Analysis: Covert games in midfield catch the eye as F1 title battle fizzles out
Strategy Report
Posted By: James Allen  |  09 Oct 2018   |  5:50 pm GMT  |  132 comments

There’s a saying among F1 strategists that the faster and more dominant the car, the easier the strategy calls.

This is because the margin for error is so large; if you make a mistake the car is fast enough relative to the competition that it is recoverable.

The calls made in the tightly-packed midfield are much more finely balanced.

The Japanese Grand Prix saw a series of problem decisions for Ferrari in qualifying and the race, while in the midfield we saw an excellent battle between the Force India, Haas, Renault and Toro Rosso cars and some interesting tactics going on.

Ferrari vs Mercedes vs Red Bull

While it’s fair to say that Lewis Hamilton had the edge in Suzuka, there was a second place there for the taking for Sebastian Vettel to keep his slim world championship hopes alive a little longer and he may even have been able to put some pressure on Hamilton in the race, if he had managed to get himself up there in qualifying.

Instead, as the dark clouds loomed before the decisive Q3 session, Ferrari sent both cars to the end of the pit lane first, fitted with intermediate tyres, had to later back out of that decision and as the two drivers then faced pressure on their hot laps, they made individual driving errors that confined Vettel to ninth and Raikkonen to fourth.

Suzuka often puts the teams and drivers on their mettle with changeable conditions like this, as does Interlagos, Brazil. In a championship fight the strategy team will normally assess what choice the main rival makes and cover that, but with Hamilton having outscored Vettel by 75 points to 42 from the Italian GP onwards, Ferrari clearly wanted to go aggressive. The reason for going down the pit lane first was to have the best visibility in the rain that was expected. There were several other possible scenarios and options and no real need to show your hand.

The irony of the situation is that the track was arguably in slightly better condition at 15-59pm local time, when the Ferraris set their definitive lap times, than two minutes earlier when the Mercedes drivers and Verstappen set theirs. So the situation was still recoverable.

In the race, Vettel made an excellent start and was soon up to fourth, with the Mercedes and Verstappen ahead.

At this point Verstappen was on the super soft tyres and had been given a five second time penalty to serve at the first pit stop. Mercedes were on the soft tyre, so likely to run longer, and were getting away up front. Vettel, also on supersofts, needed not to lose touch with them, but equally knew that Verstappen was only a temporary block. In the end the Red Bull went to Lap 22 before stopping, so Vettel was correct that he needed to pass him and Lap 8 was way too early to think about an undercut.

Another longer term consideration at this point was that Mercedes was committed to running the medium tyre in the long second stint, whereas Vettel would be using the faster soft tyre in his second stint and might therefore have the chance to attack Bottas, who was not on Hamilton’s level at Suzuka, later in the race.

Vettel went aggressive, lunging for the overtake at Spoon corner, rather than waiting for the DRS at the start of the next lap and collided with Verstappen, dropping down to 19th, an uncomfortable echo of the opening lap of the Italian GP at Monza.

Covert games in Midfield thriller

The midfield battle has been very entertaining this season with intense battles, often decided by strategy calls.

In Suzuka the grid had a nicely mixed-up look, with Grosjean fifth for Haas, Hartley and Gasly sixth and seventh for Toro Rosso, Perez ninth (after Ocon was dropped to 11th for a penalty and Leclerc tenth for Sauber with a free choice of starting tyres. Sainz was 13th for Renault.

And yet they finished in the order: Perez, Grosjean, Ocon, Sainz, with Gasly narrowly missing out on a point in 11th.

So how did that come about?

Grosjean held his position over Perez at the start, with Gasly between them, while Ocon slipped ahead of Hartley, who had a poor start and dropped to 10th. Leclerc slipped to 13th, as Sainz moved up to 12th.

Grosjean, like the Mercedes drivers, had started the race on the soft tyres he had used in Q2, quite an unusual move for a midfield team and one that clearly showed the confidence Haas has at the moment in the pace of its car. Normally trying to get through Q2 on the second fastest tyre is the preserve of the top teams only.

Perez was right with Gasly and 3.5 seconds behind Grosjean when he pitted on Lap 24 and switched to the soft tyres for the second stint. Grosjean and Gasly continued on until Lap 29. Ocon pitted on Lap 26 as Force India split the strategies, putting the Frenchman onto mediums.

The temperatures on race day were significantly hotter than the rest of the weekend and there were therefore some question marks about which would be the better tyre. Sainz had started on new softs and went to Lap 32 before switching to mediums.

Perez came out behind Sirotkin in the Williams and lost time, which meant that when Grosjean stopped he was able to get back out ahead of the Mexican. Ocon then suffered the same fate two laps later, but was able to pass the Russian after a lap, which was important as he was attempting to jump Gasly.

