2019 US Grand Prix —
Strategy preview

Valtteri Bottas on track at the 2019 United States Grand Prix.

Valtteri Bottas took a hard-fought pole at the United States Grand Prix, with the top three drivers in three different cars separated by just 0.067 seconds.

The fine margins separating Mercedes’s Bottas from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen speaks to the all-round challenge of the Circuit of the Americas as one of the sport’s best new-era circuits. Comprising corners spaning the full range of speeds, elevation challenges and a long straight, the strengths and weaknesses of the frontrunning teams were effectively equalised.

But whereas Verstappen understandably dominated the final sector, which comprises eight of the circuit’s 20 turns, the balance between Mercedes and Ferrari at the first two splits was less predictable. Bottas was quickest in sector two despite it featuring the long back straight that should’ve been Ferrari territory, whereas Vettel controlled the first sector, which includes the demanding turns three to six.

Whatever the reason behind the German and Italian teams’ reversal of form, it worked to set up an interesting picture for what’s likely to be the title-deciding race, albeit with champion-elect Lewis Hamilton qualifying an off-colour fifth behind the underpowered Charles Leclerc, who reverted to an older engine after an oil leak in Saturday practice.

But all drivers in the top five starting the race on the medium tyre, it could be Alex Albon from sixth who’s the biggest mover of the weekend. Red Bull Racing made a deliberate decision to split its strategies via tyre choice in Q2, sending Albon out with the soft tyre for both runs while giving Verstappen the medium favoured by the rest of the frontrunners.

Clearly the Austrian team has a split-strategy gamble in mind at the finely balanced circuit.

The grid

2019 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX GRID
1 Valtteri Bottas 1:32.029
2 Sebastian Vettel 1:32.041
3 Max Verstappen 1:32.096
4 Charles Leclerc 1:32.137
5 Lewis Hamilton 1:32.321
6 Alex Albon 1:32.548
7 Carlos Sainz 1:32.847
8 Lando Norris 1:33.175
9 Daniel Ricciardo 1:33.488
10 Pierre Gasly 1:33.601
11 Nico Hulkenberg 1:33.815
12 Kevin Magnussen 1:33.979
13 Daniil Kvyat 1:33.989
14 Lance Stroll 1:34.100
15 Romain Grosjean 1:34.158
16 Antonio Giovinazzi 1:34.226
17 Kimi Raikkonen 1:34.369
18 George Russell 1:35.372
19 Robert Kubica 1:35.889
PL Sergio Perez Penalty

Circuit of the Americas

Circuit statistics

Laps: 56
Distance: 5.513 kilometres
Corners: 20
Lap record: 1:37.392 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2008)

Circuit characteristics

Tyre stress: medium
Lateral load: high
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Downforce: medium

Strategy particulars

Safety car probability: 43 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 413.4 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18.603 seconds
Fuel use: 1.9 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: hard–1.0 second–medium–1.0 second–soft

Strategy forecast

Before considering the potential strategic outcomes of the race, it’s worth considering why conditions in the race may not match those prevalent on Friday.

Soft (C4), 5 laps
Mercedes 1:39.537
Red Bull Racing 1:39.728
Ferrari 1:39.884
Renault 1:40.371
McLaren 1:40.481
Racing Point 1:40.625
Toro Rosso 1:40.764
Alfa Romeo 1:40.961
Haas 1:42.339
Williams (2 laps) 1:43.414

For one, it was more than 5°C colder on Friday than the forecast maximum for race day — indeed the days leading up to this race were bitterly cold, including with overnight frost. Further, track evolution has been very high throughout the weekend, both making long-run simulations difficult to compare and making the behaviour of the tyres more difficult to predict for the race.

It’s perhaps for these reasons combined that Red Bull Racing has deliberately split its strategies to have Albon tart on the soft tyre and Verstappen start second on the medium along with both Mercedes and both Ferrari drivers.

The soft tyre is estimated to be as much as a second faster than the medium but without a dramatically shorter life expectancy, and indeed Pirelli believes a soft-medium strategy is the fastest route from lights to flag.

But while the extra rubber laid into the track will help Albon make the most of his tyres, the higher temperatures, combined with his starting fuel load, could increase wear. He’ll need to pick up places with a good start to maximise this strategy.

But Albon may also prove a useful guinea pig for Verstappen. While Pirelli estimates that the fastest way to the flag for those starting on the medium tyre is to switch the had tyre a little before half distance, Red Bull Racing may consider trying to stretch the Dutchman’s first stint to give him a blast on softs with a lighter tank late in the race instead. The Circuit of the Americas facilitates overtaking, which means giving up track position to make it up later in the race may be a viable way forward.

Medium (C3), 5 laps
Ferrari 1:39.500
Mercedes 1:40.068
Renault 1:40.370
Red Bull Racing 1:40.413
Alfa Romeo 1:40.692
Williams 1:42.021
McLaren No data
Racing Point No data
Toro Rosso No data
Haas No data

If Albon’s soft-tyre pace or wear rate isn’t enticing, a straightforward one-stop medium-hard race is on the cars for the top five. Ferrari, true to this weekend’s form-reversing trend, set some strong times on the mediums on Friday, holding as much as a half-second advantage over Mercedes. Red Bull Racing was a further 0.4 seconds behind on average.

The large gaps surely aren’t representative but do indicate that Ferrari is able to get the most from the rubber in the colder weather, perhaps not unlike the way it demonstrated as much all the way back in preseason testing.

With little data to go on for the hard tyre — only Hamilton used it during FP2 for a quick but short stint — how the drivers manage the final stint of the race is anyone’s guess. Verstappen took the white-striped tyre almost the entire race distance and Mexico — both there and here it’s the C@, the second-hardest in Pirelli’s range — which might give Red Bull Racing confidence to pull the undercut trigger early if in a position to do so.

PREDICTED STRATEGIES

  1. Soft to lap 22–25, medium to flag;
  2. medium to lap 24–27, hard to flag;
  3. soft to lap 19–2, hard to flag; or
  4. soft to lap 15–18, soft to lap 30–36, medium to flag.

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