The British Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features ESPN associate editor Nate Saunders.
Silverstone Circuit delivered one of Formula One’s best grands prix in years, with action aplenty and surplus opportunities for team strategists to get their drivers ahead.
Lewis Hamilton emerged victorious after a memorable scrap with teammate Valtteri Bottas, but the Finn would be justified in feeling robbed of a chance to slash his championship deficit after holding off the Briton in the first part of he race only for the safety car to intervene to the advantage of the sister car.
The Silverstone Circuit was freshly resurfaced in time for this weekend, and the new surface was not only very grippy, but some corners were now off-camber, and the combination of the two resulted in significant tyre wear.
Important to note is that wear is distinct from degradation — whereas degradation is a chemical reaction in the tyre brought about from overheating and reduces grip, wear is the physical wearing away of the tread as the car slides across the track. A worn tyre obviously cannot be recovered nor can the stint on that tyre be elongated.
These conclusions from Friday practice led most teams and drivers to conclude the race was a nailed-on two-stop given the Pirelli compounds simply wouldn’t last long enough to make a one-stop work.
It was to a certain extent flawed data, however. Because the challenge of the circuit was so unexpected, the significant set-up changes enacted by almost everyone before Saturday practice and qualifying cured the worst of the heavy wear issues, meaning the usual Friday form guide was of limited use. How teams and drivers reacted to this during the race proved decisive in several results.
It’s also worth noting the role the new surface played in enabling unusually close racing. Together with the cool track temperatures, there was almost no real overheating of the Pirelli tyres, meaning there was no need for drivers to back off an attack to cool the rubber.
Furthermore, the high latent downforce of the current regulations — combined too with the new simplified front wings this season — also meant that the loss of aerodynamic performance drivers normally feel when following wasn’t severe enough to force them to leave the usual gap to the car ahead.
The race-winning move
There were two ways to cut the British Grand Prix result: Bottas’s race was undone by the unusually rigid strategising of the Mercedes pit wall or Hamilton won the race with some genius self-initiated tactics.
Hamilton, having qualified second to his teammate, knew that only a different approach in the race would give him a good chance of executing a pass on an identical car. Having learnt on Friday that he was very comfortable managing tyre wear, he schemed to make only one stop when his team — and, crucially, Bottas — was expecting him to make two.
Mercedes had agreed to allow the second driver to build a tyre offset as part of its commitment to allowing its drivers to race, and after deliberately pushing Bottas into wearing his tyres faster than he would have liked and forcing the Finn to stop on lap 16.
Critically Bottas adopted a new set of medium tyres, the same compound on which he’d started the race. This was a crucial error. Regardless of the safety car intervention, he had locked himself into a two-stop strategy due to the requirement to use two different tyre compounds, therefore left leaving himself vulnerable to a threat from behind on a different strategy.
Hamilton was that threat.
The Briton set about building a six-lap offset to Bottas, emboldened by the Finn’s so-so lap times on new tyres that meant he would emerge a maximum of only three seconds behind the sister car.
The plan was simple in Hamilton’s head: take the hard-compound tyre in the middle stint, emerge from the pits three seconds behind Bottas and cruise until the Finn made his second stop and inherit the lead. Bottas would have fresher rubber at the end of the race, but he thought it unlikely he’d be able to chase down a 20-odd-second gap in what would have been around 20 laps.
Of course the theory was moot after the safety car. Hamilton won a free pit stop and never had to concede the lead. Mercedes arguably missed a trick by not also stopping Bottas, which would have limited the damage to the Finn’s strategy, but the pit wall decided against it given he would have fallen behind Sebastian Vettel, whose Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage may have made passing difficult.
So it’s not entirely fair to say Hamilton’s win was simply gifted given he was working towards a similar outcome. Bottas, on the other hand, could have fought back had Mercedes not been so determined to run a conventional medium-medium-hard strategy. Indeed so determined was Mercedes to run a two-stop race that it tried to bring Hamilton in during the final 10 laps for fresh tyres, worried as they were that the rubber would fail — but Hamilton set the fastest lap on the final tour of the race, even after Bottas stopped for a set of soft-compound tyres, underlining how well he was able to keep his tyres alive.
It’s all in the pit stops
The battle between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen for the final podium place was the highlight of the race, and complementing their thrilling on-track antics were some strategy calls that proved influential on the outcome.
The first was the pair’s synchronised first pit stops on lap 13. Verstappen followed Leclerc in, but Red Bull Racing executed the better stop, and Verstappen emerged marginally ahead at pit exit — only to make a mistake mere corners later to hand Leclerc the advantage.
But that wasn’t the last time the pit wall would play a key role in this battle. Though the safety car emerged only seven laps after their stops, Red Bull Racing brought Verstappen in for a new set of hards in a successful attempt to make it to the end.
Ferrari, however, equivocated. Vettel, who hadn’t yet stopped, was brought in from second and slotted back into the pack in third. However, despite a 15-second gap back to Leclerc, the team opted against double-stacking, choosing instead to wait an extra lap to bring in the Monegasque, dropping him to sixth behind his Dutch rival.
It made little sense not to take advantage of the safety car to take a free second stop given both drivers were destined to make two stop anyway, and it would have cost Leclerc a podium finish had Vettel and Verstappen not crashed on lap 37, promoting him back to third.
Antonio Giovinazzi the midfield king-maker
Antonio Giovinazzi’s rim failure-inspired beaching in the gravel on lap 19, triggering a safety car the following tour, was the key moment in the race despite the on-track action. It divided the midfield between those who took advantage and those who didn’t.
Carlos Sainz, for example, was still on his new set of soft-compound tyres when the safety car came out and made a straight swap on the hard rubber, which he made run to the end. It propelled him 13th to seventh, allowing him to finish best of the rest ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who took the opportunity to stop for the hard tyre behind the safety car despite already having made his first stop, as did Daniil Kvyat.
But the losers lost out substantially. Nico Hulkenberg, Lando Norris and Alex Albon all opted against stopping, having already made their first stops. Norris immediately recognised he’d been duded on strategy, and Hulkenberg vented after the race that he wasn’t brought in despite telling his team that his hard-compound tyres weren’t working for him.
In Albon’s case, a problem with the power unit’s electronics system prevented him from making a second stop due to safety reasons. He almost made his medium rubber last for his 39-lap stint but faded rapidly in the final minutes.
One exception applies here: Kimi Raikkonen, who committed to a one-stop on lap 17, before the safety car, and made it to the end in ninth on the hard tyre, proving that there was endurance to be had if planned for.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 20, hard (new) to flag.