A slow stop for the Toro Rosso driver on Lap 29 didn’t help and Gasly dropped behind both Force Indias.

Gasly was not helped by the two Sauber drivers on a covert ‘spoiler’ strategy, holding him up after his stop, to make life difficult for him as the two teams are locked in a close Constructors’ championship battle.

Sainz and Renault saw the opportunity to take advantage; Sainz offset himself to Gasly, stayed out until Lap 32 and dropped five seconds to Gasly in the process. But in the final few laps his pace on mediums was stronger than Gasly’s on fading soft tyres and he was able to pass him. So Toro Rosso had the double whammy of being undercut by the Force Indias and yet running out of tyre performance before the end of the race, an unusual and very unfortunate combination.

Renault had sent Hulkenberg out on a reverse strategy at the start on the medium tyre, the intention being to get him involved in the race effort of Sainz’ rivals to help his team mate climb the ladder, so there were some interesting tactics at play one way or another.

Grosjean meanwhile had some issues with telemetry, but maintained his lead over Perez until the Virtual Safety Car was deployed for Leclerc’s retirement.

As the race restarted, Perez was sharper and forced his way through, thereby winning the midfield battle.

As is so often the case, had the midfield competition been for the overall race win, this would have been a thoroughly entertaining Grand Prix!

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.

Race History Chart

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.

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we should have electronic suspension and cvt tranny choice.


Enjoy the midfield action while it lasts.

The next big regulation reset everything again and we can wait another 5 years for the field to compressand become competitive, which is of course when there will be the next big regulation change. Don’t think that the front runners will have the edge taken away from them by something stupid like consistent rules.


On another note: that leaves only 3 seats remaining to be filled, if you consider Lance Stroll a dead cert for FI Racing Point.

One seat at: Williams, FI Racing Point, and Torro Rosso.

+ 6 drivers that should be driving next year: Perez, Ocon, Kubica, Sirotkin, Vandoorne and Hartley.

Think most of us would put the first 3 in those seats! Probably will end up being: Perez, Sirotkin and Hartley.


Good to see George Russell get a drive with Williams. Let’s hope Paddy Lowe comes up with the goods next year! Interesting George and Lando have joined the 2 current worst teams. Will make any success they have look all the better!


The battle has fizzled out long time ago, just as the champagne Lewis probably already has opened and sipped on through the post Spa race if not before that.

The champagne in Bahrain will be flat as a flounder by the time


With the greatest respect to James Allen, Verstappen collided with Vettel rather than the reverse.

I have yet to see Verstappen conducting himself in a manner where he is successful in wheel to wheel racing.

there is no mistaking Verstappen’s talent but he does need to be penalised much more for his unruly behaviour on circuit.


Why is it so difficult to to see SV should have been a lot smarter in the Spoon turn, rather than blaming MV? Have a look at Peter Windsor’s analysis He explains how different drivers use different lines in Spoon, quite informative. When fighting for the WDC, one needs to be a bit smarter than SV is displaying at the moment.


Next idea. Been talking with Bernie. We have a three lane track and race. Top three teams fight each other in one lane, tier two on the second and the backmarkers in the third. brilliant!

I start to see the real brillliance in some of Bernies ideas. Sprinklers, how genious is’nt that, not many could come up with anything close. You would think it’s crazy talk at first


It would be easy to blame Arrivo at Ferrari. But he might not have too much a say in the overall politics, nor in the everyday operations. That’s classic Ferrari as I see it


it’s curious thing how it all turned around at Monza, and Kimi leaving. Or as I see it, it already begann at Spa.


More than ever Ferrari needs a monkey seat. Actually, the way things have gone for them so far this season, they need as many as they can fit in their garage. However, unfortunately for Ferrari, monkey seat has been outlawed since the end of last season.


James, can you shed any light on rumours that Arrivo is about to leave Ferrari for a desk job at Juventus?

For his sake I hope he exits the Ferrari furnace. When he started he looked like a rugged version of the late Omar Sharif, but lately he is more like a survivor from an unfortunate house fire.

If he goes, surely a Seb departure won’t be far behind. A Ferrari job and no Ferrari titles just don’t mix.



Had not heard that. You are probably right, though. Everyone was making noises about Mad Max and Romain G making so many mistakes!

Ferrari should have taken Daniel Ricc.

Mind you, look at the ‘Power Rankings’ on the F1 site! Top 3, consistently, now: Lewis, Max and Charles Lec.! Could be the WC battle next year?


Doesn’t look like he’s going to Juventus.


– Mid field battle has been fantastic this year – really impressive.
– Next year it would be fantastic if the midfield is closer with the top 3 pack. Right now the top 3 teams have it easy–if they make a mistake they still go ahead of rest.



You are so right. What separates the mid-field and the top 3? Aero! Plain and simple. It’s not tyres or PU, obviously.

