The Russian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Sean Kelly, F1 stats man.
The prospect of a September clean sweep was within Ferrari’s grasp right up until it wasn’t.
Sebastian Vettel led pole-sitter Charles Leclerc in one-two formation as the red cars inched away from the field in the first stint, but a team orders controversy gave way to a calamitous two laps that gifted Mercedes a Lewis Hamilton-led victory.
The race turned on a virtual safety car triggered just after Leclerc made his first stop and just before Hamilton was due to make his, and in a painful ironic twist, it was Vettel’s stopped Ferrari, felled by an MGU-K problem, that caused the catastrophe and handed first place to the championship leader.
Despite the result, Ferrari’s performance was nonetheless encouraging and validated the progress of its Singapore-spec aero update. It was closely matched with Mercedes on race pace, which mean the race was poised to be decided on strategy until disaster cruelled the Italian team’s chances.
Singapore was a shock strong result for Ferrari at a track that shouldn’t have suited its car, and though Russia’s Sochi Autodrom is far more power sensitive than Marina Bay, it’s also run in relatively high downforce configuration, presenting another test for its redeveloped aerodynamics.
Friday practice demonstrated that the SF90 indeed appears to have turned a crucial corner. The Scuderia, in particular Charles Leclerc, was certainly quick over a single lap, and on the soft tyre — Ferrari has generally been stronger on the softer end of the Pirelli spectrum — the car led the way in race simulations.
Mercedes, meanwhile, was struggling to find the right balance on the billiard table-smooth surface and was taking longer to get the tyres warmed up. However, on the medium tyre — inverse to Ferrari, the W10 prefers the harder compounds — it demonstrated strong race, offering it a narrow potential path to victory.
With the circuit offering little in the way of degradation and the gaps between the compounds — C2, C3 and C4 — relatively small at around 0.6 seconds for all, Mercedes opted to use the medium tyre in Q2 and set it as its starting tyre. It could then bide its time in the first stint, wait for Ferrari to make its first stop off the soft compound, and then unleash that superior pace to try the overcut.
If it didn’t work, both drivers would at least end the race on the soft compound with a decent lap offset to try to pressure Ferrari for the lead late.
The race-winning move
But of course Mercedes’s strategy never really had an opportunity to play out. Ferrari made its first stops a little later than expected — lap 22 for Leclerc and lap 26 for Vettel — but the virtual safety car triggered when Vettel stopped on track with a power unit problem gifted Hamilton and Bottas cheap stops that promoted them to first and third respectively.
It was a great stroke of luck, but it would be only fair to apportion at least some credit to Mercedes for being in a position to capitalise. Starting on the medium tyre offers the flexibility to pounce on race disruptions, and at a circuit with a historical 60 per cent chance of a safety car before this race — it’s now up to 66 per cent — it was astute to leave the window open for such an opportunity.
Bottas was moved up to second when Ferrari, boxed in strategically, gave Leclerc a late switch to softs — more on that below — and was subsequently unable to pass, delivering the team’s first one-two finish since July’s British Grand Prix.
Strategy played a part, but circumstance was the decisive factor — and Hamilton admitted afterwards that the durability of the tyres at Sochi meant Ferrari was probably set for the better strategy had luck not played its part.
Leclerc’s final throw of the dice
Ferrari ordered Vettel to stop his car on track on lap 28 as it slowed with a power unit problem. The German parked in a place he expected to cause the least disruption, but because the problem on his car was electrical — the light on top of his roll hoop warned marshals the car was still live — the virtual safety car was required to recover his stricken machine anyway.
Hamilton and Bottas stopped, rejoining in first and third respectively and seemingly trapping Leclerc in second at best — until George Russell speared into the barriers with an undisclosed technical problem on lap 29.
The safety car was deployed. The gap from Leclerc to Bottas behind was around 12 seconds as the Monegasque approached the pit entry, but he didn’t enter — strangely Ferrari waited until the end of the following lap, by which point the field was bunching behind the pace car, to call him in to switch to a set of softs, guaranteeing his fall to third place.
