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STRATEGY GUIDE: What are the possible race strategies for the 2023 Spanish Grand Prix?
A dramatic qualifying session saw multiple incidents and resulted in a number of fast cars out of position on the grid, and with work to do on race day on the new track layout. So here are a few of the options that are likely to be available to the teams and drivers when the lights go out in Barcelona.
What’s the quickest strategy?
In a situation that is pretty much the polar opposite to Monaco last week, there are multiple options on the table that can be considered by the frontrunners and the priority will be on tyre performance rather than track position.
Pirelli predicts it’s is a close call for most teams between a two-stop and a three-stop race, due to degradation and the way the different tyre compounds are performing. But the two-stopper is the one that edges it for any driver who has two sets of the hard tyre available to them.
To take advantage of the performance advantage offered by the soft compound, that is the most likely choice at the start of the race, as it is estimated to be around a second per lap quicker than the hard compound. That’s a noticeable delta for the long run to Turn 1, but also the opening stint when the field is bunched up.
After a first stint of between 13 and 18 laps, the next two phases of the race would be run on the hard compound. That’s because it’s the most robust tyre on a track that will lead to high levels of degradation and wear out the front left.
The second stop would be targeted around Lap 37 to 43, allowing a relatively aggressive run to the flag for those pitting later in that window.
It’s a strategy that is open to the front row as both Red Bull and Ferrari drivers have two sets of hards left, as do the Alfa Romeo and Williams cars.
How about a different option for the top 10?
Eight of the top 10 only have one set of hards left, so will have to look at an alternative, but there is a clear one that is not too far away from the above strategy.
Also starting on the soft tyre, the drivers will need to manage their pace a little more in the opening stint to protect their rubber on high fuel, to try and delay their first pit stop until Lap 15 to 20. Again they will then fit the hard tyre for a longer middle stint, looking to get to at least Lap 46 before switching back to the softs for the final run to the flag.
With lower fuel and the track at its fastest, the final stint can still be an attacking one on softs as long as the final stop is timed well, but going too early could lead to a tricky final few laps.
The reason that a driver would only use the soft and hard rather than the medium in this strategy is because the medium appears to offer only limited advantage in terms of pace over the hard, but a degradation level closer to the soft that means it holds no clear gain over either compound.
What are the options for the bottom half of the field?
While an out of position driver might opt to run the hard tyre at the start to try and run long and gain track position when others make their first pit stops – then use two sets of softs to complete the race or a short middle stint on softs if they have two sets of hards available – there’s a more aggressive strategy on the table.
The changes to the track layout are expected to increase the ease with which drivers can overtake if they have a pace advantage, as they will enter the pit straight at a higher speed thanks to the two corners before. That means they approach top speed earlier on the straight, increasing the influence of the slipstream and DRS.
Although care needs to be taken of the rear tyres, it’s also the front left that is given the toughest workout through Turn 3 and the final two corners, and it’s that ending to the lap that is important. If a driver is hanging on with old tyres they are going to struggle in that final section and be compromised on the pit straight where they are most likely to be overtaken.
To counter that, a three-stopper using three sets of soft tyres is possible. A shorter first stint will allow drivers to attack at the start, pitting between Lap 10 and Lap 15 before switching to hards. That ticks the box of using two different compounds immediately, and would then need no more than 20 laps before being able to return to the faster rubber.
Using the softs anytime from Lap 31 onwards, splitting the rest of the race into two relatively equal parts would mean plenty of overtaking is possible – and would be required against the two-stopping cars.
Three sets of softs are needed for that strategy and only those outside the top 10 have any new sets to take advantage of – Kevin Magnussen, Alex Albon and Charles Leclerc the trio who have two.
For a strategy that does use all three compounds, two-stopping after starting on softs and with a final stint on mediums is possible, but appears to be slower than the other three options at this stage.
Wait, but what’s the weather doing?
As qualifying showed, the teams might also have to take into account a risk of rain. The current forecast says there is a 60% chance of showers, but also higher temperatures up to a 25C when the sun is out.
That could well mean a wet track would dry a bit quicker than it did on Saturday, when there were still damp patches throughout qualifying despite rain having stopped more than an hour earlier, and the session starting on slicks.
Cloud cover means cooler track temperatures and that will help the soft tyre stints – making the soft-hard-soft strategy even more attractive – but at times the sun is able to get to the circuit surface the higher temperatures would make those periods on softs more tricky to manage.