A botched Ferrari strategy

Lewis Hamilton won the Italian Grand Prix because Ferrari didn’t play the team tactics game as well as Mercedes all weekend and that started with the tyre choices.

Published : Sep 04, 2018 17:59 IST

The story coming away from this weekend in Monza has really got to be: “How did Ferrari, with the fastest car, a front row lockout and huge home crowd support, come away further behind in the championship than when they went into it?” To really look at how this unfolded, we need to go back eight weeks to the tyre selection process.

Ferrari arrived in Monza with only one set of soft tyres for Sebastian Vettel and only two for Kimi Raikkonen. We’ve seen other people do this and I’ve never really understood why teams put themselves into a corner like this. The Pirelli tyres are extraordinarily tricky to manage — much more than the Bridgestones or Michelins we had previously in F1, and by now every team knows that. I can sort of understand bringing only one set of the hardest tyre because it’s very rarely used, but certainly with the two softer choices, you want to give yourself enough of a chance to run the tyre in free practice so you get a good idea of what you’ve got when you bolt it on in the Grand Prix. Yes, they all have simulation tools and reports from dozens of engineers and “tyre groups,”but there’s nothing like good, old-fashioned real life practice sometimes.

Lewis Hamilton really forced his way to victory this weekend and Mercedes played the team tactics game much better than its Italian rivals. There was a feeling in the paddock that the Ferrari was the quicker car all weekend, but the qualifying battle amongst the top three was closer than everyone expected. It truly was one of the best sessions I’ve seen in a long time.


The most confusing thing from qualifying was Ferrari’s decision not to back their main title contender. The slipstream effect on the straights in Monza far outweighs the loss of downforce in the corners. At other circuits, drivers try to do their qualifying laps with about a seven-second gap to the car in front in order to avoid any turbulent air. In Monza, they were all aiming to be about 2.5 seconds behind another car, which the teams found to be a good balance between beneficial on the straights but not too damaging in the corners and braking zones.

Valtteri Bottas seemed to suggest after qualifying that being in front of Lewis gave the Englishman a benefit of a couple of tenths, which was exactly what Mercedes wanted him to do. Rightly, they are very clear now that if they have to win the World Championship, they need to start playing the No.1, No.2 card. So, when Raikkonen came out of the pits in front of Vettel for both runs in Q3, it was very confusing. Kimi himself seemed slightly unsure of the plan as there was a bit of team radio chat on the final out-lap, asking if they stay in that order. Seb got a distant tow from Lewis, but Kimi got a much better double slipstream, which I’m sure didn’t please their German ace. One thing’s for sure, in the dominant Ferrari era of Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Jean Todt, there’s no way that the No.2 driver would have been given the same freedom.

Ahead of the race, I did wonder if Ferrari had decided to implement team orders. The easiest thing to do would have been to tell Kimi not to fight Sebastian into the first chicane, or if they don’t sort it out straight away, then let him past into the second chicane before playing the rear gunner role. This was a golden opportunity to reduce the points gap from 17 to seven by scoring a 1-2 when they clearly had the pace to do it.

As things transpired, Kimi moved across the track in front of Seb at the start and the two red cars fought hard into the first chicane. Once that was sorted, they then headed through the Curva Grande with Lewis firmly in the slipstream and ready to pounce. At that point, if they chose to play the team game, Kimi would have just stayed to the right and opened the door for Sebastian to go past cleanly, but instead he went to defend the inside, which boxed Seb in a bit and opened up a gap for Lewis to dive around the outside.

The collision between Lewis and Sebastian was just a typical racing incident that we’ve seen many times at a chicane in Monza — two drivers both charging hard and neither really wanting to give in, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I think Sebastian will regret how he played that. Every wheel-to-wheel battle you do as a racing driver is a game of risk versus reward, and it’s clear that Seb would have been better off letting Lewis take the place at that moment. Being third on Lap 1 was going to be a lot better than facing the wrong way.


The next key point of the race came around the pit stops. Kimi and Lewis were driving beautifully up front in that opening stint. Mercedes told Lewis to do the opposite of Kimi on strategy, and when the Ferrari man pitted on lap 20, Lewis delivered three very strong laps on his worn super-softs. This was key to what happened to Kimi later in the race.

With any race tyre, in general, the more gently you use it during the early laps of its first heat cycle, the longer it will last. Because Lewis was pushing like crazy and able to deliver some very fast laps, Ferrari was forced to tell Kimi to push hard straight away, not allowing him to bring the tyres in gently. This meant that he started to get some blistering on the rear tyres sooner than they expected, and when Mercedes played the team card of backing Bottas up into Raikkonen, Kimi had to battle on in the dirty air, which didn’t help the blistering.

It was interesting to see how many people on social media were tweeting with comments like “Lewis only won that race because of the Mercedes team tactics.” I think that’s unfair. He won that race because Ferrari didn’t play the team tactics game as well all weekend and that started with the tyre choices. He won that race by being opportunistic and with calculated aggression on Lap 1. He won that race because he unleashed some impressive pace in those laps after Kimi’s pit stop and forced the Finn to go too hard too soon on his soft tyres.

It also really winds me up when people say we’re being biased towards Lewis. Last year, with seven races to go, Lewis led Sebastian by three points when Mercedes still had the faster car. This year, he’s 30 points in front when the Ferrari has been more competitive than in 2017. That’s not being biased — that’s just fact.<EP>I would actually have loved to see Kimi win in Monza, as I think he’s driving very well at the moment and it would have been a great story for F1.

When Seb and Ferrari won in Spa, we complimented them and the brilliant job they did. They’re going to need plenty more of those weekends between now and Abu Dhabi to turn around that deficit!

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