To be fair to Ferrari, 12 seconds wasn’t quite enough to make a stop, even behind the safety car — when he did make his stop from immediately ahead of Bottas at the end of lap 30, he rejoined the train 15 seconds adrift, suggesting he was destined to lose the place regardless.
It allowed Leclerc to attack for the final 20 laps on a tyre his car was theoretically more comfortable on relative to the Mercedes, but Bottas’s defence of second place was resolute. Ferrari had effectively thrown away second place — albeit with the laudable aim of chasing down victory, which is understandable given the championship is long gone.
Ferrari’s team orders fiasco
It was ironic that Vettel’s car failure cost the team a likely victory, and doubly so given the German had been an apparent source of irritation inside the team during the race for his reluctance to honour a pre-race agreement about which order the cars would run in were they to hold the leading two positions.
Leclerc scored pole, but P1 is extremely vulnerable to the slipstream on the 890-metre run down to the first braking zone at turn two, with P3 — in this case Vettel — standing to benefit most by starting directly behind on the grid.
Ferrari therefore agreed pre-race that Leclerc would offer Vettel the slipstream to ensure he got past Hamilton in P2. If the slipstream was strong enough to rocket Vettel into the lead, Leclerc was to let him by on the promise he would be let back past once the race settled down, thereby securing Ferrari’s one-two.
That was the theory, anyway.
Vettel took the lead from Leclerc as predicted, but he was unwilling to le this teammate back past. First he suggested Hamilton was too close behind in third for him to slow down and execute the stop, and later he demanded that Leclerc catch up rather than him slow down — and, to be fair, Vettel appeared to be the quicker driver, albeit marginally, at this point in the race.
It became clear the German wasn’t going to relinquish the place willingly, and perhaps noting that the public was privy to the disobedience via team radio broadcasts, the pit wall opted to leave its drivers be and figure it out later.
Ferrari chose the pit stop window to get it done. Leclerc, his tyres beginning to wear, was brought in on lap 22 for a new set of mediums, the team recognising him as the effective race leader by pitting him first. But rather than bring Vettel in on the following lap — and the German was complaining his tyres were likewise expiring as he began losing time to Hamilton behind — he was left out until lap 26, just long enough to ensure he rejoined the race just behind his teammate.
The team insisted after the race it didn’t deliberately give Leclerc an undercut advantage, protesting instead that it was guarding against the chance of a safety car ruining the race by having both drivers on the same strategy — again painfully ironic given the following events.
Was Ferrari guilty of being too cute in trying to second a one-two finish? It’s difficult to say given we never got to see how Vettel’s offset strategy played out thanks to his almost immediate engine failure. Had Vettel gone on to pressure Leclerc in the second stint and confirm himself as the faster of the two this round, no doubt the team would’ve bene plunged back into a difficult on-track decision, but there was nothing that could’ve been done to prevent the way the race ultimately unfolded.
Albon’s big recovery
Alex Albon was arguably the star of the race, albeit after a shocker qualifying session that had him crashed out and eliminated in Q1.
The Thai driver started from pit lane after the team decided to change his floor post-qualifying to a specification he felt more comfortable with, and he had an attacking race from there. He rose to fifth in the first stint on the medium tyre and was able to take advantage of the safety car to lose only five place, allowing him an aggressive final run on the soft tyre with the field freshly bunched up during the caution.
He finished fifth — a gain of 15 places — behind teammate Max Verstappen, the maximum achievable considering his starting position.
Hulkenberg loses point through slow stop, safety car
Renault decided to stop Nico Hulkenberg a second time to take advantage of the safety car, switching off his medium tyres and onto the softs. It gave him a racier final stint, but he was just behind Sergio Perez before his stop, effectively costing him two places by the end of the race. It was shame — the German deserved more given his first pit stop was slow thanks to a jack problem, dropping him to 17th on lap 17.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 28, soft (used) to lap 53.