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For once, tire degradation wasn’t primary race focus

Sep 9, 2013, 8:15 AM EST

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Whereas some Grand Prix present the teams with two fairly similar strategic options, often one slightly faster than the other, but both feasible, this particular track and tire combination left no one in much doubt about the fastest way from lights to flag.

Pirelli’s two hardest compounds in the range meant tire wear was a minimal factor here and that, along with the circuit layout in Italy, meant one stopping the race was predicted beforehand to be around nine seconds faster than trying to two stop.

The softer compounds degrade quickly, which means drivers either have to control their pace to make them last, or turn their race into a series of short sprints with multiple stops, this weekend most were able to push from start to finish without suffering performance drop off.

It’s something that raises more questions about the show. Do we want, as fans, to watch races with an element of uncertainty and strategic battles, or see, as the drivers want, cars going as fast as they can all the way through, but with everyone doing more or less the same thing? Pirelli can’t win either way.

The other peculiarity about this historic circuit is the excessive pit lane loss time. A long pitlane, running parallel to one of the fastest points of the circuit, means that if you’re in the pits doing 80kph, at the recently introduced speed limit, your rivals going past on the main straight are doing over 300kph at the same time. It’s another key factor that pushes everyone towards the one stop race.

Sunday we saw just that, almost all of the main contenders starting out on single pitstop plan, starting on the medium tire and changing to the hard between laps 22 and 27. Some were forced into alternate strategies through incident, Kimi Raikkonen after a collision on lap one and Hamilton after an early slow puncture, possibly picked up after running over debris at the first chicane.

For Raikkonen the early pitstop effectively ruined any chance of a positive result, but the car did show remarkable pace and his overall race time from lap two to the end was faster than Alonso’s and just shy of race winner Sebastian Vettel’s. It shows what he might have done had he started in a good position and stayed out of trouble, but how many times have we said that?

Lewis converted to a two stop race after his puncture and again showed good pace, like Kimi, a fast car out of position. Where he struggled to make further progress up the order was a lack of ultimate top speed on the long straights. He, along with team mate Rosberg, had a quick car in terms of lap time, but they achieved the laptime with a higher downforce level than some others and that cost them at the overtaking points in the lap. It’s traditionally a key strategic differentiator around this unique circuit, the way you gear your car and the downforce required to keep enough grip through the slower speed corners.

Gear ratios have to be decided on a Saturday before qualifying and teams often make the decision based on where they think they can qualify for the race. If you’re Sebastian Vettel, you select your ratios on the basis you think you can get out front, break the DRS gap and stay there. If you end up out of position in qualifying or after an incident in the race and are forced into fighting your way back through the field, you want a top gear that’ll allow you to reach the higher top speeds attainable through DRS use, which you’ll have a lot of, approaching the slower cars in front.

The only top team to make a bit of a gamble on strategy today was Ferrari. Alonso made a great start and was quickly allowed to pass team mate, Massa to take the fight to Red Bull. With Alonso running in second behind Vettel as the pitstop window approached, the current world champion pitted first with his right front tire heavily flat-spotted. Ferrari then had decisions to make. The first of those surprised me a little.

Vettel had exited the pitlane behind Filipe Massa, with both Ferraris still to stop and yet the team brought their number two driver in almost immediately while Alonso stayed out in front. That decision allowed Vettel the free space and clear air to push on his new tires, where perhaps had he stayed out for another few of laps Massa could’ve been used to carefully control the pace of their main rival behind.

With Alonso still running at a competitive speed, the team opted to leave him out for another five laps, simply to gamble on something slightly different to Red Bull. The hope was that with Alonso on fresher tires at the end of the race, he may have been able to close the gap and make a last lap challenge for the win.

It was a brave call and the only thing they could’ve done today. Fernando’s part was executed flawlessly, but the pace of the lead RB9 was just too fast and whilst second was a great result from fifth on the grid, he could do nothing to stop the gap in the championship opening up just a little bit further.

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