Two Lost Opportunities
JUNE 15, 2016
BY LUIS VASCONCELOS
Ferrari threw away the chance of upsetting the form book in Montreal when Sebastian Vettel was called into the pits on lap 11 of the Canadian Grand Prix, effectively committing the German to a two-stops strategy on a day tyre degradation was remarkably low. The four-times World Champion had already done the most difficult part of the job, when he jumped from third on the grid to first in the first three seconds of the race and was having no trouble keeping Hamilton behind and even out of DRS reach - in fact his hardest moment on the first 11 laps of the race was locking up going into the first corner when he was distracted by two seagulls standing just outside the racing line, as he was very keen to explain at the end of the race.
With the used Ultra Soft tyres the top ten drivers had to use at the start of the race showing no signs of degradation, the pace at the front of the field was quick and consistent, but Ferrari saw the arrival of a Virtual Safety Car period, due to Button's stricken McLaren being parked way out of the racing line and close to an exit gate (...), as the right opportunity to bring forward the first stop and called both Vettel and Raikkonen in, to put them on Super Soft tyres. The fact that there was only one other driver following the same strategy - Manor's Pascal Wehrlein - was a good indication Ferrari had stepped on the ball rather than kicking it and that was further confirmed when it took five more laps for another top ten driver, Fernando Alonso, to change tyres, in this case swapping for Softs in a clear indication he was going to go all the way until the end of the race.
Only on lap 19 did another front runner stop for types - in this case Max Verstappen - but that was not a surprise as both Red Bull started showing signs of tyre degradation a couple of laps before, the gap between Ricciardo and Bottas coming down from 4.9s at the end of lap 16 to just 1.8s three laps later. The Finn stopped on lap 23 and Hamilton on lap 24, so it was clear Ferrari could have made the Ultra Softs last twice as many laps as they did and swap for a one stop strategy, as Mercedes did.
At the end of the race Hamlton conceded that, "At the start the plan was to go for two stops, as Ferrari did, but even before they pitted the team told me we'd swap for Plan B. I wasn't even sure what Plan B was, so I asked about it, and quickly realised that as lap times were good and the tyres were holding on, we were going for a one-stop race." At Williams, though, the plan had always been that, according to Bottas: "With the low track temperatures we expected the tyres to have very little degradation, so the plan was always to go the distance with just one stop. That's why I didn't push in the first few laps of the race, saving the tyres and the plan worked as I was catching the two Red Bull when they pitted."
There was a sense of lost opportunity at Ferrari as soon as the race was over and an emotional Maurizio Arrivabene immediately blamed Vettel's defeat on a wrong strategy call when he was faced with a microphone and a TV camera right after the flag. One hour later, in the scheduled media session, the Italian changed his tune, explaining that, "after analysing all the data and speaking to the engineers it's now clear we did the right strategy, so I'm sorry I reacted on the heat of the moment right at the end of the race." Vettel had been tremendously supportive of the team's strategist as soon as the race was over, telling time and again, "we have very good people working on the strategies and I'm sure they did the right calls, because they are really very good." But he went on to explain that, "I'm not a big fan of pointing fingers inside the team when we lose, because we win together and lose together", indicating he knew a rare chance to win had been taken away from him by a conservative strategy.
That makes it twice this year Ferrari lost the chance to win a race because of a bad tyre call, as at the beginning of the season in Melbourne it was Vettel that led until the race was stopped following Fernando Alonso's scary accident, but he was the only front runner to do a tyre change in the second part of the race and that cost him victory. Mercedes took a bit of a gamble in Melbourne and Montreal, winning two races that could have easily gone to Ferrari, making it clear Ferrari needs to trust computer simulations a bit less and use the considerable experience of its engineering staff to make the right calls.
One month ago I interviewed Maurizio Arrivabene in Barcelona and asked him if he believed the time had come for his team to take risks with strategy, in a bid to put pressure on Mercedes and try to beat them even with a slower car, but the Italian was not at all convinced this was the way to go: "That would be the wrong approach", he told me. "The risks have been taken in the massive acceleration of the development of all parts of the car, because that's the kind of work you have to do if you're fighting it out with such a strong team as Mercedes. To take extra risks in strategy would be wrong, because we have to be very focussed, both on what we can do and, even more so, on what we cannot and shouldn't do."
I wonder if in the aftermath of a bitter defeat on a track that shouldn't have favoured Ferrari, the Scuderia's Team Principal has changed his mind.