The Australian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Rob James from Box of Neutrals.
The Australian strategy report
Valtteri Bottas dominated the Australian Grand Prix to claim his fourth grand prix victory in what the Finn described as his best-ever race.
Bottas’s 20-second defeat of teammate Lewis Hamilton and the evaporation of Ferrari’s preseason pace stole the show, but there was plenty of intrigue elsewhere in the field to make for an interesting race.
There was much to consider from a strategy point of view coming into the first race. Chief among the changes is to Pirelli’s approach to supplying tyres — whereas in 2018 Pirelli opted for more aggressive selections to promote more pit stops, this year it will bring harder, more conservative rubber to allow drivers to race harder for longer, the rationale being the softer tyres were forcing drivers to conserve to avoid an extra stop.
A further change is that Pirelli’s three tyres will be referred to as ‘hard’, ‘medium’, and ‘soft’ at every race regardless of which of the five compounds they are actually are. At the Australian Grand Prix Pirelli brought the C2, C3 and C4 compounds, with the lower number being the harder rubber. This is effectively one step harder than last season’s Melbourne tyres.
Further, aero changes for 2019 designed to help cars follow one another more closely were in effect for the first time in Melbourne. Albert Park is naturally a track around which passing is difficult, and the 2019 race proved to be no exception, but at circuits with more overtaking is possible, this may raise the likelihood of teams choosing a two-stop race — if the changes have the desired effect.
The Australian Grand Prix
The race-winning move
Valtteri Bottas was pipped for pole by teammate Lewis Hamilton, but the Finn got back at the Briton with a sizzling start that put him into the lead on the first lap. Track position is particularly advantageous around the Melbourne street circuit, giving Bottas’s victory hopes an instant boost, but it also had the effect of putting Hamilton in a defensive position against what was expected to be the quick Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
Nice try, Ferrari
Vettel and Ferrari wasted little time putting Hamilton under pressure, pitting at the end of lap 14 for an ambitious undercut attempt, switching from his used softs to new mediums. It was at least seven laps ahead of one-stop schedule and he was more than four seconds behind the Briton, who was brought in on the next lap to cover the strategy successfully, emerging with his lead intact.
Verstappen runs his own race, capitalises
Though Vettel’s undercut didn’t have the desired effect, it did have consequences: Max Verstappen, who had been running fourth behind Vettel in the first stint, now had clear air ahead of him to comfortably extend his first stint on the soft tyre to lap 25 before switching to new mediums. He merged only three seconds behind Vettel and took just six laps to scythe past the Ferrari with his fresher rubber. He went about pressuring Hamilton for second, but a lap-49 off lost him some momentum, leaving him with third on the podium.
Visor problem compromises midfield battle
The battle in the midfield was closely contested, but for the variety of strategies employed in an attempt to get ahead, the most significant one executed by Kimi Raikkonen, who did so essentially by accident. The Finn’s lap-12 stop was interpreted as an undercut attempt on Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg two seconds up the road, but in truth it was triggered by an errant visor tear-off getting stuck in the brake ducts and causing an overheating problem.
The incidental stop triggered a chain of inopportunely early stops. Hulkenberg stopped on lap 13 and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen ahead of him did likewise on lap 14. Moreover, behind this battling trio, Sergio Perez was pushed into trying the same thing on Alex Albon on the same laps, with Lando Norris following suit.
All six became stuck behind Antonio Giovinazzi’s damaged Alfa Romeo, and though the first three were able to squeeze past, perhaps with the help of teammate Raikkonen’s way being eased by the sister car, the latter three weren’t able to follow.
Giovinazzi was employed to play the team game. He was kept out on rapidly wearing medium tyres to hold up Norris, Albon and Perez to give Raikkonen a buffer for the Finn’s long stint. Between laps 19 and 26 this group lost around nine seconds to the leading pack and put it out of touch of the points.
Into that nine-second gap slipped Lance Stroll, Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly, who started outside the top 10 on the medium tyre and ran until alps 27, 26 and 37 respectively, allowing Stroll and Kvyat to clean up the last of the points-paying places.
The missed opportunity
The hard tyre, not favoured by the teams in their tyre selections in Australia, ended up being the ideal race tyre for a one-stop strategy in the early autumnal warmth of Melbourne on a day track temperatures reached 44°C. Charles Leclerc discovered as much when, after being a little off teammate Sebastian Vettel’s pace on the soft compound, he put in an excellent stint on the white-striped rubber late in the race. He sliced down Vettel’s advantage and likely would have passed him in ordinary circumstances, but his team requested that he hold station given he was too far back to have launched an attack on Verstappen ahead anyway.
The new game: fastest lap
The point for fastest lap delivered an unexpectedly intriguing ending to the race, with a number of drivers contemplating ways to outfox their rivals to steal the bonus point once the final order was settled. Max Verstappen briefly snatched it from Valtteri Bottas before the race-winner claimed it back on the penultimate lap, suggesting there was plenty of life still left in the pair’s tyres after running a convention one-stop strategy.
Of relief to those worried the point might become a bit of a farce, neither Charles Leclerc nor Valtteri Bottas, both of whom had enough of a gap behind them to pit without losing a place, opted to switch to a new set of tyres to beat the field to the bonus point, with both their respective teams deciding the risk of a pit stop going wrong and losing a place isn’t worth the reward.
The winning strategy
Valtteri Bottas: soft (used) to lap 23, soft (new) to the flag.