F1 is not all about wheel to wheel racing and overtaking maneuvers. Degrading tyres, differing fuel loads and various other factors come into play which decide the outcome of a race and allow a racer to pass his opponents not just by the way of traditional overtaking on the track. This is the world of strategy where various permutations and real time analysis of track takes place to grab the first opportunity that’ll allow a team’s driver to emerge ahead of his rivals.
Strategy has always been an integral part of F1 but lately, its emphasis has been expounded more so because of various factors like increased level of downforce, different tyre loads, fuel limitations etc.
So here’s a take at the top 10 strategic wins in F1 that was the brainchild of a team’s finest strategists.
Spa that year was an oscillatory race in terms of weather. Following a wet-dry qualifying leaving the warring duo of Schumacher and Hill down the order, a number of drivers led the race before falling astray. Schumacher remained on track while Hill pitted for slicks. The weather decided to turn moody and it rained, prompting Hill to pit again for Wets. Schumacher showcased his brilliant wet weather skills to keep the Williams driver at bay on worn out slicks. The rain stopped, favoring the slicks enabling Schumacher to pass forcing Hill to pit again for slicks.
Rain again intensified and following the emergence of safety car, the Maranello based squad, which has been patiently weathering the conditions, pitted Schumacher first beating the Williams when they rejoined track. Hill’s stop go penalty meant any chances of winning the Grand Prix was lost for the Englishman.
2015 had started with the usual Mercedes running away with the top spots. Ferrari had risen from the ashes of its annus horribilis to be the best of the rest but Vettel’s 30 second gap at the end of the race to winner Hamilton showed that the fight was goin to be between the Mercs only. Come Malaysia though, no one knew a surprise was in store. A wet qualifying resulted in Vettel splitting the two Mercs to take 2nd. Race day was completely dry, with temperatures soaring to as high as 61 degrees.
The race started with the top 3 being the same until lap 4 when Ericsson spun causing a safety car. Almost everyone pitted for fresher tyres but Ferrari, who knew their car was easier on the tyres and as a result their degradation level were lesser than their rivals and more so in Malaysia’s scorching heat, played their strategic ace and kept Vettel out. The Mercedes emerged at 6th and 7th and were in 2nd and 3rd by lap 10 and 14 respectively, by which time Vettel had a 10 second lead over Hamilton. The Briton pushed hard but was unable to get closer to the German.
Vettel made his first pit stop and emerged 3rd and within 4 laps overtook Rosberg and 2 laps later almost overtook Hamilton but the latter dived into the pits. At this point, Ferrari’s superiority on hotter conditions and their low level of tyre degradation became apparent to the whole world. Vettel pitted one last time and claimed the lead again when Hamilton pitted a lap later by 12 seconds. Hamilton after his pit stop started to close the gap but his pace stabilized soon enough and Vettel crossed the line 8.5 seconds ahead of Hamilton to score an emotional win both for himself and Ferrari.
The 2009 race is also one of the races that showed the importance of getting the right strategy to win. Circuit de Catalunya is famous for being notoriously difficult to overtake, prompting teams to devise strategies and pit stops in a manner to pass their opponents. On Saturday, Button took the pole while team mate Barrichello taking 3rd with Vettel splitting the two. At the race however, Barrichello took the lead and was looking set for the win till the first round of pit stops where it became evident that he was on a three stop strategy.
Button on the other hand opted for a two stop. Barrichello’s strategy never materialized as he was not fast enough for that extra stop and as a result, came out in 5th after the second round of pit stops. Button had chosen a better strategy and took the lead. With fresher tyres from a third pit stop, Barrichello was able to move up to 2nd place but it was Button who took the top step.
1996 Spain is special in many regards. It was Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari and also earned him the nickname ‘Regenmeister’ or Rain Master.
Qualifying was held on a dry track resulting in Schumacher on 2nd row. But on Sunday it rained like there was no tomorrow. Schumacher played a strategic gamble and opted for a full wet setup and a 2 stop before the race. The race started with Hill spinning into the pit wall on lap 12. Schumacher had a poor start but as the race progressed wherein the rain refused to show any signs of slowing down, Schumacher’s gamble shined as a masterstroke as he carved through the field taking the lead on lap 13 and dominating the race from then on, lapping over 3 seconds a lap quicker than his rivals at one point of time.
The 1998 British Grand Prix is not included in this list because it entails a brilliant strategy employed during the race, but because of how Ferrari exploited a loophole in the rules to their strategic advantage ensuring Schumacher’s win. The race started on a damp track with almost everyone starting the race on intermediates and switching to wets on lap 16. Hakkinen, who lead the race, spun 360 degrees on lap 41 damaging his front wing.
A safety car was employed and Hakkinen’s lead was washed away. On lap 52, he made a mistake again enabling Schumacher to take the lead. 2 laps from the finish, Schumacher was slapped with a stop go penalty. This would have resulted in Schumacher losing the lead of the race. Ferrari displaying their strategical wit called the German to the pits to serve his penalty in the last lap. He did so and dived into the pits and in the process, crossed the finish line and won the Grand Prix sitting in the pits.
