STRATEGY GUIDE: What are the possible race strategies for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix?
After a Friday of qualifying action and the Sprint on Saturday, let's take a look at the different strategic options open to the teams and drivers ahead of today’s race at Interlagos...
What’s different this weekend?
This season has seen the first trials of the Sprint format, and it brings with it a few nuances when it comes to strategy. Unlike a normal race weekend, the teams all have to complete qualifying on the soft compound of tyre, but then have a free choice for the Sprint and the race itself.
So the whole field can choose to start on any of the three compounds, but just like any other race they will have to run at least two different dry tyres over the course of the race (unless it rains).
What are the likely strategies for the frontrunners?
Unlike the last two Sprint events - where there was a clear option to choose for the starting tyre - there are multiple different strategies that make sense for teams to evaluate this time around.
Saturday’s running showed all three compounds are very much usable and competitive, with some of the soft tyre runners (notably Sprint-winner Valtteri Bottas and third-placed Carlos Sainz) gaining ground at the start that they didn’t relinquish. But with higher temperatures and full fuel tanks for the race itself, the soft isn't expected to be worth gambling on for those at the front.
Instead the medium looks a more attractive tyre to start on, as it will open up the potential for the main two-stop options that appear to be quickest. The first of these is medium-hard-hard, and features a first stint of around 20 laps (give or take three either side), before a switch to hards for two stints of anything up to 30 laps each.
But not every frontrunner can do this, with Carlos Sainz in third and Charles Leclerc in sixth each only having one set of hard tyres left for the race. So they will need to look at using the medium tyre for the final stint - pitting with 25 laps or less remaining - or even push the middle stint to lap 50 and using the softs.
How about the rest of the field?
Everyone has a free choice of tyres so the cars starting outside of the top ten don’t have an advantage on that front this weekend, but the fact all tyres are good options provides them with a way of trying to do something different to the above.
Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon are the only other two drivers aside from the Ferrari pair who can’t do two stints on the hards, but starting on the hard tyre could be a viable option for those further back who want to try and find clear air by running long in the first stint. It also opens up the opportunity of a one-stop.
An opening stint of 30 laps on the hards would then be followed by a switch to mediums, as only Lando Norris and the Williams drivers are restricted to one set of mediums for the race. While those three would all need to either return to the hards or switch to the softs later on if they can extend their stints long enough - again the second one beyond lap 50 - everyone else would have the potential to do two stints on the mediums to finish.
Starting on the soft might also be attractive to some cars further back looking to gain track position after the scenes in the opening stages of the Sprint, and then trying to do at least 20 laps before being able to use any combination of medium and hard tyres to get to the end.
Will anyone try a one-stop?
The one stop is certainly a viable option, but isn’t the certainty it has been at some other races. Starting on the soft tyre would rule that out, as the pace management needed on high fuel in what are expected to be higher temperatures would be too costly. But starting on the medium could lead to a one-stop if the opening stint is managed well enough and extends beyond lap 30.
Starting on the hards opens up a similar opportunity in reverse, as a long first stint towards lap 40 would allow a switch to mediums that should do more than 30 laps as the fuel burns off. But once again, the example of drivers making gains on the softs early in the Sprint and then holding on against cars of similar performance could make this feel like a risky choice.
One-stopping does save you 22 seconds of pit lane loss time compared to a two-stop, but given the historical 50% chance of a Safety Car, that loss would be halved if pitting under such an interruption or VSC, again favouring a two-stop.
Wait, but what’s the weather doing?
Now there’s a reason that the two-stop is being listed as the preferred option over a one-stop at Interlagos, even after a Sprint that saw plenty of drivers manage to be competitive for a full 24 laps on the softest compound. And that's because it's forecast to be much hotter on Sunday than it was on Saturday.
While the temperature struggled to reach 20C during the Sprint and cloud cover kept the track temperature low so late in the day, the Sao Paulo Grand Prix will start at 1400 local time - two and a half hours earlier than the Sprint did - and the forecast is that it will be mid-20s and sunny, leading to noticeably higher track temperatures.
That leads to overheating, especially of the rear tyres in the key traction phases such as out of the slower corners in the middle of the lap and the crucial acceleration up the hill out of Turn 12. The soft tyres are more susceptible to this, making medium-hard the only viable one-stop, but with overtaking possible with a decent pace advantage - such as Lewis Hamilton demonstrated on Saturday - then teams will be wary of a tyre offset.