On the face of it, for the second year in a row the Belgian Grand Prix was finely balanced when a Safety Car intervened and neutralized the strategies.
However this time it put Mercedes in a tricky position as they had deliberately chosen to prioritize qualifying on Saturday and so did not have a new set of ultra soft tyres saved for their drivers in the race. The tactic worked for Lewis Hamilton to take pole and win the race ahead of Sebastian Vettel, but it failed for Bottas in his challenge for a podium.
Ferrari missed the pole position, but were in a strong position when the late Safety Car allowed Vettel to put on a set of ultrasoft tyres that on paper were at least a second a lap faster than the softs Lewis Hamilton was forced to use.
We’ll examine the decisions that led to this situation and what would have happened without a Safety Car. We will look at how Red Bull Racing got away with a very risky tyre selection for the weekend, netting a podium for Daniel Ricciardo.
We will also examine the chaos at Force India, where the drivers hit each other twice, look at how Sergio Perez got ahead of Esteban Ocon in the pit stops despite a five second time penalty and look at what part the team strategy decision-making played in creating that tension.
Pirelli’s Mario Isola persuaded the company to bring a softer selection of tyres to Spa than originally planned, to try to reintroduce some variables to the strategy. It paid off well, with some teams making risky selections, such as Williams and Red Bull that had only one set of soft tyres for the whole weekend. As it turned out the soft tyre was the best race tyre, but Red Bull was committed to a two-stop race leading with super soft tyres and got away with it, thanks to the late race Safety Car.
This played into their hands, allowing Ricciardo to attack Valtteri Bottas at the restart on ultrasoft tyres to the Finn’s softs and he could pass him for the final podium position.
His task was also helped by Kimi Raikkonen making a mistake early in the race and not slowing for yellow warning flags. He was given a ten second penalty that dropped him out of contention for a podium. It was Raikkonen’s second important mistake of the weekend; he also made one in qualifying, as we shall see.
This race was more interesting in some ways for what it might have become had the Safety Car not come out, than for what it was. Hamilton was able to hold off Vettel despite being on the slower tyre at the restart.
But we have to go back a couple of steps to examine the thinking that led to this position.
Mercedes view on Saturday was that pole position was the biggest priority; it was therefore more important for the drivers to have extra performance runs in qualifying to find the limit for the decisive final runs in Q3. So both Hamilton and Bottas were given a second run on new ultra soft tyres in Q2. This allowed Hamilton to find the limit especially in Turn 10 (Pouhon corner) for example, where he was almost flat in his final lap and that made the difference for pole.
Ferrari didn’t do this, wanting to save a set of ultra softs for possible use late in the race if there were to be a need to switch to two stops, or a late Safety Car. They balanced the risk of that against the risk of the drivers not quite having their eye in for the final qualifying runs.
In fact some oil on the track from Palmer’s Renault affected the first Q3 runs so there was only the final run to make it count. Raikkonen had a chance for pole but made a mistake. He made up for it somewhat by offering Vettel a tow in the final sector. But pole had been lost to Mercedes, which meant that Hamilton controlled the race.
Fast forward to around Lap 27 of the Grand Prix and Hamilton is leading but cannot shake off Vettel. The Ferrari was faster at the end of the opening stint on ultrasoft tyres and the new aerodynamic updates on the red car are working well. Mercedes are under real pressure on a track where they expected to dominate.
The debate on the pit wall of both teams is now whether to stop again. Mercedes’ are aware that Ferrari has that set of ultra soft tyres available, to try an undercut, which they do not have. However they do have Valtteri Bottas in play in Vettel’s pit window, meaning that if Ferrari moves first and tries to undercut them, it will be Bottas’ job to hold him up for two laps if possible, which would have been quite an ask, while Hamilton stops for softs.
Alternatively Mercedes could move first and pit Hamilton onto new soft tyres. There had been some blistering on the rear tyres and with memories fresh of what happened to Ferrari in Silverstone when they ignored that, there is a strong case for stopping Hamilton. The teams’ strategy models said that if they switch to a two stop at this stage, Ferrari would probably win the race. Then the Safety Car intervened.
