Feature F1 Unlocked
THE STRATEGIST: Could Norris, Hamilton or Leclerc have beaten Verstappen in Austin with a different strategy?
Despite winning the 19-lap Saturday Sprint in Austin by 9.4 seconds, Max Verstappen struggled throughout the Grand Prix itself, complaining of issues with brake performance – and only finished 2.2 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton in P2 (before the Briton's disqualification).
So could any of the chasing pack have beaten the Dutchman on the day had they employed a different strategy? Former Aston Martin strategist Bernie Collins takes a look at the data to find out...
The Sprint gave a clear idea of the pace order among the top four teams. Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Hamilton all ran the medium tyre to give us direct comparisons.
The result was Red Bull were fastest, followed by Mercedes, then McLaren, and finally Ferrari. Norris spent the opening nine laps behind Carlos Sainz who was on the soft tyre but in clear air showed better pace and less degradation than Leclerc.
With Verstappen starting the Grand Prix itself in P6 and having shown the fastest pace in the Sprint, many predicted a drive to victory in the main race. However, Verstappen was instantly unhappy in the car and complained of poor braking throughout the race.
His true race pace only became apparent though on Lap 12, as he overtook Leclerc to run in free air. At this stage his pace appeared to match that of Norris and Hamilton – who were ahead of him, on the same tyres.
Verstappen rolled the dice first and stopped earliest of the top seven finishers on Lap 16 to fit a set of medium tyres and therefore commit to a two-stop strategy (having also started on the mediums).
This risked traffic at the beginning of the second stint but forced others to decide quickly how to react. Norris covered the following lap and but took on hard tyres.
Ferrari split with Sainz covering Sergio Perez by boxing the next lap and also committing to a two-stop strategy – but left Leclerc on track to attempt a one-stop.
Mercedes left both drivers out, allowing both to be undercut, Hamilton by Verstappen and George Russell by Perez. Mercedes were potentially going to attempt a one-stop, asking both drivers if an additional five laps was possible on their opening stint medium tyres.
This also brought both Mercedes closer to equal stint lengths which should have been good for overall race time.
The big question is, ignoring post-race disqualifications, was it possible for anyone to beat Verstappen had they run a different strategy?
Norris as the leader in the opening stint had initially the best opportunity. He did cover the Verstappen pit stop and retained the lead in the second stint but then two factors decided before the race came into play.
Norris retained an additional hard tyre for the race from Friday’s running and therefore fitted this tyre for the middle stint. Despite many believing early in the race that the medium and hard tyre would be close on pace, the hard proved to be slower without a great advantage in degradation.
Combined with this, McLaren had under-fuelled the car, which is very normal procedure, but required Norris to lift-and-coast in the middle and final stints to ensure he had enough fuel to get to the end of the race. Lift-and-coast saves fuel by lifting off throttle and coasting a short distance before braking for the corner.
Under-fuelling is normal as margin is taken for Safety Cars or traffic throughout the race. It also results in quicker opening laps and better launch from the grid as the car is lighter. So perhaps Norris with different tyre selection or fuel could have defended harder, but the pace on the day wasn’t enough for the win.
What about Leclerc?
Leclerc had already been overtaken by Verstappen in the first stint, so perhaps Ferrari decided that defending the position to Perez wasn’t a good enough result, and that the one-stop was close enough on race time to be worth the risk as the only chance they had to beat drivers already ahead on track.
Sainz covered Perez and had the pace to hold position. Post-race, it is now obvious that the one-stop strategy was too slow, calculated at 5.6 seconds slower in race time than a two-stop strategy.
If Leclerc had focused on beating Sainz and Perez by committing to the two-stop strategy, he would have likely finished in P4 and potentially been very close to a struggling Norris in P3. That is, of course, before the Monegasque’s post-race disqualification.
So what about Hamilton?
After the race Hamilton said: “Honestly I think we could have won today. [I’m] partly frustrated that we didn’t get it right – I do think we should have undercut Lando at the beginning and got in the lead.”
But is he right?
In the first stint Hamilton’s lap times appeared similar to Verstappen, and with similar tyres available, he had the same strategic options available. Hamilton could have stopped one lap after Verstappen for a new set of medium tyres to match the Red Bull driver, therefore committing to the two-stop strategy and retaining track position.
The second stint for Hamilton would have then required an overtake on Norris – as Verstappen had done – with enough of a gap to again have an undercut margin to Verstappen at the final pit stop.
Hamilton’s straight-line speed into Turn 12 with DRS enabled was very similar to Verstappen’s, so the overtake on Norris should have been possible.
Retaining track position and forcing Verstappen to complete the middle stint in dirty air was the best possible option for being ahead in the final stint.
With the car pace shown throughout the race closely matching Verstappen then, it is possible that Hamilton could have remained ahead until the chequered flag.
So it’s entirely possible he could have pulled off a victory over Verstappen – but in a car found post-race to be illegal, which may have had an effect on its pace.