One of the best Grands Prix of the season featured close racing, heartbreak for Lewis Hamilton with a late race engine failure and a fascinating strategic battle at the heart of it, as Red Bull challenged Mercedes in a war game.
For the second season in a row the dominant Mercedes team did not win in Malaysia, as Nico Rosberg fell to 21st at the start and Red Bull split the strategies across its two cars to attack Hamilton.
There is much to digest and analyse in our deep dive into the key decisions that shaped the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix
The resurfacing of the track with greatly increased grip meant that the lap times were close to record pace and although Sepang is a tough circuit on tyres, the teams found that the soft tyres were lasting particularly well during practice.
While few thought a one-stop race was possible, there were some teams considering two stints on softs, followed by the mandatory stint on hards. The forecasts were that the hard tyre would last around 30 laps, but not much more.
Red Bull cast the first stone in the strategy game on Saturday by saving a new set of soft tyres in Q1 for both drivers. Having set his Q1 time on medium tyres, like teammate Ricciardo, Verstappen went out at the end of the session on a set of softs, but only did a slow lap, so they were effectively new for the race. Ricciardo’s saved set was brand new and this would count for a lot in his final stint battle against Verstappen, as we shall see.
Red Bull splits strategies and what it tells us about the future battles of Ricciardo vs Verstappen
Did Red Bull believe that they could beat Lewis Hamilton in Sepang, without the engine failure? Up to the point at which the drivers moved onto the hard tyres the answer is yes.
Once it became clear the pace Mercedes had on the hard tyres, Red Bull’s focus shifted to preserving second and third places ahead of Rosberg and Raikkonen. But the way they went about it tells us a lot about what how they will have to manage carefully the internal battle between Ricciardo and Verstappen in future.
The early stages of the Grand Prix saw two periods of Virtual Safety Car and at the second, on Lap 9, Red Bull rolled the dice and split their strategies, bringing Verstappen in for another set of soft tyres.
They did this because it made it very difficult for Mercedes to cover both strategies with only Hamilton in the game at the front. Had Mercedes been first and second they would have done the same thing, because there were a lot of unknowns about how the tyres would perform later and what other incidents may occur.
Red Bull’s philosophy was to take the risk with the tail car, which is why Verstappen was pitted. As it turned out, it gave him the better strategy.
Interestingly this is the opposite of what they did in Barcelona, where they took the risk with the lead car, Ricciardo, and it cost him the race win.
Verstappen fitted his ‘as new’ set of softs at this stop and re-joined. Ricciardo had stayed out as had the leader Hamilton. On new tyres, Verstappen was quickly into Hamilton’s pit window, meaning that the world champion would drop behind Verstappen when he made his stop.
Hamilton pitted on Lap 20 for hards, with Ricciardo covering that a lap later with the same move. Although Ricciardo radioed in that he felt the tyres would go to the end, realistically both drivers were going to need a late race stop for a set of soft tyres; Mercedes were certainly planning that.
So there is no question that Verstappen was on the better strategy and had Hamilton pulled into the pits to retire on Lap 40, rather than stopping out on track triggering another VSC, then Verstappen would probably have won the race. Ricciardo would have had to stop again and would then have tried to make up the 24 seconds his stop had lost him, in the closing stages on soft tyres, versus Verstappen’s hards.
Once Hamilton was out, Red Bull did the sensible thing and pitted both cars under the VSC. They did this not as a form of team orders, but to cover off Rosberg and Raikkonen, who could have beaten them if there had been a late race Safety Car. They had a 30 second gap back to Rosberg so it made perfect sense to use it and take on fresh tyres, which Ricciardo was now in need of in any case.
Ricciardo fitted his new soft set, Verstappen had to use one of his old qualifying sets, which had done three laps including a hard lap. And thus, with his strategy advantage neutralised and inferior tyres, it was always going to be a struggle to beat his team mate. Game, set and match Ricciardo.