Maybe the new front-wing regs will help a bit. My view is, you can’t have a single formula in F1. It never works as there is such a difference in budget. They will never get a workable budget cap as there is too much vested interest.

One way to bridge the gap is to first admit: There is a class A and B.

Right, how do we bridge the gap between class A (top 3 teams) and B? (midfield teams).

Here’s the way I think it would work:

Class A – unrestricted budget / restricted aero.
Class B – budget cap / less restricted aero.

Teams choose which regs they run to. They can choose year in, year out.

Then, you peg the 2 classes depending on who is racing in each.

Most likely, you will have the top 3 running to class A, plus, maybe Renault, McLaren at the outside.

So, that would make the top 2 teams in each class, Merc and F India respectively.

OK, so you ‘peg’ FI to the 3rd row. Now, you have closed the gap!

Sometimes the pegging will go wrong. FI will get a pole, or they will still have a gap to row 3 of the grid. That is still better than what we have today!

There are various ways to ‘peg’ cars, such as the ‘aero’ package (what is allowed / not allowed), or, engine restrictors, etc. (such as happened when F1 went from 3.0 V10s to 2.4 V8s).


I have a theory about Ferrari’s latest performance , and I would like to discuss it:

I believe Ferrari is lacking in performance right now because they are running with less aero than before (SPA). Hence, tire management is harder for both drivers. Probably to compensate some lost power.

Do you remember when Lewis Hamilton has claimed Ferrari used “tricks” at Spa?!? And how easily Vettel overtook Hamilton?!? Well, I think FIA found out what gave that edge to Ferrari, and Ferrari got rid with that “Trick” to get away without punishment. Maybe something a bit shady in the fuel or in the MGU-K… I don’t really know…

Meanwhile, Mercedes strongly got better on aero or got a better suspension. What do you guys think?


Was it the double batteries thing they had going on?


I was thinking exactly the same and I’m happy that I’m not the only person who thinks that. I also have another theory:

Mercedes, the wizard of F1, is mastering “Riddikulus” charm and uses the banishing spell against the Boggart Ferrari to great effect.


Probably the Italians made siesta during the summer brake while the Germans kept on working hard. It’s the same as last year.


Ehm…I just made a comment about the sadistic nature of Spoon, blaming the Japanese. However, the track was designed by Hans Hugenholtz, who happened to be Dutch. So I retract my statement. Go Dutch!


Off topic, but why not..

Since Bottas is not going to have a chance for a win before it is done and dusted for Hamilton.

Is there a chance he might take Vettel out in The US race?

Lewis wins Seb DNF or way down the order, doesn’t matter which. WDC to Lewis and Bottas has the last 3 races to take a win.

Or am I just cynical?

Kimi could do same for Seb but doubt he would play ball especially as he is out of there.


Bottas doesn’t need to do anything. Sebastian will do it himself without anybody’s help.


But he needs to remember to turn on cruise control. Then back e’m up. It’s a though job but someone has to do it


Some people still think Spoon is a regular corner sequence. It’s not. It’s a sadistic two part balancing act that only the Japanese could think of. If you have the chance, try it in a racing sim like iRacing of rFaktor and you’ll get an idea.

Vettel proved you can indeed overtake there, with a much faster car. But you need to be alongside going in. You also need lots of cooperation. If one or two elements are missing you’re just throwing the dice. Vettel did and lost. No one to blame but himself.


“Covert games” – did anyone else notice the giant ‘M’ for Marlboro on the sides of the Ferraris?


I don’t know why it took them so many years to come up with the idea.


@jamesallan “Vettel went agressive and collides with Verstappen”. Interesting your perspective clearly puts Vettel at fault, when really in my opinion the one who’s been too agressive is Verstappen. I’m a bit fed up with his desperate ways of defending. Honestly the way he pushed Raikkonen out followed by Vettel is unacceptable. He’s becoming more and more like a desperate Perez!


In desperation department Sebastian doesn’t do bad either. I would say he’s actually doing a better job than anyone.


You are confusing things. Verstappen pushed Raikkonen out and deserved a penalty. (in the current system). Vettel was to blame at Spoon. He also deserved a penalty.


Max doesn’t like being passed, yet he’s never at fault in his mind at the resulting carnage.

If someone goes around the outside of MV, he conveniently locks up and understeers into them. When someone goes on the inside of MV, he conveniently closes the door no matter how far forward the inside driver is. It always happens to Max but it’s never his fault. It’s the faster driver behinds fault. Always.


Luke, on your first point, would you mind naming an F1 driver who’s happy to be passed? This is not the bumper carts at the local fairground…it’s F1. And all drivers blame others first, it’s not just MV. The best one was RG blaming ME for his Baku run into the wall, whereas ME wasn’t within 50m!


