Feature F1 Unlocked
STRATEGY UNPACKED: The 3 key mistakes that decided the six-way fight for third place in Monaco
At least six drivers were in contention to grab the final podium spot on offer in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix. Ex-Aston Martin strategist Bernie Collins explains what the five who didn’t make it got wrong…
The Monaco Grand Prix is all about traffic. The teams’ job is to manage the pit stop windows and ensure the strategy is flexible enough to deal with a range of Safety Car and traffic eventualities.
Nine drivers started on the hard tyre, which is higher than would be expected for a standard ‘track position’ race. So why did they do it?
Well, there are many examples historically where a long first stint and overcut (running longer and pitting later than your direct rivals to overtake them) have worked in Monaco. But this time around, a tight midfield compared to previous years would have made it difficult to clear traffic quickly for all but the fastest cars.
But high tyre graining seen on Saturday would have promoted a hard tyre first stint. Teams and drivers would be keen to avoid being pushed into an early stop lap if the softer tyres didn’t survive.
The run from the grid to Turn 1 in Monaco is the second shortest of the year so the advantage given by the soft tyre off the line is negligible. And most importantly perhaps, the risk of rain later in the race would have driven the teams towards the longest possible first stint to give them maximum flexibility.
The fight for P3
With Max Versteppen and Fernando Alonso in their own race there were six drivers in the fight for the final podium spot: Esteban Ocon, Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly.
The are a few common mistakes across all (that we can see in hindsight) that removed the podium opportunity from the others and allowed Ocon to take the first top-three finish of the year for Alpine.
First for those that started on the hard tyre, regardless of the individual reasons, the plan would have been a long first stint to clear traffic. Any cars that boxed before the rain came suffered due to an additional pit stop time loss that turned out to be unnecessary.
The decision to delay a pit stop and trust the radar, while letting other drivers undercut (pitting earlier than your rivals in an effort to jump ahead), is a difficult one. Only Russell managed to achieve this but as he was at the back of the pack he had nothing to lose by extending his first stint. So mainly the decision came down who was willing to trust in the radar.
Throughout the morning the radar had shown a front of rain advancing towards the track. But the area surrounding Monaco leaves the radar difficult to read, as sea to the south often prevents rain visibility on the radar until it reaches land.
As was the case on Sunday, rain approaching from the north appears to slow or break up over the mountains, only to reappear directly above the circuit. The variety of information given to the drivers is a clear indication of the uncertainty among the teams.
Sainz, starting on the hard tyres, was called to pit one lap after Ocon, who had started on the mediums, therefore taking no advantage of the clear air he (Sainz) was then in.
Sainz’s frustration was clear on the radio when he emerged behind Ocon on track, being told they had stopped to cover Hamilton. “I don’t care about Hamilton – that was ******* weak,” he said.
Similarly Leclerc stopped to protect from Gasly and avoid backmarker traffic, and he was then followed by Gasly three laps later. So only Russell (of this group) chose to remain on track. If any of these drivers – Sainz, Leclerc or Gasly – had chosen to trust the radar and remain on track, then they would have been in third place when the rain hit.
With the order Russell, Ocon, Leclerc, Hamilton, Sainz and Gasly on Lap 51, the rain started to fall. Now the teams and drivers needed to choose the right lap to switch to intermediate tyres. In worsening conditions, dry to wet, things tend to change quickly so the incorrect lap can be extremely costly.
The teams make the decision to switch to intermediate or wet tyres with some key pieces of information: driver feedback, lap times, radar, tyre temperatures and physical rain in the pit lane or images on TV. We do not have the team tyre temperature information so we don’t know what this showed.
We do know in the pit lane initially it was dry and therefore may have driven the concept of a dry track – or at least being able to survive on dry tyres. The driver feedback was generally that it was ready for intermediates. So the decision came from whether the teams thought it would continue to rain or get better quickly.
The tyre crossover chart above will be similar to those used by teams. It shows fuel-corrected lap times of all cars coloured by the tyre they have fitted.
The horizontal lines show that if the lap time drifts above the green line, the track is ready for intermediates, or above the blue line then wet tyres. The sudden drift of lap times towards and above the lines is clearly seen.
Verstappen’s Lap 54 is highlighted and at this point it is clear the track is ready for intermediates.
To add to this, Leclerc is told that lap times above 1m 25s would indicate it was time to switch to intermediates. Leclerc’s Laps 53 and 54 were both slower than this, although in traffic.
So we know from lap times and driver feedback the track was now intermediate conditions but what did the radar show? At 1612 local time, around 40 seconds before Alonso stopped for mediums, the radar image is shown above.
The light blue can be seen to show the light rain over Turns 4 to 9. However just north of that the yellow and orange cells – although with a hole in the middle – show heavier rain approaching the circuit.
The second image (below) is 40 seconds after the first, as Alonso stops for mediums. This shows the yellow cells, heavier rain, have now reached Turns 5 to 8, and remain a similar intensity behind over 2.5km.
The hole in the radar, around 1km to the north east, makes the overall picture not as clear as it could be and maybe lured teams into thinking the rain was survivable.
So Lap 54 was the correct lap to switch to intermediate tyres, but only four of the contenders managed this: Ocon, Hamilton, Russell and Gasly. Leclerc and Sainz both delayed the stop one more lap, possibly in the hope that free air, as others stopped, would improve lap time.
Russell, still in third position, made a mistake (running deep and off the track) on the out-lap on intermediate tyres that cost him 16 seconds, versus Hamilton on the same tyres. This mistake cost Russell the final podium position and dropped him down to fifth.
So, the three mistakes the teams and drivers made were:
Stopping too early from the hard start tyre
Stopping too late for intermediates
The driving error from Russell
Ocon, starting on the medium tyre, did also stop early but others also stopping neutralised the loss. And Ocon himself made the call for the intermediate and was reassured by the team that the rain was going to continue. Good communication allowed Ocon and the team to choose the correct lap to switch to intermediates and secure the podium position.