30 Jul 2019
‘Exciting’ races in Formula One can come about due to a number of different racing circumstances but there’s no better way to improve a races potential than changeable conditions. As such, the German GP had literally everything, all of which came about due to the changing demands of the circuit, which resulted in a captivating race and one that allowed everyone to either win-it-or-bin-it.
The monotony of driving to a delta is often cast aside in these conditions as it becomes about the driver feeling his way around the circuit, looking for the grip in unusual places - a knife edge that adds jeopardy back into the equation.
Grand Prix racing has, in recent years become too predictable, as drivers are implored to drive at a predetermined pace that’ll allow them to take one less pitstop. Matters aren’t helped in this respect as not only are they babying the tyres but also their powerunits, which are restricted to consuming a maximum of 105kg of fuel per race at a rate no greater than 100kg/h, all whilst remembering that each of the powerunit’s components must meet durability targets.
This means races have fallen into a predictive pattern, with drivers looking to extend their tyre stint life beyond Pirelli’s predictions in order that they only need to make one stop - thus eliminating approximately 20 seconds of none racing time (the pitstop delta) and the risk of having an error that costs more time or running in traffic when exiting the pitlane. It’s why you’ll see personnel monitoring the GPS data back in the garages too, as they look for a window in which to pull their driver in, service the car and get them back out into clean air.
In fact in more recent times the frontrunners don’t have that problem at all, as they’ve more often than not qualified on the more durable compound in Q2 and can go longer than those behind them anyway - leading to even wider field spread.
Pulling the trigger for a pitstop has now become less and less of a gamble and more about the game of cat and mouse, with a one stop race meaning that an undercut (pitting ahead of a rival) will give you that instantaneous gratification, tyre grip and immediately quicker laptimes that increase the possibility of jumping your rival, as they troll around slower (a strategy most often deployed by the chase car). Meanwhile, the overcut (pitting after your rival) gives you less time on the new tyre, meaning you can be incrementally quicker over a stint or deploy the grip advantage toward the end of the race.
All of this is thrown out of the window in changeable conditions though and it becomes a game of wits - who’ll pull the trigger first? Who’s brave enough to transition onto dry tyres on a drying track and who’s prepared to tough it out? As an exercise, let’s look back over the barnstormer that was the German GP and evaluate the turning points of the race…
The race really began before the standing start, with the laps ticking down as the field conducted several formation laps behind the safety car - a race scheduled for 67 laps suddenly became a 64 lap race and with it the opportunity to either save fuel for crucial moments later in the race or burn it to reduce weight.
Just as the race began to settle down into a rhythm the circuit and conditions claimed their first victim - Sergio Perez, the Mexican spinning out and damaging his car to a point where he couldn’t continue.
TURNING POINT - It’s crucial to note that at this point Sebastian Vettel had already made up significant ground, upto 12th position after just three racing laps. But, a decision was taken to switch the German from the full wet tyres onto the intermediates, taking advantage of the safety car period that was called as he was passing by the pitlane. Lying down in 15th Alex Albon also took advantage but the gaggle of cars around them chose not to.
This triggered the pitstop cascade, Hamilton diving in from the lead to take inters, followed by Bottas who’d slowed the field behind him to allow for the double stack, with Verstappen, Leclerc, Hulkenberg, Raikonnen, Grosjean, Gasly, Sainz, Giovinazzi, Ricciardo and Kvyat all following suit. This would temporarily boost the positions of Magnussen, Stroll, Norris, Russell and Kubica who did not stop and remained on the full wet tyre, with Williams the most risk averse in that situation having not stopped either driver.
The upshot of this is that under the safety car Vettel gained no positions and Albon only one but that would cycle out differently later on as the fully wet cladded runners would be quickly swallowed up by those on the inters who could run on different lines to their rivals.
TURNING POINT - Norris, unhappy with his pace on the wet tyre, made the switch to inters under normal racing conditions on lap 7, dropping him to the back of the field but short term pain is often met with long term gain as he’d usurp most of the other wet runners when they cycle through the pitlane.
NOTE - Once the wet runners had cycled back down the pack having stopped, Vettel and Albon lay 7th and 9th respectively.
The race now settled down into a predictable pattern, with everyone holding station, looking to extend the lifespan of their intermediate tyres so they might have a pace advantage come the next trigger point.
