A glass half full. That’s how Mattia Binotto summed up the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, which saw Charles Leclerc finish the race in fifth place and Sebastian Vettel in 12th. To describe how we reached that result at the end of an unusual weekend – the first F1 race that had been planned in advance to take place over just two days – we spoke to Iñaki Rueda, Head of Race Strategy, who gave us more details in his now traditional Monday briefing.
“With just 90 minutes available to try out the car for both qualifying and the race, it was critical to make a few basic assumptions. Among these there was the choice of Medium tyres as the best compound with which to start the grand prix, mainly because of the degradation of the Softs due to graining. Because of this we made two sets available for each driver in qualifying, with the aim of making the cut and assuring ourselves an important advantage for Sunday, like the weekend before in Portugal with Charles. Unfortunately on Saturday after the first run in Q2 we could see that we wouldn’t have had enough speed to pull it off, so we opted to try to make it through with the Softs. That worked out successfully with Charles but not with Seb.”
On the grid we found ourselves with one driver in seventh place, forced to start on the Softs, and the other in 14th but with the freedom to choose the best compound, i.e. the Mediums. With the benefit of hindsight, would it have been better to have given the Mediums another try in Q2 after all?
“After the race it’s easy to say yes and, paradoxically, even if Charles had taken the best possible result, which is to say the fourth place in qualifying that he missed out on by just 114 thousandths of a second, strategically it would have anyway been better to be 11th and start with the Mediums, as Sergio Perez’s race showed. But we can only say that for sure having analysed the performance of the various compounds after the event.”
Is it right that a single pit stop was nonetheless the only way to go?
“I would say so, given also the time lost in the pit stops – about 27 seconds, a level that is costlier than all other tracks with the exception of Singapore. What’s more, this fact determined that whoever started on the Softs wouldn’t have had enough time to come out onto a free track after their stop, which was another reason why we ended up asking to Charles’ stop a bit earlier. When we saw that Ricciardo was in greater difficulty than he was on the Softs we chose to bring Charles in relatively early to try the undercut, rather than wait and react to the strategy of Alex Albon, who was close behind. On lap 13 the gap between Charles and the Australian was 1.4 seconds: and we put him on the Hard tyres because at that moment we weren’t sure of what the degradation would be like on the Mediums over a long distance, given that we would have had to keep that set of tyres all the way to the chequered flag. Now, having seen the stints of Vettel and Raikkonen, we can say that it would have been better to use the Mediums, both for the consistency of the performance and for the issue of warming up the tyres. It’s clear that the Hards are more difficult to bring up to the right temperature, so much so that Charles lost a whole second in the first sector of his out lap. But then he regained eight tenths on the second and third laps, until he ended up less than three tenths back in the braking zone of Turn 7 on the lap on which the Renault driver also put on his Hard tyres. Perhaps with the Mediums and a quicker warm-up we could have managed to complete the undercut but, once again, it’s easy to say so with the benefit of hindsight.”
What was the planning that went into Seb’s race?
“Starting on the Mediums he found himself with a clear track ahead of him quite early on, shortly after the tenth lap, so he managed to push as hard as he liked, resulting in very quick times. We had two options: to switch to the Hards around lap 40 or onto the Softs if he had managed to extend the stint for another 10 laps. When the virtual safety car came out on lap 30 we weighed up the idea of bringing him in, which would have been ideal because it would have allowed him to come back onto the track ahead of Charles, with tyres that were much fresher than his direct competitors. Unfortunately the virtual safety car period was too short, to the extent that only two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Lance Stroll, managed to use it to make their stops. Under normal conditions it wouldn’t have made any sense to bring Seb in so early. When on lap 39 we saw that the chance of having him come out of his stop ahead of one of the two McLarens was diminishing we chose to carry out the pit stop. Unfortunately a problem with the wheelnut on the front right wheel made him lose more than ten seconds. That meant he lost the chance to finish in the points, a placing that would have been more than deserved for a race that was nevertheless positive.”
In the final part hearts skipped a beat with the arrival of the safety car for Verstappen’s puncture. Having chosen to stay out on track to preserve Charles’ fourth place, did you fear seeing a repeat of what we saw at the Nürburgring on the restart?
“We had much more faith in the performance of the Hard tyres this time, even in the light of how the Mediums had been behaving. Then I have to say that some of the improvements that we have introduced onto the SF1000 also helped us out, not forgetting the good job done by Charles and the team to prepare the tyres for the restart. It’s true that Daniil Kvyat managed to get past him – just like he had also managed with both Perez and Albon – but it was possible for Charles to keep his fifth place until the finish for a strong result, even despite the fact that the Mexican driver had put on new Soft tyres.”