Skip to content

How Mercedes’ tire strategy derailed them in Barcelona

May 13, 2013, 7:00 AM EST

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Ferrari chairman expects another tough season in 2015

    Dec 22, 2014, 5:22 PM EST

    Italy Ferrari Montezemolo Out AP

    Sergio Marchionne: “I think 2015 is going to be a reconstitution year.”

  2. Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 10 – Jimmie Johnson falls short of seventh championship

    Dec 22, 2014, 4:50 PM EST

    (Jason Merritt/Getty Images for dcp) Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson not only fell short of his seventh Sprint Cup championship in 2014, he also recorded the worst single-season finish in his Cup career.

  3. Sale deadline extended for dormant Nashville Superspeedway

    Dec 22, 2014, 3:00 PM EST

    Firestone Indy 200 Getty Images

    1.33-mile concrete oval outside the Music City has not hosted major auto racing since 2011.

  4. NASCAR: Top drivers of 2014 – No. 24 Martin Truex Jr.

    Dec 22, 2014, 2:00 PM EST

    Hollywood Casino 400 - Practice Getty Images

    Truex’s first year with Furniture Row Racing was largely disappointing.

  5. NASCAR: Top drivers of 2014 – No. 23 Marcos Ambrose

    Dec 22, 2014, 1:00 PM EST

    Camping World RV Sales 301 - Practice Getty Images

    Ambrose narrowly missed clinching a Chase berth after his epic battle at the Glen with A.J. Allmendinger.

  6. MRTI Entry List update before the Christmas holiday

    Dec 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EST

    Photo via @IndyLights Photo via @IndyLights

    A quick roundup of who’s where at the moment in Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000.

  7. Scot Elkins will join Pro Mazda/USF2000 as Race Director

    Dec 22, 2014, 11:19 AM EST

    MazdaRoadToIndy

    IMSA’s Scot Elkins joins MRTI as race director.

  8. Carl Edwards: “I plan on winning 10 races and the championship”

    Dec 22, 2014, 10:15 AM EST

    EdwardsP9 Getty Images

    In interview, Carl Edwards sets some high goals for himself in first year with JGR.

  9. NASCAR: Jeremy Bullins promoted to Wood Brothers crew chief

    Dec 22, 2014, 9:29 AM EST

    Bullins Getty Images

    Bullins up to the Cup level as crew chief of Blaney’s No. 21.

  10. NASCAR: Dale Jr. expects even more performance in 2015

    Dec 21, 2014, 8:00 PM EST

    Ford EcoBoost 400 - Qualifying Getty Images

    Junior speaks highly, already, of new crew chief Greg Ives.

  11. Sutil rips F1’s pay driver situation

    Dec 21, 2014, 6:30 PM EST

    AUTO-PRIX-BRA-F1-PRESSER-SUTIL Getty Images

    Ex-Sauber driver Adrian Sutil calls out F1 pay-driver situation, although it could just be a case of sour grapes.

  12. WEC: 2015 sporting regulations for series released by FIA

    Dec 21, 2014, 5:30 PM EST

    AUTO-FRA-ENDURANCE-LE MANS Getty Images

    A number of tweaks are coming for the global sports car racing series.

  13. Late wreck ends hope of top-5 finish for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in dirt track race

    Dec 21, 2014, 4:58 PM EST

    (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Going back to his dirt track roots, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished eighth in the fifth annual Great Clips Battle at the Center in DuQuoin, Ill., on Saturday.

  14. Another week, another driver wedding; this time, it’s Ty Dillon’s turn (PHOTOS)

    Dec 21, 2014, 4:00 PM EST

    Lilly Diabetes 250 Getty Images

    The XFINITY Series driver for Richard Childress Racing marries girlfriend Haley Carey.

  15. UPDATED — Highway to Hell(cat): Owner wrecks 707-hp Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat one hour after buying it

    Dec 21, 2014, 2:54 PM EST

    (Photo courtesy Facebook via MotorAuthority.com) (Photo courtesy Facebook via MotorAuthority.com)

    With just 40 less horsepower than a 2015 Sprint Cup car, the new Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is VERY powerful. One new Hellcat owner, who bought it just one hour earlier, found out the hard way about all that power.

  16. Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 10 – Kurt Busch and “The Double”

    Dec 21, 2014, 2:30 PM EST

    Kurt Busch AP

    The Outlaw takes on the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.

  17. NASCAR: Top drivers of 2014 – No. 22 Brian Vickers

    Dec 21, 2014, 1:00 PM EST

    FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks - Practice Getty Images

    Vickers made his full-time return to Sprint Cup action in 2014, which in itself was a victory.

  18. NASCAR: Top drivers of 2014 – No. 21 Paul Menard

    Dec 21, 2014, 12:26 PM EST

    (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Paul Menard had a decent season at times in 2014, but fell short of making the Chase in the final qualifying race.

  19. Empire Racing grabs 3 fastest spots in Daytona ARCA test

    Dec 20, 2014, 11:42 PM EST

    Sean Corr was the fastest driver in the two-day ARCA test at Daytona International Speedway. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images) Getty Images

    New York State’s Empire Racing took the three fastest spots as ARCA completed a two-day open test at Daytona International Speedway.

Video from NASCAR America

NASCAR America's 2014 blooper reel
Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches
  1. B. Vickers (2217)
  2. K. Busch (2070)
  3. C. Coughlin (1931)
  4. D. Armstrong (1900)
  5. L. Cassill (1778)