TURNING POINT - Lap 15 and Ricciardo’s race is done as a plume of smoke is ejected out the back of the Renault and the Australian parks it just off the track and leaves it in need of recovery. Initially it resulted in a yellow flag but as soon as the marshalls entered the scene a VSC was called and with it the opportunity to make a free pitstop, as the pitlane speed loss is negated by everyone else running at a similar speed out on track. Leclerc took the opportunity with both hands first, taking on fresh inters and was followed in by Hulkenberg, both of whom were in the right place, at the right time and would take huge swathes of time out of their rivals on fresher tyres in the next few laps as they tried to react to the threat.
TURNING POINT - Kevin Magnussen decided it was time to show everyone just how big his balls were and became the first driver to switch onto the dry tyres on lap 22. I only studied his pace on the left hand leaderboard for the next few minutes and whilst he seemed quick in certain parts of the track, the mini loops were suggesting he was actually much slower in other parts of the track.
The pace still wasn’t there for K-Mag relative to Stroll ahead of him, in fact he’d actually lost some time, when Ferrari and Vettel pulled the trigger anyway and leapt into the pits at the end of lap 24, taking the soft tyre too.
As the lead pack rounded the last few corners at the end of lap 25 it suddenly became obvious that K-Mag’s pace was improving, taking seconds, rather than tenths out of Stroll’s lead ahead and as such Verstappen headed for the pitlane but as he snaked his way out of the pitlane you could see that he was struggling, a combination of being on a wet track with slicks, the tyres having been kicking around unplugged and not being heated as they deliberated the switch and choosing the medium tyre rather than the soft. Finding the grip and firing heat into the harder compound was extremely challenging for the Dutch driver and he spun the car in the final few corners of the lap, all whilst others were making the voyage into the unknown by pitting and taking on the dry weather tyres too.
Bottas, now on the medium tyre too, was also struggling to get them upto temperature meaning their gap stayed relatively similar. Meanwhile, Lance Stroll, another medium switcher had a spin but managed to recover without losing a place to the Williams drivers. Fortunately for the Canadian his spin was timed in harmony with the retirement of Lando Norris, who’d suffered a hydraulics failure.
TURNING POINT - Needing to recover the McLaren from the side of the track another VSC was underway, timed perfectly for Charles Leclerc who was able to dive into the pits and took a set of soft tyres - effectively getting a free stop and meaning he jumped Bottas and Verstappen.
Hamilton pitted at the end of the lap, but crucially just at the point when the VSC started to end, meaning that his would not be an entirely free stop and would allow Leclerc to make up valuable time on the Mercedes driver.
Under pressure to make up that time and perhaps not having his tyres optimally prepared to go back to racing speed the Monegasque driver ended his race when he slewed across the ‘ice rink’ in the last corner complex, clipped the wall and then beached his Ferrari as the rear wheel dug in as he exuberantly tried to escape the gravel trap that rounds the periphery of the track.
TURNING POINT - This once again triggered a safety car in order that the stricken scarlet car could be removed from the edge of the track and Ferrari were the first to blink with their other car, supplying Vettel with another set of inters. Meanwhile, Kyvat switched back to inters having spent just three laps dancing around on the softs and his team mate made back-to-back stops switching to inters having done just a lap on the softs (CHECK HIS RACE POSITION ETC). By lap 30 everyone was back on the inters, with Bottas the last to make the switch owing to Hamilton’s long stop, which followed on from his off track excursion and forced him to make the stop to collect a new nose and the inters he was convinced he should have taken at his last stop.
Hamilton had suddenly gone from leading the race, to 5th position, whilst had Albon also switched directly to a new set of inters instead of the softs he would’ve been in a net second place (rather than the already heady 4th place), proving that being on the right tyre at the right time is pivotal to success.
Verstappen meanwhile, who’d effectively triggered this chain of events with his switch to mediums and the spin would now lead the race, having switched back to the inters. The Dutchman had seen two of his rivals crash in the same corner and Bottas lose out as he couldn’t box and now sat pretty at the head of the safety car train.
The Mercedes pair of Bottas and Hamilton with a car out of position between them, in the shape of Nico Hulkenberg and Alex Albon respectively now had work to do to catch Verstappen, as the race inevitably settled back down into a delta driven race given we’d only just ticked past half distance and at least another stop would be likely.
Hamilton caught Albon with a switchback at the hairpin on lap 36 but it took Bottas until lap 37 to put manners on Hulkenberg, at which point Verstappen was now 8.6 seconds further down the road.