The blistering problem eased temporarily in the laps immediately before the Safety Car, so no move was made. In fact inspection of the soft tyres after the race suggests that Hamilton would have been in trouble to reach the end without the Safety Car intervening.
So he was both unlucky and lucky, in a sense, that it did.
The most interesting story of the Spa weekend was the further spat between Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon at Force India. This time it became toxic as twice Perez edged Ocon into the wall on the run down to Eau Rouge.
The first one at the start he took full responsibility for. The second, which triggered the fateful Safety Car late in the race, was highly speculative on Ocon’s part, but still required Perez to make a decision to risk contact and a loss of team points. The team has come down hard saying that they will no longer be allowed to race, but was the team partly responsible for creating the situation in the first place, with Ocon angry that he found himself behind Perez after the controversial second stops?
Ocon had track position advantage over Perez after their first lap contact. Both cars survived and made their first stops onto supersoft tyres, so both were committed to a two-stop race.
However Perez was given a five second time penalty for a matter unconnected to the start. As they approached the second round of stops, therefore, Ocon is clearly the lead car and Perez has no real threat from behind as Grosjean is 6 seconds behind, also on a two stopper.
Normally the leading car has the pit stop priority unless there is some kind of outside threat to the tail car.
With 20 laps to go Force India pitted Perez first. He served his five-second penalty and rejoined. His out lap on new tyres was very fast and at this point the team should have made the call to pit Ocon on the next lap. He went around again and in the course of those two laps lost five seconds to Perez.
When Ocon pitted he rejoined just ahead, but on warmer tyres Perez passed him into Turn 5 at the end of the Kemmel Straight.
Either Force India had their tyre model and undercut profiles wrong – which would be strange having seen after the first stops that Ocon pulled three seconds on Perez by stopping two laps earlier – or they must have known what would happen.
Either way there was now a situation where the driver who has been ‘wronged’ at the start by his team mate but got away with it and is on course to beat him to the flag, loses track position to his teammate. And there is a fair bit of history between them from Canada and Baku.
Clearly angry, Ocon tried for force the issue, when it might have been prudent to try the pass with DRS on the straight after Eau Rouge, but Perez made a decision to come across on him.
There comes a point in relationships between teammates that you can never come back from. It would appear that Perez and Ocon have now passed that point, which means that one of them is likely to move on at the end of the season. As Renault is keen to have a French driver, Force India is reliant on Perez’ sponsors and Mercedes is keen to place Pascal Wehrlein, it would seem that the circumstances are there for Ocon to be the one who leaves.
Those considerations were already in place before Sunday’s race, but now there is likely to be more movement.
Likewise a big decision needs to be taken at Mercedes. With Ferrari clearly on a rich run of form with technical updates on its car; two huge development packages were brought either side of the summer break – Mercedes doesn’t have any tracks where it can consider it has an advantage, while it is sure to have a disadvantage at some high downforce tracks like Singapore.
With Bottas dropping back to 31 points off the championship lead after Spa, the time is surely approaching for Mercedes to ask him to play a supporting role, which will include a ‘spoiler’ role on strategy during races.
The compensation is likely to be that he is given an extension to his Mercedes contract, probably for one more year.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the F1 team strategists and from Pirelli
Race History and Tyre Usage Charts – Courtesy of Williams Martini Racing – click to enlarge
Indicating the relative pace of the cars, the gaps between them. An upward curve shows good pace, sudden drops indicate pit stops.
The pace of Red Bull (purple line) is clearly not as strong relative to Ferrari and Mercedes as they had hoped, especially considering in the second stint Ricciardo is on supersofts, while the leaders are on the slower soft tyre.
Note how costly Raikkonen’s ten second penalty was to his race effort. Luckily the Safety Car brings him back to have a chance to pass Bottas. Also you can see at the end of Stint 1 that Vettel’s pace is still strong, Hamilton’s begins to dip before his stop.