A slow burn of a Grand Prix, that built to an exciting climax in the final laps; this was a race that the winner might have lost had there been one more lap, but it was well judged by Valtteri Bottas and well driven by Sebastian Vettel in hot pursuit.
Ferrari once again used Kimi Raikkonen to try to interfere with Bottas’ race, but it didn’t work out as by that point the older Finnish driver’s tyres were well used and he couldn’t resist the overtake from Bottas on fresh tyres.
Meanwhile we had interesting strategy gambits from Force India and Williams, looking to improve their positions.
As usual we will analyse all the moves, with the help of background data and insights from F1 team race strategists who were involved in the decisions on the day.
Friday practice running had shown that there wasn’t much to choose in race pace and degradation between the soft and the supersoft tyres. Mercedes was less effective than the Ferrari on the supersofts, as in Sochi, and this would come into play on race day, as Vettel was able to catch Bottas on those tyres in the closing stages.
Blistering was an issue for many on the ultrasoft tyres, which was the limiting factor when planning race strategy, meaning that the first stint length would be dictated by how badly the tyres blistered on race day.
The track temperature was 41 degrees and in fact, most drivers went far further on the ultrasoft in the race than anticipated; instead of 18 laps the front runners managed between 36 and 44 laps. Ironically it was the supersofts that presented a blistering issue for Bottas as a giant blister on the left rear tyre was created which almost cost him the race. At the time of writing Mercedes are still not sure what created this.
Not knowing clearly how long the ultrasoft would last, some teams went for an opening sting on the the supersoft or soft tyre, looking for a longer stint and because the Ultra was more long lasting than anticipated, in most cases this didn’t work out. Lewis Hamilton was one to try this from P8 on the grid, knowing that he had to serve a 5 place penalty for a gearbox change, he deliberately qualified on the supersoft for a longer first stint.
Bottas soaked up the pressure that came on to him from Vettel in the closing laps and held on to win the race, but the journey that led to that point had been complicated slightly by a strategy play from Ferrari to keep Raikkonen in Bottas’s pit window, in other words fewer than 20 seconds behind him.
Ideally Mercedes was looking for a gap to be able to pit Bottas and then have him run in clear air on fresh tyres.
Raikkonen was being used as a rearguard to keep Hamilton off Vettel, but
when Hamilton stopped early to undercut Raikkonen, Ferrari initially called him to pit but then changed their minds. They had this exact scenario in Singapore last year where they did not abort the stop and lost the place.
But it was somewhat strange that Ferrari did nothing to pre-empt Hamilton’s undercut. He was acting as the rearguard for Vettel to keep Hamilton at bay. Once it became clear that the position was lost to Hamilton they went the other way and left Raikkonen out there to interfere with Bottas.
This was the right thing to do as there was no other threat from behind; this was another race where the front runners were well ahead of the midfield.
Mercedes left Bottas out as long as they could to try to et a gap to Raikkonen, but then were forced to stop him and accept that he would need to overtake his fellow Finn. There is always some risk in this, especially with the history of collisions between the pair, but Raikkonen’s tyres were very worn by this stage and his heart didn’t seem to really in the fight with an unequal opponent, having been asked to sacrifice position for the good of the team.
Red Bull benefitted from Raikkonen’s role in that it kept Hamilton off Daniel Ricciardo until the closing stages. Another impressive aspect was Ricciardo’s ability to hold off Hamilton in the closing stages despite being on the slower tyre and with quite a straight line speed deficit. With DRS the Mercedes was doing over 320km/h on the straights. Without it the Red Bull was at around 295 km/h. But Ricciardo was able to build sufficient margin in the second sector, the twisty part of the track, to have enough at the end of the straights.
You have to go back to 2013 for the last time Williams had such a poor qualifying session. The team struggled to get the balance right and to switch the tyres on for the all important single lap. So they started from 17th and 18th on the grid.
Williams split the strategies with Lance Stroll starting on the supersoft tyre and Felipe Massa on the soft.
What made their race was the chaos at the start, triggered by Daniil Kvyat colliding with Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen, which forced the midfield to scatter around the incident. Massa used his experience to find a pathway through and Stroll had the presence of mind to follow him. This put both Massa and Stroll in the top ten.
The Canadian went to Lap 35 , which is as long as Vettel managed on the ultrasoft tyre, while Massa, who by now had climbed to 6th by Lap 47, setting a fastest lap at that point of the race on Lap 44. The idea was for him to have a final 23 lap blast on ultrasofts and to attack the Force India pair of Perez and Ocon, who had gone on to the slower ultrasoft tyre.
But when it came to it the pace wasn’t there; Ocon had been trying the overcut on Grosjean which didn’t work, but it did also serve to put him on similar age tyres to Massa, so although they were the slower compound, the performance difference wasn’t enough for Massa to pass.
Force India also tried to undercut Grosjean with their other car, Perez.
But this went wrong because Perez came out right ahead of the race leader Bottas a lap down and then lost time dealing with the blue flags, which cost large amounts of race time, as the backmarker teams will confirm.
On the day the Haas was too fast to be caught out by either move, which was quite impressive given the way that Force India has consistently dominated the front of the midfield battle this season.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History & Tyre Usage Charts – Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing
The standout note here is the massive gap in performance between the top teams and the midfield, once again. This makes life so much easier from a strategy point of view as there is no threat from behind from those cars when teams make moves. Also it is annoying for the midfield runners as they lose time with blue flags for backmarkers.
Note the difference in relative performance between the Ferrari and Mercedes on ultra soft and supersoft tyres. See how Vettel closes on Bottas on the latter, having not been able to match the pace on the former. From Mercedes point of view that is the right way around, given than the ultra soft is often the start tyre.