The US Grand Prix was not one of the most exciting races of the season, but the strategic side was very interesting, with Red Bull continuing to probe Mercedes in a chess game; they might have split the two Silver Arrows had they had more luck with a Virtual Safety Car, triggered by one of their drivers to the detriment of the other.
Meanwhile further back some important results were achieved for Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz by a combination of brilliant driving and decision-making.
So why were some of the key decisions taken as they were?
Pre race considerations
After last year’s rain affected US Grand Prix, it was a thankfully clear weekend. The forecast for race day was for the warmest day of the weekend, but cloud cover early in the race changed that, cooling the track and tipoing the balance towards the medium tyre as the one to be on for many runners, as it copes better with the cooler conditions.
This took the edge off Carlos Sainz’ result as his car is less effective on the medium and that ultimately cost him the fifth place to Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. There are very fine margins at work here on the details.
Red Bull again rolled the dice on strategy; they split the strategies on Saturday, qualifying Daniel Ricciardo on the super soft tyre for the opening stint of the race while Max Verstappen copied the Mercedes drivers in starting on the soft.
The idea with Ricciardo was to get ahead of Mercedes at the start, given the Silver Arrows’ regular weakness in getting off the line. The risk for Ricciardo was coming out into traffic after his first stop and losing momentum and track positions as a result. It was very aggressive by Red Bull once again.
Team sources have confirmed that part of the reason for this is a dress rehearsal for next season, when they expect to be racing Mercedes for wins and the championship each weekend. They are learning how the Mercedes strategist James Vowles thinks and makes decisions under provocation.
The Red Bull vs Mercedes chess game
Red Bull’s idea was to keep Mercedes guessing and try to catch them off balance by being aggressive. They perhaps sensed that Rosberg was in championship mentality rather than race winning mentality and that was certainly true after the German driver lost the start to Ricciardo.
At a couple of points in this race it looked like Red Bull’s tactic might be working and if the Virtual Safety Car had not been deployed on Lap 30/31 then the Australian would have had track position over Rosberg, who would be forced to overtake him in the final stint.
Ricciardo had a strong opening stint on the supersoft and pitted on Lap 8. He came out behind Alonso and Sainz, but the good news was that he did not have Hulkenberg and Bottas to clear as both had been taken out of the equation at the start. They had been one of his concerns.
On fresh soft tyres he quickly cleared Alonso and then Toro Rosso pitted Sainz at the end of Lap 10, so he didn’t lose much time in the opening phase of the second stint, which had always been the risk of his strategy to start on supersofts. He had taken some of the upside of the risk by splitting the Mercedes at the start, gaining track position over Rosberg. So on balance the strategy gamble worked.
Ricciardo getting ahead of Rosberg at the start had effectively decided the win for Hamilton and meant that Rosberg was on a recovery strategy to get back to second place by the end.
Having started on the softs, Rosberg and Hamilton had more strategic options available, but with Ricciardo in good form on new soft tyres, the Mercedes strategists realised they needed to pit both cars. Stopping Rosberg first they put him onto the medium tyre to give him a longer middle stint.
The idea was to put him on a different strategy from Hamilton and Ricciardo; Mercedes knew that their car worked well on mediums and in fact Rosberg was able to lap at a similar pace on the tyre to Ricciardo on softs. It was a low risk mentality, given that Rosberg was leading the championship and clearly wasn’t getting sucked into a more aggressive approach, such as Ricciardo was taking.
This was very evident at the second stops; Ricciardo and Red Bull went ultra aggressive with a stop on Lap 25, leaving him 31 laps to the finish on mediums. The message to Rosberg was clear; if you want second place you will have to overtake us on track.
Mercedes again did not bite. They left Rosberg out on his medium tyres and lucked out when Max Verstappen’s car broke down. As the car was stuck in gear and would not move a mobile crane was needed to lift it and post the Jules Bianchi accident in 2014 that means a Virtual Safety Car.
It was ironic that an incident for his own teammate should cost Ricciardo the chance of second place.
With a 10 second gap between its cars, Mercedes was easily able to pit both of them on the same lap and retain track positions first and second.
Without the VSC Rosberg would have done another four or five laps and then pitted onto new Softs around Lap 35. He would had a deficit of around six seconds to Riccardo and 16 laps to catch and pass him on track. With a championship at stake and clearly in a conservative mood on the day, Red Bull calculated that there was a fair probability he might not try a risky move.
In the end Rosberg’s luck with the VSC was Ricciardo’s misfortune. To win a championship requires a little luck even for the very best drivers and the VSC in Austin, combined with Hamilton’s engine failure in Sepang give one the impression that luck is on Rosberg’s side this year. That is not to take anything away from his driving, which has been on a higher level this year and he has rarely given much away to the opposition.
Sainz and Alonso shine. Massa and Williams left cursing
Carlos Sainz finished sixth in Austin last year, although he was later demoted to seventh for a pit lane speeding penalty. This year he got his sixth place, but it could have been fifth, but for a slight weakness on the medium tyres.
This pushed Toro Rosso into a strategy where he was obliged to go longer in the second stint to try to shorten the third stint, given a likely scenario where Toro Rosso expected others to go for medium tyres, but they knew that they themselves had to go soft. Sainz was the only driver not to use the medium in the race.
This pushed them longer in the second stint than they would ideally have wanted. However on this occasion it turned out very well with the VSC, which got him ahead of Massa, who had stopped just before the VSC. But then the flip side - being on the softs and running out of tyre performance at the end of the race - cost them fifth place to Alonso.
Massa had been unlucky with the VSC timing, but Williams will be unhappy that he did not pass Sainz for a potentially crucial extra two points in their championship battle with Force India.
He had more pace in the previous two stints and a fairly substantial top speed advantage (333km/h against Sainz’ 316; the slowest car on the straights) with a Mercedes power unit against a wheezy year old Ferrari. Sainz was also nursing soft tyres. Massa had got himself close enough on many occasions but didn’t try a move.
It is often the case in F1 that if you don’t take the opportunity to go forward you become exposed to someone else going forward at your expense. That is exactly what happened here with a very competitive Alonso coming up at a second a lap faster.
This is an indication of Massa’s situation with three races to go to his retirement. But in a finely balanced championship battle, where both Williams and Force India can expect to score around 6-8 points maximum per race, it is unfortunate for Williams
Race History Chart
Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing
Showing the gaps between the cars and the relative pace. An upward line is good pace, a descending line is poor pace.
Look at Ferrari vs Red Bull on soft tyres in middle stint, which is relatively positive but on mediums the relative weakness is exposed.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli