A three-stop was Sunday’s race-winning strategy employed by Nico Rosberg. The Mercedes driver along with his teammate Lewis Hamilton managed to make the opening stint on his Soft tyres last before switching to the race-favoured Medium tyre for his second, third, and final stint. High track temperatures made most of those who started on the Soft pit early for a set of Mediums, after finding front blistering was causing understeer – something you don’t want going through the likes of sector two and the first part of sector one.
Lewis Hamilton seemed to fair better when it came to tyre conservation, something he proved at the end of the first stint when he was able to set the fastest lap of the race on a set of 18 lap-old Mediums. However his spin at the end of the second lap – which was presumably due to the blistering – cost him around six seconds to Rosberg, which ultimately cost him first place at the start of the penultimate stint. Had Hamilton not had his spin, providing his stop was around 2.5 seconds he would have emerged about five tenths of a second ahead of Rosberg into turn four.
A driver who was able to make his strategy work was Sebastien Vettel. The four-time world champion elected to pit early at the end of the second stint in order to get the undercut on both Alonso and Magnussen to secure fifth place. As such the Red Bull driver pitted on lap 25 and set the fastest lap of the race. Two laps later Magnussen and co. pitted, and they emerged just behind the Red Bull driver.
Initially it looked like Vettel was conserving his tyres after lighting up the timing screens, however it was a case of cooling down the tyres in the beginning of the stint to ensure that he clawed back the extra two laps worth of tyre life he used up on his outlap. Four laps later it allowed him to pull away from Magnussen, who used his most of his tyres up chasing after him.
In the end Vettel did get fifth place, however it probably could have been a fourth place had he not dropped back from Button after the pair passed Raikkonen. Speaking of, it was also a solid strategy from Jenson Button who ran the predicted three-stop strategy throughout the race. He did get held up in traffic on more than one occasion, particularly from those who started on the Medium tyre and were on the contra three-stop strategy. But he managed to not loose too much time overtaking them, particularly Raikkonen in the middle stint who put up a pretty good fight against the McLaren driver on 22 lap-old tyres.
Those who started on the Soft found that they were a second per-lap faster than those who started on the Medium tyre, which included Nico Hulkenberg, Daniil Kvyat, Adrian Sutil, and Romain Grosjean. Once the first wave of stops happened Hulkenberg, Kvyat, and Grosjean were able to take track position whilst the defacto leaders caught up to them. However around eight laps into everyone elses second stint, they found that the front blistering and degradation manifested to the rear, resulting in them pitting around ten laps before they were due to.
However whilst Hulkenberg, Kvyat, and Sutil pitted, Grosjean decided to stay out. This resulted in him being a second a lap slower than the rest, and of course those watching him on the world feed saw that when Magnussen and co. started to pass him, his tyres – which were 22 laps old – were completely over the cliff in terms of the amount of grip they were able to give him. In the end Grosjean ended up loosing a net 20 seconds to Hulkenberg who pitted at probably just the right moment on lap 18.
Of course it didn’t matter for Grosjean in the end because he retired, however he was running in 11th place before it decided to go pop. Hulkenberg finished in 8th place at the chequered flag meanwhile, being the only driver along with Kvyat to complete the race on a contra three-stop strategy.
Elsewhere the only driver that managed to two-stop was Kimi Raikkonen. The Fin who looked like he was mostly driving to a delta for the race, managed to do an impressive 35 laps on a set of Mediums in the second and last stints, even putting up a good fight against Button and his teammate Fernando Alonso at the end. Rather interestingly the gap between himself and Hulkenberg at the line was 0.200 seconds, which meant that the Force India driver was probably in a similar situation to the Ferrari driver at the end on his 10 lap-old Softs.
Finally a word on both Williams drivers. It looked like they were on course for challenging for the win on Saturday, so close was the gap between them and Mercedes. However mistakes during the pitstops and penalties ultimately cost them valuable time and turned their race into – in the words of Rob Smedly – a missed opportunity. For Bottas it was a case of loosing time readjusting his seatbelts in the second stint, presumably because he was submarining under braking, then severe tyre wear in the third stint compromised his final stint because he had to go 28 laps on his last set of tyres.
As for Massa, it was a good recovery drive from him to finish third and thwart the threat of McLaren in the middle stint. Stopping in the wrong pit box didn’t loose him too much time – though it was rather comical. His five second stop/go also didn’t hinder him too much after he managed to cover that time to his teammate in the second stint.
So overall it was a race focused on the tyres, mostly because the compounds brought were two of Pirelli’s softest after concerns over safety for the previous tyre allocation [which was the Hard and Medium] caused the tyre manufacturer to switch a month in advance. Whether or not that was necessary is questionable, considering the new asphalt was the main reason why such a change was made. But it would have been interesting to see how the Hard tyre feared if the Medium was blistering throughout the race.