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How Mercedes’ tire strategy derailed them in Barcelona

May 13, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT

Spanish F1 Grand Prix - Race Getty Images

All the talk after the Spanish GP was, once again, dominated by tires. The grumbles in certain areas of the paddock are becoming louder and louder as race strategies were again decided by a team’s ability to make a set of Pirellis last long enough to complete a sensible stint.

Certain teams are better at this than others and, at the end of the day, it could be said that it’s a result of them doing a better job than the ones who struggle. A Formula One team’s job, after all, is to design a car to meet the challenges of the sport in its current form. It has to be said that the loudest complainers are noticeably the ones not finding things easy right now.

With that in mind I’ll take a quick look at two differing ends of that spectrum from Sunday’s race.

Race strategies are complicated things to plan; many factors that go in to making the decision and even once the decision’s made, it has to be flexible to cope with the unpredictable parameters.

Mercedes have a car, evident from the last three races, capable of being faster than anyone else over a single lap in qualifying and indeed that’s exactly what they were on Saturday.

Planning a race strategy from pole position’s a different prospect to planning one from further down the field and should clearly be a huge advantage at a circuit where overtaking is difficult. Assuming a good start, the driver in front should be able to dictate the race to a certain extent and pole sitter Nico Rosberg, starting along with all of the other front runners on the medium compound tire, did indeed get away in front.

His biggest problem, and one that came as no surprise to all involved, is the fact that the Mercedes F1W04 destroys tires considerably quicker than everyone else. On Saturday evening when the drivers and their engineers at the team, and indeed all of the teams, sat down to figure out their best strategic options, they knew this and had to factor it into their race plans.

The white walled medium compound tire, faster of the two but less durable, was the one to qualify on, but on a Mercedes it was never going to last very long in race conditions. At the start every car’s carrying close to 150kgs of fuel and that significant extra weight, combined with a track not yet at it’s most grippy and the need to fight other cars at close quarters, has a dramatic impact on tire life and therefore race strategy.

Hamilton: Mercedes has “a lot of work to do”

Their plan was, in all honesty, a damage limitation one, staying on the medium tire for as long as they could manage while holding off the field at the front and then using the harder compound for the remainder of the GP. Initial calculations had a three-stop strategy completing the race distance about 6 or 7 seconds faster than a four-stop one and so was optimal, but it would all depend on drivers looking after the rubber to make that work. Rosberg opted for the 3 stopper of medium/hard/hard/hard, but with the only way to make the hard compound last was for him to drive at a pace so slow he became a sitting duck. He predictably fell back through the field. Perhaps a four-stop race might have helped him a little, but in truth he was never going to catch the car in front and did just about survive the challenge of Paul Di Resta behind, so the outcome would probably have remained unchanged.

The eventual race winner, Fernando Alonso, who began the race fifth, would have had to look at things slightly differently on Saturday evening to Nico Rosberg. Also having to begin the race on medium compound tires, his optimal strategy relied on a great start, something Ferrari are generally able to rely on at the moment and duly delivered.

I thought their initial plan was to three stop, probably medium/hard/hard/hard or medium/hard/hard/medium, as the the car in the last stint of the race would cope a little easier on a set of medium tires and theoretically be faster.

In the end the Ferrari, with a handful of updates for this event, was able to push at a good pace and still keep the tires in good condition for most of the GP, in direct contrast to the Mercedes. This, combined with his stunning first lap, enabled to team to switch to a more comfortable four-stop race, allowing Alonso to push hard in each stint on a medium/hard/hard/medium/hard plan and stay ahead of the struggling pack. Again the two early spells on hards allowed the fuel load to burn off and the track to rubber in, before using mediums to set some blistering laptimes and secure his position out in front. By the time the final stop came around, the only set the team had left were already used from earlier in the weekend and so, with his position fairly stable, a set of hards saw him comfortably to the end. The stop actually came two laps earlier than planned because of a suspected, and now confirmed, slow puncture, but the hard work early on ensured it didn’t cost him track position. It was a superb drive by Alonso and ensured the team had options to play with when it came to deciding how to see out the race. They weren’t forced into anything or have to react to anyone else and so could use the four stop strategy to good advantage, pushing all the way.

To win from fifth position is unprecedented at this circuit and, while perhaps a sign of the Pirelli era, it’s actually more a sign of how badly the problems are at Mercedes. Their two cars, in P1 and P2 on the grid, finished in sixth and 12th, freeing up easy places for those further back and Alonso and Ferrari made great use of their start, racecraft and ultimately their race strategy, to take a dominant, flat out victory.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

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