The Chinese Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features F1 journalist Abhishek Takle.
The Chinese strategy report
Lewis Hamilton won a Chinese Grand Prix didn’t deliver the sort of race-long action expected after what looked like a closely contested weekend, but while the Briton sailed serenely to his 75th win at the 1000th world championship race, behind him Ferrari was getting itself into all sorts of trouble.
Slower than expected but with two evenly matched drivers, the Scuderia made a meal of its race strategy, opening the door to Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen to attempt to steal the final podium place.
The Chinese Grand Prix is always a bit of an unusual event. Not only is the circuit a bit of an outlier in the sense that it is front-limited — that is, understeer is a real lap-time killer in Shanghai — but it’s often chilly given its early spring scheduling, which makes unlocking tyre performance a little bit difficult.
The medium tyre, for example, required typical management of the heavily worked front-left, but the soft tyre still required care for the rears, which were prone to overheating. The hard compound was expected to be robust.
However, changes in climatic conditions forced a revision of expectations. Whereas Saturday was quite warm and held the above to be true, cooler overcast conditions on Sunday brought the race back towards the softer compound and away from the hard rubber, better facilitating a one-stop race.
But the frontrunners weren’t taking their chances, and Mercedes, Ferrari and Max Verstappen used the medium compound in Q2 and thus defined it as their starting tyre. All bar two drivers outside the top 10 also selected the medium for the first stint, leaving both Renaults and both Haas cars just about alone on the soft tyre at the start of the race.
The Chinese Grand Prix
The race-winning move
Valtteri Bottas had taken pole position, but his hard Saturday work was undone within a couple of metres of the start when he generated too much wheel spin over the painted start-finish line. The Finn rued not considering this earlier, noting he could’ve lit up his rear tyres on the warm-up lap to lay some rubber onto the slippery paint to ease his way.
Hamilton scythed into the lead, from where he was never really challenged despite Bottas being approximately on his pace.
Only the pit stops could undo Lewis’s race, and Mercedes unusually decided to stop Bottas for fresh hard tyres on lap 21, one lap before Hamilton. The undercut effect reduced what had been a 5.5-second advantage to just 1.5 seconds — it’s for exactly this reason the leader ordinarily gets pit-stop priority — but Mercedes, believing at that stage the race would be a one-stop, explained to Hamilton that an extra lap of tyre life at the end of the stint would be more valuable and that in any case He had enough margin to cover the incidental undercut.
Mercedes reaffirmed its position on equal treatment by double-stacking its stops at the unexpected second pit-stop window to ensure neither driver was at risk of an undercut from behind.
Red Bull Racing capitalises on Ferrari drama
While Mercedes was a paragon of confident decision-making in China, Ferrari was exactly the opposite on a weekend on which most pundits tipped it to have a pace advantage.
Charles Leclerc, pipped to third by teammate Sebastian Vettel during qualifying, jumped the sister car at the start only to find he didn’t have the pace to chase down the Mercedes pair. Vettel believed he was being bottled up behind the slower car, and when Charles was unable to increase his pace, Ferrari told the Monegasque to let Sebastian through at the start of lap 11.
Vettel, however, was no quicker, and soon his teammate was radioing the pit wall to say he was now being held up.
Just as Ferrari seemed to be contemplating a second switch, Max Verstappen, just four seconds behind, stopped for a new set of hard tyres on lap 17. A powerful in-lap and a strong out-lap meant he immediately undercut Leclerc without the Monegasque having a change to respond, so Ferrari stopped Vettel on lap 18 to cover, which he only just achieved.
From there Ferrari made matter only more difficult for Leclerc. He was held out until lap 22 to give him a tyre offset to Verstappen, closing the gap after his pit stop from 11 seconds to almost three seconds on lap 33, but a second Verstappen stop for new medium tyres on lap 34. Vettel covered on lap 35, but Ferrari subsequently put Leclerc into a full-blown second-driver position.
He was left out at first to black Bottas after the Finn’s lap-36 stop, which he managed for only two laps on his worn tyres, and then to give Vettel a DRS-assisted tow on lap 41, after which he was brought in for a tyre change. He was spat out from the pits 15 seconds behind Verstappen with 16 laps remaining after haemorrhaging time to the RB15, a tall order even had the Dutchman not been managing his tyre to guard against it. Four seconds separated them at the flag.
The one-stop worked for some
The fragility of the soft tyre was thought to make the one-stop soft-hard strategy too difficult, but the cooler conditions helped those starting on the red-marked rubber to make it work.
Daniel Ricciardo was advantaged by starting and holding seventh off the line, effectively allowing him clear air to manage his used softs once the frontrunners built a gap. His lap-18 stop dropped him into traffic for only seven laps, after which he was free to manage his pace.
Sergio Perez and Kimi Raikkonen were his chief pursuers, starting on new mediums outside the top 10 for the expected one-stop strategy, but once they were all on the hard tyre, there was little to be done to overpower Ricciardo.
Perez’s great start put him in the position to challenge, but Raikkonen was the beneficiary of Haas’s terrible race pace — Guenther Steiner says his cars are still struggling to get heat into the tyres on circuits without fast corners — and Nico Hulkenberg’s retirement with another MGU-K problem.
Alex Albon stars
The driver of the day was Alex Albon, and for good reason — the Thai driver started from the pit lane and brought home a final point in 10th. It was a drive of disciplined strategy and controlled overtaking. Despite targeting a one-stop, Albon started on the soft compound to add an element of aggression to the strategy, allowing him to move up to 12th before his lap-19 pit stop.
From there his race was about protecting his hard tyres while moving quick enough to capitalise those two-stopping around him, which meant the final part of his race was a hard defence of Romain Grosjean, who ended on new mediums. He successfully did so despite revealing he thought his tyres were cooked 10 laps before the flag.
Albon benefitted from the melee between Daniil Kvyat and the McLaren drivers as well as the Nico Hulkenberg’s retirement, but it took nothing away from the impressively measured drive in only his third F1 race.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 22, hard (new) to lap 36, medium (new) to the flag.