Feature F1 Unlocked
STRATEGY UNPACKED: Bernie Collins dissects the fastest lap needle between Perez and Verstappen in Jeddah
Max Verstappen leaves race two of the 2023 season retaining the lead in the World Championship but only by a single point over team mate Sergio Perez. After a disastrous qualifying saw an early exit during Q2 to start on the grid in P15, Verstappen’s side of the garage had an uphill battle to reach the podium.
Suddenly a race from lights to flag with the fastest car on the grid has become complicated, with 14 cars ahead to deal with. So what are the best strategic options to help?
Starting out of position, the aim is to find some free air in order to be able to use the true car pace without the hinderance of a car ahead. One method for doing this is to stop earlier than others finding some free air further back and hope that nobody stops and emerges on track in front of you: the undercut.
This, however, leads to a very long stint on the second tyre. It is also exposed to any Safety Car deployments that may happen afterwards, allowing others to stop with a reduced pit-loss and emerge ahead. This is often a strong option if in the first stint the driver is struggling in traffic and cannot make progress through the field.
The alternative is to remain on track as others around begin to stop and extend the stint. With faster lap times at the end of the first stint in free air than cars that have already pitted, it is possible to pit later and emerge ahead: the overcut. Even if the overcut is not possible, then it allows the driver to have fresher, and therefore faster, tyres in the final stint.
As the field spreads throughout the race, it should be possible with better car pace and DRS to overtake and gradually gain positions through the field. In Jeddah, Red Bull car pace was significantly faster than the competition, with a straight-line speed advantage leading to some quick overtakes once DRS was enabled.
So what were the strategy options for Verstappen to consider on race day? The most important decision pre-race is the start tyre. The advantages and disadvantages of each start tyre are explored in the table below.
The discussion of start tyres shows that the medium start tyre allowed Red Bull the most strategy flexibility to react to either Verstappen’s progress through the field and to Safety Car events. As we know from Jeddah, there had been a Safety Car during both previous races, so it was important to consider reactions to this.
In previous races, the Safety Car has occurred around the timing of the first pit stops. Therefore it is important not to stop too early and be in the best possible position to gain from this.
Verstappen started on the medium, gained one position through Oscar Piastri’s collision with Pierre Gasly, gained a further six positions through overtakes on track, before three drivers ahead completed a pit stop. That meant that on Lap 17, Verstappen was in P4 but yet to stop.
On Lap 18, the Safety Car was deployed to help recover Lance Stroll stopped on track. At this point the top five drivers all stopped for reduced pit loss with no loss of position; Perez, Fernando Alonso, George Russell, Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
Post-Safety Car, Verstappen restarts on the hard tyre in P4 with the cars ahead on the same tyre. A straight fight for positions. Verstappen quickly overtakes Alonso and Russell with DRS enabled and the race becomes a head-to-head with team mate Perez.
The chart below shows that from Lap 25, when Verstappen overtakes Alonso, the lap times between Perez and Verstappen were very evenly matched. At this stage, if neither driver scored a point for fastest lap then the World Championship standings would be tied with both drivers having one win and one second place from the first two races.
But every driver wants to lead.
Verstappen on the radio raises concerns about the drivetrain, which caused the issues in qualifying. In response, the team ask both drivers to target a 1m 33.0s lap time, which would manage the gap to Alonso in P3 but not risk the car.
Verstappen is told several times but never responds and only completes a slower lap time on Lap 46. Later Verstappen questions the team:
Max: “What’s the fastest lap?”
Pit wall: “We are not concerned about that at the moment Max.”
Max “Yeah, but I am.”
Pit wall: “[One minute] 32.1 [seconds]”
During the final lap, Max pushes for the fastest lap and completes a 1m 31.9s, 0.2s quicker than the one Perez had set, and importantly leaving Perez no time to respond.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the garage, Perez is given the same target lap time and regularly updated with Verstappen’s lap times. Perez being suspicious is slower to comply. When Perez asks about the fastest lap, he is correctly – at that time – told that he currently has it and doesn’t ask again until the in lap after the race, where we hear him respond sarcastically:
Perez: “Did we get the fastest lap?”
Pit wall: “You were pipped on the last lap.”
Checo: “Haha. Great.”
Personally, I think there may be even more suspicion among both drivers going forward, and in future races we could expect fastest lap attempts from both in the closing lap.
In those stakes for Saudi, though, it’s Verstappen 1, Perez 0.