As expected the Safety Car played a big role in the race on Sunday, with it ultimately coming down to two strategies. The first two stints were all about track position. Pirelli say that there was at least a two second gap between the two compounds, which was visible in the lap times.
The winning strategy was a three-stop from Lewis Hamilton, who after the Safety Car managed to just build up enough of a gap to pit and come out ahead of Riccardo at the end, and nab first back from Vettel – who was on 35-lap old Softs. In the early stages however it was clear that the Mercedes had pace, given that they were able to get into the 1:51’s consistently whilst everyone else was in the low 1:53’s/high 1:52’s.
We saw a number of drivers opt to go for the undercut in the first two stints, Fernando Alonso being the highest placed driver to do so. In the first fourteen laps he pressured Red Bull into responding to his fastest lap setting pace on fresher Super Soft tyres, which allowed him to overtake Vettel.
However once the second stops came round Alonso had to pit early which made him loose ground to the likes of Vettel and Riccardo, after the Safety Car came out. Really Red Bull were expecting a Safety Car by the looks of how they pitted both Riccardo and Vettel for tyres that were the opposite to the Ferrari’s, and in the end that gave them the track position they needed to challenge for the win towards the end.
Another driver who adopted a similar strategy was Jean-Eric Vergne. After getting frustrated being stuck behind his teammate and unable to pass Magnussen, he Pitted on lap 13 and was able to get past those who were going long in the first stint or who had yet to pit. Then on his second stop he more or less made an advantage on those who were using their Soft compound tyres, and again were going longer in the previous stint, namely Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen.
Once the Safety Car came out however Vergne lost a lot of ground, dropping from ninth all the way down to fifteenth place. His pace compared to the rest however was four tenths to five tenths a lap quicker, because the Soft tyre had started to come alive in the closing stages, which meant that he could pick them off one-by-one. Crucially he had to shake off a five second stop/go penalty, which he incurred when exceeding track limits trying to overtake Pastor Maldonado. With Bottas seemingly unable to hang on at the end, Vergne made pretty swift work all race of those who sat behind him who elected not to stop again and were on rubber that was 10 laps older than his.
Another strategy that was adopted was the more conservative approach. Both Williams drivers were the most notable figures that were able to take advantage of this. After sorting out their Friday troubles, they were able to make something out of sixth and ninth place, with Felipe Massa getting up into fifth at the end having pit early in the first stint and ran quicker lap times than those who were stretching it out.
Then after the lengthy Safety Car period, with Massa having stopped two times and now on the Soft compound, it was a case of being consistent and “driving like my grandmother” as Felipe Massa put it, until the end. Williams probably got lucky with that though, considering the issues they had with Bottas, had his power steering not failed and stopped him from being able to properly look after the tyres, they could have well found themselves in the clutches of Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen.
Speaking of Jenson Button, he was on a really good run. After conserving his Soft tyres early on after his first stop, he had a bundle of options available to him when the Safety Car came out. As such the team elected to run him on Soft tyres again, which allowed him to cruise up to the back of Valterri Bottas and challenge the top five. It was a shame that his electronics cut out at the end, because with his lap times being two seconds faster than both Red Bulls, he could have well been on course for a podium place.
The biggest shoutout goes to Marcus Ericsson, who managed to finish ahead of both Marussia’s in 15th place after following a similar strategy to Button but on the Super Soft rather than the Soft in the opening stints.
Perhaps the worst strategies out there were the ones adopted by both rookies Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen. Whilst both were suffering from dehydration issues after their drinks bottles stopped working, they were unable to make anything of their afternoon having pitted three times at unlucky points during the race, even allowing Pastor Maldonado into the points before he ran out of tyres.