@ Luke…which driver at Red bull was told to ‘keep it clean’ whilst racing his team mate wheel to wheel in Baku?


@ Stephen Taylor

Good catch, I had forgotten Jock Clear there for a second.

The only explanation I can think of is that at Ferrari decisions are made collectively and not individually.


Collective decision made by Binotto’s technical department, not by Arivabenne. Hence Arivabenne’s furious reaction after Suzuka quali blunder.


Merc have such a clear advantage now that Bottas could end up second. Without his bad luck at the first half of the season he probably would have.

Despite having to play the Wing-man this year


I didn’t see the race or quali last weekend, so I wont rant much this time

The Ferrari strategies have been a topic for a while. I don’t except nothing more from that department anymore.

If you get away with a good start from the midfield/back you already have a little victory there. But the midfield is where almost all of the action has been.

Good for F1, if there only could be the same kind of action up at the front


You see the Gap And go for it.. or what VES does… He picks a corner and slows down to open a gap… Waits for thedriver behind to commit to pass and shuts the door… Oopps he hit me.. what a misjudged call… It’s imposible to pass there .. blah blah.


I’m pretty sure that if the roles were reversed and VER had attempted this overtake, you would have fully blamed him…


JA, while we have you…
Watching the race, i was curious at the time as to why RB pulled RIC in so early on the Soft, only 2 laps after Max who was on the SS. Confirmed looking at the Race History chart he was showing no signs of drop off, if anything he was closing down Bottas and matching Lewis’ pace out front.
Had he held on past the two Merc stops he would have led the race and RB would have been in the box seat to control the tempo and possibly back LH and VB into MV. I know you answer will probably have something to do with “he was racing Kimi for position”, but i contrast this with the approach RB took in Sochi, where they did exactly as i proposed with Max…letting him run longer in the lead…
Equal opportunity? or fear of leapfrogging Max as well as Kimi?


Yep, I think RBR are saying all the right things about Ricciardo having bad luck in the season (with reliability, etc.) but they’re obviously keen for Verstappen to finally beat Ricciardo on points and thus maintain the high ground about which driver was worth prioritising and giving the special treatment.


@ LKFe….I’d be surprised if you get an answer but i too thought that it was all rather early to pit Ricciardo. Good observations.


Was wondering that too?? Wonder how Daniel would have performed on SS for the 2nd stint had he been allowed even 4 more laps in the first stint. We will never know but me thinks they kept the RBS apart and looked after their long term prospect. Which is fair enough.


Posting this here despite it being in the wrong place (‘cos, where else?)

Changing the qualifying format:

Are you NUTS!?

Having lived through many qualify format changes:

The current format is brilliant. There’s scope for all teams to get noticed, it’s nuanced, there’s tactics, ppl can screw up and suffer.

When the current system was introduced I had doubts it would work, but I was wrong. It is BY FAR the best qualifying format that F1 has ever used.

So, for those calling for change: Put your balls on the line, if you change the format and it sucks, you have to leave.

I’m not a huge fan of Bernie, but he got *this* one right

Liberty: I applaud what you’ve done so far, but European sport isn’t like US sport. We demand simple, demonstrable rules without the chance of influence. (Yes Ferrari I know, but that’s a long term issue)


The current format has just two drawbacks:

1) Small teams and crucially their sponsors, are just visible for a fraction of the time.

2) That tire rule that gives someone on place 10 an edge on someone on place 9. Why not give a free race tire choice to everyone? Granted: the current rule forces the front runners to (usually) start on the softer tire, if we changed that, a lot could just start on the harder one, as the softs are better with a lighter car. But it also denies a front runner to freely chose a different strategy.


But if they don’t change the format to 4 sessions how will they add more advert breaks?

Remember when the USA hosted the World Cup (94?) and they wanted 4 quarters instead of 2 halves so that there was more ad time available…


@ Neilmurg…One question…what have Liberty done for F1 that earns your applauding apart from frivolous tinkering around the edges.?



They sell hot dogs in Germany and the billboards are coming, BBQ as well, oh man I could talk for hours about the new era. If you count Toto as a collaborator they invented the “Wing-man”.

Next time in Austin you can do some pottering while they do the swap. You wont even notice, and get an embroidery with you home, all self made, or if your’e tough a cowboy hat out of straws.

What stories to tell tell your grand children one day. They wont believe you.


ChrisD, Toto invented the wingman?! You really are new to the sport aren’t you….


Chris, google Peter Collins.


Look it up. Wing-man didn’t exist before Toto invented it. Name one person saying it in F1 before him.

Maybe Toto is an copy cat then that’s all I can admit to if that’s the case



We’re all new to this. Get used to it

Richard Mortimer


Thank you: very interesting. We have to close that gap to the top 3 teams. There must be loads of ways of doing it?

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