TURNING POINT - HULK off in the final turn, having got out onto the ‘ice rink / drag strip’, leading to yet another safety car to recover the stricken Renault and another chance for certain drivers to stop for fresh inters, with Verstappen, Vettel, Stroll, Grosjean, Magnussen and Gasly all capitalizing.
TURNING POINT - As the safety car was about to depart the scene it was Racing Point and Stroll that were the first to roll the dice and allowed them to catch back upto the back of the crocodile with plenty of heat fired into them he was now the quickest man out there. Seeing the potential unfolding of what Racing Point had just done it was over to Toro Rosso and Magnussen, with Kvyat and Magnussen respectively as they chose to dive into the pitlane at the restart.
Verstappen was the first of the frontrunners to jump onto the slicks as it became obvious that Stroll, Kvyat and K-Mag were making serious headway, as Lance Stroll had effectively took the net lead of the race, with Danil now the meat in a Verstappen, Bottas sandwich. Hamilton lost out in the exchange, going a lap further on the inters as Mercedes didn’t want to risk double stacking their drivers.
The battle was now on for 1st place with the unlikeliest of leaders - Lance Stroll, defending from Max Verstappen - not that we’d know it from the broadcast (unless unlike me you’re watching the timing board) as the race director was more intent on watching the pitstops than the actual racing action and we missed the live pass for the lead.
It didn’t affect the overall story of the race up front but on lap 53 we saw the second collector's item for Hamilton, as the Mercedes driver dipped a rear wheel onto the damp part of the track and ended up spinning his W10.
TURNING POINT - Only four laps later it was the turn of his Finnish teammate to make the very same mistake, only with much larger significance, as he hit the barrier hard, destroying the front-end of his W10 and bought the curtain down early on his race.
This brought out another safety car, at a point in the race where Sebastian Vettel already had the bit between his teeth and now lay in 5th place, with only Sainz and Stroll in his way to a podium. He made light work of Sainz into the hairpin, selling the Spaniard a dummy before going down the inside for position. With three laps to go and with DRS now available the German went past Stroll like he was stood still, as he put the grunt and lower drag philosophy of the Ferrari SF90 to good use. And, in the very next lap he used the same overspeed manoeuvre to overtake Kvyat, demoting the Russian to 3rd place but still on the podium.
An absolutely bonkers race that required measured thinking throughout in order to be victorious…
Can we learn anything from the German GP in a wider sporting context?
I think so, firstly we need to raise the jeopardy for drivers, as any mistakes made are then magnified, creating a strategic cascade for everyone else around them. Management, be it powerunit, tyres or fuel needs to be looked at and better scaled to improve the strategic options available to the driver and the team. So, how do we achieve these things?..
Jeopardy - as the drag strip at turn 16 proved, if you have an area of the track that’s inviting to attack but has a low grip surface on the periphery you have a recipe for mistakes. Track design has evolved to allow for increased safety over a number of years and whilst circuits must cater for the needs of other race series’, including motorbikes, there needs to be some more careful consideration about how we deal with run-off areas.
The FIA trialled artificial grass on the outer edge of the kerbs several years ago but it failed to work as anticipated and was quickly eradicated before it caused accidents in its own right. However, there should be zero incentive to leave the confines of the track itself (as designated by the white lines), yet we still see drivers pursuant of ever aggressive lines through corners as there is no penalty should they get it wrong.
Grass and gravel usage had receded, as it’s difficult to model the speed, trajectory and chance of side-on elevation that can occur when a driver/rider goes through it. However, a metered return to its use, even in small strips just beyond the confines of the racetrack could be in order. A water trap, much like the drag strip acted as in Germany could also prove promising if deployed in the right area of the track and can be controlled with drainage should weather conditions change further.
FOM’s working group, who are already developing the 2021 regulations have recently been tasked with re-evaluating refueling and lower degradation tyres both of which could work for or against any other changes that occurring in regard to the vehicle dynamics model. One should not simply jump to a conclusion that one or the other is either disastrous or the silver bullet to improving racing, as they will either work or be unsuccessful due to the implementation of other sporting rules.
The enemy at the gate for me though is a cottage industry that’s grown into something much more large scale - simulation and telemetry. These two factors enable teams to make decisions about the race with a large degree of accuracy, rather than the finger in the air, fly by the seat of the pants decisions we had a couple of decades ago. IF we are to see more strategic variation then we need to abandon certain aspects of the sports data driven analysis.
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