Scuderia Ferrari lived through a difficult weekend in Barcelona, with Sebastian Vettel finishing only seventh, while Charles Leclerc had to retire with an electrical problem. That was a shame, as he could have finished fourth, as Team Principal Mattia Binotto maintained in the post race press meetings. We spoke about the Spanish GP strategy with Inaki Rueda the team’s Head of Race Strategy.
How could Charles have finished fourth given that he was down in eleventh place when he retired?
“You have to start with a premise. Usually the Spanish Grand Prix takes place in early May in much cooler temperatures than last weekend. Before the race, we wanted to go for a one stop with both drivers but we knew it would be very difficult. To succeed, the target was to go to at least lap 28 with Charles, who had started on the Softs and to lap 35 with Seb who had Mediums. Despite the traffic, Charles had looked after his tyres well in the first stint, and managed to go to lap 29, thus in the window to switch to a one stop, given that he had a set of new Mediums to use. In fact, once Pierre Gasly who’d been ahead of him, had stopped, Charles had a clear track ahead of him and was able to push. At this point, given that he was running at a good pace, we asked him to try to go to at least lap 28, which we knew was essential for the change of strategy to work and so it was.”
And once on the Mediums?
“Charles soon dispensed with Daniil Kvyat and got in behind Lando Norris. He was much quicker than him at that point in the race and we were certain that some drivers up ahead would be making a second stop and some others would really struggle to make it to the end. In fact, only Sergio Perez made the same choice as us, and given the penalty he was given, that’s how Charles could reasonably have finished fourth. Unfortunately, a control unit failure put an end to that goal…”
How did Sebastian’s race go from a strategy point of view?
“The only positive of not having made the cut to Q3 was that he had a free choice of tyres on which to start the race and could try something different to those ahead of him. Given that we had seen from the data that the Hard tyre would not be an option for either of our drivers, the possibility to go for a one stop using just the Medium and Softs was also very much on the limit for Sebastian. The only way to make it work was to get to lap 35 on the Mediums and in this case also, it would be very difficult or so we thought.”
What options did you look at before the race?
“The most logical way was a two stopper obviously and we had spoken about it, thinking of starting on used Softs, holding back the new set to make the most of them in the closing stages to get past those who had stayed out on track longer on used tyres. Seb did not get on with the tyres in the first stint, especially in traffic and so it was clear that a two stop was the way to go. He also came in on lap 29 with the team doing a double stop, to put him in a window that would protect him from the undercut from Daniel Ricciardo and, at the same time, would allow Charles to maintain position ahead of Esteban Ocon, given that both Renaults had started on the Medium tyre. The guys did a great job at these stops. The car handled better on the Softs and Seb was able to push more. The aim was to get to lap 50, but despite a series of quick laps, we were unable to open the gap to Ricciardo. At this point, we could stick with two stops and risk finishing behind the Renault, or try to go all the way to the flag. We just had to talk to the driver and see if he thought it was on.”
And what did Sebastian say?
“At first, logically enough he was surprised and asked what pace was required to finish in a good position. Having evaluated the pros and cons, Seb gave it a go and, thanks to his talent, he managed to do something that had seemed impossible.”
There’s been a lot of talk about radio communication between the drivers and the pit wall in recent races, as if things are going that well in terms of strategy management. What are your thoughts?
“I don't think that’s by any means the case. Certainly, compared to the past, race management is much more complicated. It’s a fact that this year we are fighting with a group of teams and drivers whose performance is all very close and so it’s easy to find yourself having to manage scenarios that change lap after lap. Up to last year, the fight was only with a few teams and behind the top three there was an abyss, therefore there was hardly ever a problem with traffic. You just had to open a gap before the first stop and then everything followed on more or less to an equal model with few variables. That’s not the case today and so the talk with the drivers is more frequent and intense and it’s normal that you talk and change your mind, depending on what’s happening on track. Strategies are based on mathematical models but it’s down to the drivers to apply them and they are not programmable computers. Therefore you first have to make them understand how you arrive at certain choices and make them part of the process. We are lucky to have two drivers who take a lot of interest in the race simulations and the various options and we spend a lot of time during the weekend talking about this and the behaviour of the tyres. Honestly, I think the choices made in the last few races have been the right ones and have helped us make up some of the places that we had lost in qualifying, given how hard it is to overtake on track. I think that, also thanks to good tyre management from our drivers, on Sundays we have often managed to maximise the potential at our disposal. But there is always room to improvement, and the most important thing is to improve the performance of the car. With a faster car, everything is easier!”