drivers around him. That would cover him off from any positions lost at the start as he’d have a chance of clear air at some point to use his pace.
But the medium is also estimated to have similar degradation levels to the hard tyre, just with a quicker lap time on offer (the downside being shorter overall life).
If starting on the medium, the first pit window becomes Lap 14-20 – and perhaps even a little later – before again opting for hard tyres in the middle part of the race and then switching to softs for the final sprint to the flag around Lap 37-43.
What are the options for the bottom half of the field?
There is a chance someone might try a one-stop strategy, but that would require a lot of tyre management. The medium or the soft could be used for the first stint – perhaps gambling on a first-lap incident that could trigger a Safety Car – but the pace would need to be reeled in slightly to reach a pit window of Lap 18 to 25.
From there it is possible to try and go to the end on hards, and track position would still be helpful here, as well as negating a 22-second pit lane time loss that is around the average for the season.
An alternative one-stop would be to start on the hards and run long in the hope that there’s a Safety Car sometime beyond the halfway mark – recent history suggests there’s a 50% chance of a Safety Car interruption here – and then depending on how far into the race a driver has managed to get they can opt for either the mediums or even the softs if it’s late enough.
A three-stopper is highly unlikely unless a driver is seriously struggling with degradation, or a Safety Car opens up the chance to pit late on and lose less time, with it costing only around 10 seconds to do so under Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car conditions.
Wait, but what’s the weather doing?
The weather has certainly been playing ball this weekend at Suzuka after the torrential rain that saw a shortened race one year ago. It has been warm and sunny for much of the track running – with any downpours coming each night – and humidity has also been relatively high to make it feel similar to Singapore.
Race day looks set to be less humid but still hot, with high temperatures getting close to the 30C mark, especially when the sun is out.
Some cloud cover could cool that a little bit, but Pirelli has seen track temperatures up around the 50C mark which has contributed to the overheating that has proven so challenging for the teams and drivers.
More of the same is expected on Sunday, and an unseen variable could be the wind, which was particularly tough out of the final corner when it was a tailwind on occasions on Friday, destabilising cars as they try to put the power down. Small twitches can be punished in a big way at Suzuka.