Will Gray

Tech Talk: Red Bull’s China gamble

Will Gray

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It all came down to qualifying tyre choice in last weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix – but while Red Bull's gamble to not chase pole in favour of a better race strategy failed, how close was it to a masterstroke?

Pirelli has been pushing the boundaries on tyre choice this season and their decision to provide teams with soft and medium selections from their four options for China presented the biggest challenge yet.

The early practice sessions soon made it clear that the soft tyre was so extremely sensitive on this particular track surface that it could not be pushed hard for long and would only last a few laps before a driver had to pit for a change.

As has been covered in this column before, this is all part of Pirelli’s prerogative to spice up the racing but it led Mark Webber describing the sport as being ‘like WWF wrestling’ because of the ‘contrived’ entertainment caused by extreme tyre wear.

Like it or not, though, that’s just what the teams have to deal with. It’s part of the challenge of F1 2013. And it made for a fascinating strategic battle in China.

Once a driver makes it to the top-ten shoot-out he must use the tyre he qualified on as the tyre on which he starts the race, so with the fragile soft tyre in China the teams were faced with two options:

1) Fit the soft tyre and go flat out for pole position then try to eek out the performance on that tyre in the opening stages of the race before two or three stints on the medium tyre.

2) Forget about fighting for position in Q3 and fit a set of medium tyres to end up at the back of the top 10 and run two or three medium stints before fitting the soft right at the end.

The argument for and against is all about weight.

Tyre wear is affected by car weight and the heavier a car is the harder it is on its tyres – so with the soft tyres being so marginal chances were they would last a longer at the end of the race than at the start.

Moreover, when the car is lighter it goes quicker, so having the soft tyre at the end of the race had the potential to even turn into an advantage, giving a crucial performance benefit over other runners who were trying to nurse home worn medium tyres.

Red Bull did not have their typical strong one-lap pace in practice – and so once they made it into Q3, they chose to put Vettel on the medium tyre strategy and forget any attempt to go for a fast lap.

In contrast, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean and Daniel Ricciardo all went for flying laps and filled the top seven positions.

Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg had the same idea so Vettel tried to coast round and do the fastest lap of all the medium runners to get grid position, but a car issue left him without completing a lap so the order of the medium-tyre starters was Button, Vettel, Hulkenberg.

For the soft-tyre starters, there were two strategic challenges. The first was to stay out long enough on the soft tyres to leave them with comfortable stints on the mediums (and not have to run them too long and suffer degradation). The second was that, once they had pitted, they had to find the gaps in traffic to allow them to match the pace of the medium-tyred starters, who would now be in more space at the front of the field and not amongst slower cars.

Hamilton and Rosberg had to pit after just five laps while Raikkonen and Alonso both stopped after six.

Once they were out of the way, Vettel had hoped to lead and put in some strong laps on his medium tyres - but he had fallen behind Hulkenberg and got stuck and had to run behind the Sauber for 11 laps before pitting.

It cost him time, and he admitted over the radio that he could have been going half a second faster if he were in front.

Vettel overhauled the Sauber in the pit stop – with Red Bull’s record-breaking crew performing well again – but he was then caught and passed by Alonso on lap 29.

At that point, Alonso was on mediums having done two of his three stops and used both types of tyre. Vettel was two laps away from making the second of three stops – but crucially he still had the soft tyre to go.

By the time Vettel came to his final stop, he was seven seconds behind Alonso and it was clear any hope of victory was over – he simply had not been fast enough on the medium stints to match his Ferrari rival.

The focus was now on a podium – but with just a five-second advantage over Raikkonen and six over Hamilton, any hope of achieving that seemed to be low, as the stop for tyres would drop him too far back.

Vettel came out 11.5s behind third-placed Hamilton - but that’s when the soft tyres turned from a handicap into an advantage.

On his first real flying lap, lap 53, Vettel did a 1m36.808 - the fastest lap of the race and, crucially, a massive 3.5s faster than Raikkonen and 3.2s faster than Hamilton. It put him within nine seconds of the podium with three laps to go. The challenge was on.

Had the tyres allowed him to keep up that pace, the two DRS zones gave such a benefit in China that he would probably have been on for second place.

But before the race, Force India driver Adrian Sutil had noted that even with the car on lighter fuel loads the tyre could not cope if a driver tried to simply race flat-out on it.

And sure enough, Vettel’s pace advantage soon reduced. His second lap on the softs was 0.5s slower than his first. His third was a further second slower than that.

He was still lapping faster than his rivals ahead, but by diminishing amounts. And while it was enough to get him closer it was not enough to put him in the DRS zone and make it easy.

In the end, he had to try a last-ditch effort on the final lap, but he failed to make it stick because by then the softs were not giving as much grip as he needed.

We’ll never know how Red Bull would have done if they had focused on qualifying instead of race strategy, but given Alonso’s self-stated ‘perfect’ weekend and the traditionally stronger race pace of Mercedes and Renault, it’s hard to believe they would have achieved anything much better than they did with the tactic they used.

So fair play to them for giving it a shot. And fair play to Pirelli for creating the strategic element that allows teams to mix things up...

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