APRIL 27, 2011

Analysis: Will any of F1's front-runners forsake Q3?

By Tony Dodgins

The Chinese Grand Prix was a superb race for pure entertainment value. But in amongst it all, the strategists will have noted interesting things.

Key among them is that Mark Webber, despite being eliminated in Q1 and starting the grand prix 18th, was able to finish just 7.5s behind Lewis Hamilton's winning McLaren. He was significantly further behind than that at the end of the opening lap.

Just think about that for a moment. He was able to drive a quicker race through traffic than the race winner, who was neither on the wrong strategy nor cruising towards the end. Quite the reverse in fact; Hamilton was as flat-out as the Pirellis allowed him to be as he chased down Rosberg, team mate Button and the two-stopping Vettel/Massa.

In the past, with a first stint spent in among the tail-enders, such a thing would have been unthinkable. But now that DRS and KERS (although not in Webber's case) has facilitated overtaking and limited opening stint time loss, interesting strategy permutations open up. Webber would have been even quicker with an operational KERS of course, and it would have been interesting to see whether he would have made a net gain on Vettel's sister Red Bull had Sebastian not been switched to a two-stopper when he lost out to both McLarens on the run to Turn 1. That was clearly a slower overall strategy as things worked out.

"We did that with Sebastian because we thought that it would give him a chance to beat both McLarens having fallen behind them," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained.

Key to it all is the six sets of tyres - three sets of hard 'primes' and three sets of soft 'options' -- each driver has for qualifying and race. And the fact that anyone in Q3 must start the race on the tyres he has qualified with, but everyone else can do as they wish.

Webber used two sets of hard tyres in Q1, Red Bull confident that the RB7 was quick enough to overcome the one second advantage that the option tyre was reckoned to be worth, and be at least quick enough to outqualify one of the non-Lotus/Virgin/HRT cars, which was all he had to do to make it through to Q2 with his full quote of option tyres still available. Unfortunately though, the harder tyre needed two flying laps and when Webber got pulled for a weight check, there wasn't time to get the second one in and he was bounced out by Pastor Maldonado. Vettel's hard tyre Red Bull best was almost 0.8s quicker by comparison.

But what it meant was that Webber went into the race with four brand spanking new sets of tyres. His fastest race lap was 1:38.99. Nobody else even lapped in the 1:39s and his race best was 1.42s quicker than winner Hamilton's.

The question is: will any of the leading teams take Webber's race on board and gamble on trying the same thing, deliberately forsaking Q3?

For sure, you wouldn't want to have to drive a race like Webber's in Shanghai every time out. Chances are that if your races were routinely that 'busy' you would lose a front wing here and there and probably lose out on consistency over time to the more conventional run from the front strategy.

That's presuming that you've got Red Bull or McLaren-type performance. What about the rest -- less to lose and more to gain?

For an optimum three-stop race you want three new sets of options available and a new set of primes, a la Webber in China. To achieve that you are sentenced to using hard tyres in Q1. In China, only Red Bull and McLaren were sufficiently confident to use exclusively hards in Q1 and, as we saw with Webber, it backfired. Or so we thought.

It would get interesting if everyone tried tyre conservation because, assuming that Lotus/Virgin/HRT are going to take the final six positions in Q1, only one other driver would be eliminated. Let's say, for instance, that Fernando Alonso had tried the tactic in Shanghai. Add a second to his Q1 time on options and he'd have been a tenth quicker than the troubled Webber and so through into Q2.

Once into Q2, you use hards again and assume that you are not going to make Q3 because most will do at least one run on options. But take your notional Alonso again and add 1s to his Q2 Shanghai option tyre time and he'd have started 13th, splitting the Saubers of Perez and Kobayashi. Only the Mexican and Adrian Sutil would have separated the Ferrari from the Q3 cars and you would expect that with the DRS wing available from lap 3, Fernando would have made short work of them and been rapidly onto the back of the Q3 drivers, all of whom would have been on used tyres.

Given what we've seen of the Ferrari's race speed relative to its single lap pace, the strategy should be well worth a try. Anything that puts Ferrari slightly out of sync with everyone else could work to its advantage. Against that is the fact that the car struggles to heat its tyres on one lap, and so taking the prime in Q1 might see it marooned there.

Assuming that Alonso gets it out of Q1 though (if both Ferraris went on hards in Q1 at least one of them would have to get through), they may even start him on the hard, as Webber did in China, get that out of the way, and make an early stop for options and an undercut. That would make him vulnerable in the early laps to anyone starting behind him on options (in our hypothetical Shanghai case that would have been everyone bar Webber). But imagine Fernando running just off the back of the top 10 with three new sets of options to come...

Ferrari may feel its tyre heating issue compromises the ability to make best use of the strategy but certainly Mercedes and Renault also have enough pace to make it worth a look. Any gamblers in Istanbul?