However the really intriguing phase was just before Hamilton’s engine failed, when Verstappen caught Ricciardo, who had pitted on lap 21 for hard tyres, six laps earlier than his teammate. At this point Hamilton was 20 seconds ahead, but lapping over a second faster than Ricciardo.
Common sense would suggest that Red Bull would allow Verstappen through without delay, as he would then once again be in Hamilton’s pit window (i.e. less than the 24 seconds Hamilton would need to pit and re-join ahead). But at the rate Hamilton was going, that opportunity would be lost in a couple of laps time.
Switch them immediately and the Dutchman would have the track position when Hamilton stopped again. The Mercedes would have to try to pass him on the track at the end. Although Ricciardo had told the team he could go to the end on the tyres, the reality is that both he and Hamilton would need to stop again, so Ricciardo had little chance of winning the race, as things stood.
However what is significant is that Red Bull had conceded that Mercedes were too fast on hard tyres and they were not going to beat Hamilton. Thus their focus was on consolidating second and third places at that point.
They did not instruct Ricciardo to let Verstappen through because they were racing each other for position, not racing Hamilton.
That did not stop Verstappen from insisting on the radio that he be allowed through. We saw him do this a lot in the Toro Rosso days with Carlos Sainz and it’s clear that there will be some difficult moments in the future dynamic between the Red Bull drivers where these kinds of calls will be made.
The data shows that Verstappen was the faster Red Bull driver all weekend in Malaysia and he had the better strategy before Hamilton's demise.
What Malaysia showed us is how the team handle the situation when they don’t think they can win the race and they favoured Ricciardo here; bearing in mind how they let him down in Barcelona and Monaco, this was clearly payback. With Hamilton’s misfortune it turned into an victory payback.
However, if the Red Bull drivers, perhaps next season, were in a position to win if the team moves one driver over to give the other a better shot at beating another car, would Ricciardo or Verstappen yield if requested? One can imagine the respective answers to that question and it will be fascinating when that situation arises next year.
Bottas and Alonso shine as Button misses out
Valterri Bottas and the two McLaren drivers provided a couple of other interesting cameos.
Bottas had a strong race doing a one stop medium-hard strategy that very few people foresaw. It was bold by Williams and the kind of thing they need to do more often.
Starting 11th after a disappointing qualifying session, the Finn did a superb job to get 29 laps into the race on the mediums and then reach the finish on the hards, maintaining track position ahead of the Force India and McLaren cars.
Due to the new track surface no race strategist had a clear idea of the best order to take the tyres, “you had to be dynamic and on your toes this weekend, reacting to things.” said one.
Fernando Alonso had another astonishing afternoon, starting at the back of the grid after his engine penalty; he was already 12th at the end of the opening lap. Making up places at starts has always been one of his strengths, but it set him up for a strong result here. He too pitted under the Lap 9 VSC and took the hard tyres. He saved around 10 seconds by stopping under the VSC compared to a normal stop. He then undercut Hulkenberg at his second stop to finish in seventh place.
Button had a great start too and was sixth on the opening lap. He was racing against Bottas for fifth place, but was caught out by bad luck when he pitted just before the final VSC for Hamilton’s breakdown. This allowed Alonso and Hulkenberg to get a cheap pit stop under the VSC and come out ahead of him and both separated him from Bottas ahead.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do if Lady Luck isn’t on your side, however good your strategy planning!
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
RACE HISTORY GRAPH & TYRE USAGE CHART, Kindly Supplied by Williams Martini Racing
Key: Horizontal = Lap number; Vertical = Gap in seconds
Look at the pace of Verstappen as he closes on Ricciardo around Lap 38/39. Had Hamilton’s engine survived both he and Ricciardo would have needed to stop again, leaving both to pass Verstappen for the victory. Had Hamilton retired in the pits Ricciardo would have had to pit before the end and Verstappen would have won the race by a margin. Holding Verstappen off on Lap 39 and then Hamilton stopping out on circuit won Ricciardo the race.