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STRATEGY GUIDE: What are the possible race strategies for the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?
Heading into the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix there are a number of quick drivers out of position and a fierce battle for the podium in store, making strategy as crucial as ever. So here are some of the options that are available to the teams on race day in Jeddah…
What’s the quickest strategy?
Tyres played a central role in impacting race pace at the first race of the year in Bahrain and that’s also going to be true in Jeddah, but in a very different way. Looking after the rear tyres was the key to being quick in the opening race of the season, but Jeddah doesn’t place so much emphasis on traction due to the high speed corners and a track surface that is far less abrasive.
As a result, a one-stopper is going to be the preferred strategy for all of the teams, as they can manage their pace to keep the tyres in good enough shape to limit the need to make a second stop (if the race runs under green flag conditions the whole way – more on that later).
The quickest option is to start on the medium tyre and run until a pit window between Lap 18 and Lap 25, before switching to the hard compound for the remainder of the race.
All drivers have one set of new hard tyres to use – although the Aston Martin pair have both put one lap on their set during FP3 – and interestingly pole-sitter Sergio Perez has not completed any running on the hards having given an unused set back at the end of Friday’s practice sessions.
That might suggest that Perez is not going to use the hard at all, in which case the most likely strategy for him would be to start on the medium and try to reach at least Lap 28. Anything beyond that would open up the opportunity to switch to the softs to reach the end.
How about a different option for the top 10?
The reason Perez would run the tyres in that order – rather than use the soft at the start of the race to ensure the best performance on the opening lap – is due to the threat of graining. It has been a factor in the past in Jeddah, where little bits of rubber tear off the tyre but then immediately stick to the surface once again, reducing the contact patch and therefore grip.
The soft is susceptible to graining, particularly in the first stint when the fuel load is highest and the car heaviest, meaning drivers that do consider starting on the soft will need to take particular care with the tyres during that opening phase.
If they can do so, then a strategy of soft-hard is theoretically the second quickest option available, with the first stint needing to be in the region of 13 to 20 laps.
The risk of such a strategy was shown by Perez himself last year, when he made his pit stop just before a Safety Car period that allowed others to pit when the field was neutralised and lose less time, costing the Mexican the lead.
What are the options for the bottom half of the field?
The Safety Car probability has to be taken into account when teams are deciding their strategies, as the first two races have delivered interruptions on both occasions. There were even two red flag periods in the opening race, which provided the opportunity to switch tyres without losing any time at all.
To try and limit the risk of being caught out by such an incident – or more importantly take advantage of one – teams could look to start on the hard tyre.
This would risk losing time and positions in the opening laps, but opens up plenty more options in terms of a pit stop window and strategic flexibility.
Stopping as early as Lap 21 would need a switch to the medium compound to try and reach the end of the race but drivers starting on the hards could run much longer and pit as late as Lap 36 – if waiting to see if there’s an interruption – to switch to softs.
Given the pace advantage that Verstappen has, starting on the hards could be a viable option for him to try and climb through from 15th on the grid, running longer than those who start on mediums or softs and limiting the amount of risk he needs to take in wheel-to-wheel situations.
An outside option is to start on the soft compound tyre for 15 laps before switching to mediums and trying to get to a second pit window between Lap 32 and 38, then returning to the softs until the end of the race.
The two-stopper is a slower strategy to plan for at this stage, and if graining on the soft tyre is particularly prominent then teams will be keen to avoid that compound as much as possible, but for anyone starting on softs and then being met with an early Safety Car phase they could opt to make the switch.
Wait, but what’s the weather doing?
The risk of rain for the race is a massive 0%, but it’s rarely rain that teams are concerning themselves with at the Middle Eastern venues.
Track temperatures are more important and the fact that Jeddah’s race starts comfortably after sunset at 20:00 local time means the whole Grand Prix runs in consistent conditions.
The floodlights will be in full effect and the air temperature is expected to remain steady around the 25C mark, meaning only some track evolution – given how rarely the circuit is used as a street track – and diminishing fuel loads will need to be taken into account in terms of how the tyre performance is changing through the race.