Going to a new circuit, or one that hasn’t been used during the F1 racing life of most of the competitors, presents multiple challenges and the return of F1 to Paul Ricard was a good example, with strategists and engineers on the limit working out the tiny details that can add up to a lot of race time and positions won or lost.
For example, the fuel consumption. If you carry one lap more of fuel than you need for the whole race on this track, that adds up three seconds of race time lost.
In a tight battle that can be a place lost. With no data from previous races to fall back on, the top teams rely on their sophisticated simulators, but even these calculations can be thrown by an enigmatic Mistral wind and there are dozens more considerations that can add up to a lot of time. Tyre life was another, with estimates of 20 laps for the ultrasoft, 30 for the super and over 40 for the soft.
Strategy was central to the key moment of the race; Sebastian Vettel, starting on ultrasoft tyres against the supersofts on the front row Mercedes, was desperate to capitalise on the extra grip to jump the Silver Arrows at the start, his best chance of getting control of the race.
He tried to insist on a move on Valtteri Bottas for second place into Turn 1. He hit the Finn, both dropped to the back and gifted Lewis Hamilton one of the easiest of his 65 Grands Prix wins.
In the melee behind, as cars dived left and right to avoid the two spinning title contenders, Max Verstappen was able to run wide and come out clearly in second place while Carlos Sainz in third set himself up for a strong result, as did Magnussen and Leclerc in fifth and sixth respectively.
Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari’s sole remaining front runner, dropped to seventh and was on a recovery drive from there. Team strategy brought him a podium.
Impressive, but Leclerc doesn’t take the max on a day of chances in the midfield
Charles Leclerc scored points for Sauber for the fourth race out of five, something the team did not manage in 2016 and 2017 combined. The impressive rookie, who seems destined for a Ferrari drive sooner rather than later, had qualified eighth, ahead of Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault and both Force Indias, which would normally be fighting for top ten slots.
But he wasn’t able to take out as much as he would have liked from race day, after a mistake cost him the chance to deploy his Plan A strategy.
The Haas cars, also starting behind him, were half a second a lap faster than the Sauber in raw pace, so the outlook for the race was that he would do well to finish 11th, as he also had to contend with two team cars from Force India being able to work a pincer on strategy. You can keep one quick car behind you on a track like Paul Ricard, but not two.
After profiting from the startline chaos, which also eliminated Ocon’s Force India, Leclerc’s strategy path was made clearer. He was able to look forwards rather than backwards and the tactic was to try to undercut Magnussen at the pit stop.
But as he approached the decisive moment, he made a mistake and ran off track, which allowed Hulkenberg to pass him. Hulkenberg was playing the long game on a reverse strategy, having started on the hardest of the three compounds, so now the Sauber strategy had to change to extending the stint as much as possible.
This was because Leclerc no longer had a safe gap behind to Alonso and the Williams cars, which were particularly hard to overtake. So Leclerc went to Lap 31 and then pitted for supersofts, to maximise the pace and go for it.
He cleared Hartley when Ericsson pitted and forced Toro Rosso to cover the stop and from then it was a run to the finish to stay ahead of Grosjean, whose wretched run continued with more incidents and penalties.
Leclerc’s tenth place was hard fought and, against the pace of the cars around him, again very impressive.
But he would have been even higher up without the mistake before the pit stops.
Red Bull choose to cover rather than attack
We have grown used to seeing Red Bull being one of the most aggressive teams when it comes to race strategy. But in France they played a more passive game, with Max Verstappen’s strategy being more focussed on closing out second place and covering off Ferrari, rather than trying to find a way to attack the leader Hamilton.
This is fair enough; the Mercedes was the fastest car on this track and Ferrari had lost its chance of victory with mistakes from Raikkonen in qualifying and Vettel at the start of the race.
As we have said many times, only perfect execution will bring the title to Ferrari this season and they’ve left something on the table on several occasions, such as this one. Vettel slipped from a one-point championship lead over Hamilton to a 14 point deficit in their duel to be only the sport’s second five-time world champion.
As for Red Bull, Verstappen’s strategy was dictated by Vettel’s progress. He was brought in early on Lap 25 to go onto a set of softs to reach the finish, emerging just ahead of Vettel.
This allowed Raikkonen to extend his stint on ultrasoft tyres and with Daniel Ricciardo unable to extract the maximum from his car’s performance due to some debris in the front wing, Raikkonen’s extended stint in clear air set him up for a chance to beat the second Red Bull to the podium.
Red Bull avoided the ultra soft tyre in the race, but having managed a long opening stint on it remarkably to Lap 34, Raikkonen was able to attack on supersofts for the second part of the race.
Vettel, on worn tyres, was instructed to let Raikkonen through and he caught and passed Ricciardo in the final laps of the race for a podium finish.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History & Tyre usage charts
Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge
The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.
A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.
Look at Leclerc’s race, see how Hulkenberg gets passed and obliges him to extend the stint.