While strategies can be used to gain positions and beat rivals, they can be used in an unfair manner to influence the result. 2008 Singapore is one such example. During the inaugural race, Massa had scored the pole with Hamilton 2nd and Kimi 3rd. The race began with intense action in the mid field while the leaders positions being unchanged. The closed circuit nature of the track proved overtaking to be extremely risky and difficult.
On lap 14 Piquet Jr. crashed bringing out the safety car and everyone pitted. The pit saw a messy incident with Massa which earned him a drive through penalty and destroyed his race while on track, Rosberg lead Trulli and Fisichella. Rosberg served his drive through penalty a lap later and joined behind Alonso in 4th. Trulli pitted 4 laps later, handing the lead to Alonso with the Spaniard never relinquishing the lead again going on to win the race with Rosberg in 2nd and Hamilton in 3rd.
However Piquet Jr. left the Renault Team in 2009 August amid ripe allegations that he had deliberately crashed out of the race to bring out a safety car and in the process, hand out an advantage to team mate Alonso who was the only driver at that point to have pitted. FIA launched an investigation where Piquet accepted to have done so following orders from team boss Flavio Briatore and engineer Pat Symonds.
2016 Spain is going to be remembered for years to come for the young Verstappen becoming the youngest ever race winner. With the 18 years minimum age limit and super licensing placed in effect from last year, Verstappen record is guaranteed to remain unbeaten. Qualifying was an entertaining event with Rosberg looking all set to claim pole, only being denied so by a late clean lap by Hamilton and the Red Bulls beating Ferrari to claim 2nd row for themselves.
Come the race, Rosberg took the lead at turn one but the pair dramatically collided at turn three to take each other out. It had been joked about a lot and the pair had banged wheels in the past but never had they collided in such a spectacular fashion taking both the cars out of race, with the closest being 2014 Spa when Rosberg took out Hamilton.
With Mercs ruled out of the race, the battle immediately intensified between Ferrari and Red Bull-both on the track and off it-to win the race. Amid all the collision drama, Sainz had jumped past Vettel while Raikkonen, suffering from a poor start, was down the grid behind his compatriot Bottas. Once the safety car was in, the race restarted and by lap 10 the top 4 finally settled into place and Ferrari began to close in.
Coming to the race, a three stop strategy was thought to be the best one and Red Bull placed race leader Ricciardo on such a strategy on lap 25 and so did Ferrari to Vettel. But the German pitted within 8 laps and undercut the Red Bull to claim P3. While Verstappen on a 2 stop strategy did everything right and withstood Raikkonen’s pressure for 10 laps to take the win, which forever entered his name in the annals of the sport’s history.
A strategy will always influence the outcome of a race, a good one can even result in wins and bad ones can rob you off what looked like a cruise to victory. It can even decide championships as it did in 2010.
Coming to the last race, Fernando Alonso was the championship leader with an 8 point lead over 2nd placed Webber and 15 points over Vettel. Alonso had to finish 2nd or higher to win the championship and he looked set to do so as he qualified 3rd on the grid, with Vettel on pole and Hamilton in 2nd.
On Sunday, the race started but Alonso slipped to 4th. Schumacher spun collecting Luizzi bringing out the safety car. At this point 6 drivers pitted – Rosberg, Petrov, Alguersuari, Bruno Senna, di Grassi and Klein, and this set in motion the turn of events that would go on to rob Alonso of his 3rd title. At lap 19, Alonso pitted in what was a poor strategy by Ferrari as this resulted in him coming out on track at 13th place behind the already pitted Renault of Petrov. Alonso and Webber battled with Renault but were unable to pass him till the end of the race. While out in front, Vettel was back in the lead again at lap 40 after Button pitted and crossed the line first without a clue that he had won the championship and by doing so, beating Hamilton’s record of Youngest world champion by 165 days.
The Malaysian Grand Prix that year looked to be a straightforward Ferrari 1-2 when the Ferrari locked the front grid and lead from the start till lap 3, when rain arrived and the Ferrari duo slipped onto the gravel. They rejoined the track but Barrichello was ahead and they immediately went to the pit while a safety car was deployed to cope up with the heavy rains.
The Ferraris had a terrible pit stop losing over a minute with both the cars. But at this point, the Maranello squad interpreted the weather correctly and went for the intermediates whereas everyone else had went for full wets. The two men joined 10th and 11th. At that point, Ferrari’s decision looked as if it might backfire but the safety car was out till conditions were raceable again and by the restart, the conditions were perfect for the intermediates resulting in the decision turning into a masterstroke. Schumacher overtook his teammate and the duo then went on to slice through the field resulting in a 1-2 for Ferrari.
Last year’s British grand prix can be said to be in the words of Sir Jackie Stewart a classical British grand prix. The race had everything from first lap surprises to a late rain, but the star of the show was the strategical brilliance of Mercedes and later Hamilton resulting in it being the highlight of a decent season. Qualifying was a usual affair with Mercedes locking the front grid with the Williams on 2nd row. The race however was far from it.
At the start, Massa jumped Hamilton to take the lead while Bottas jumped Rosberg to go third. Incidents at the back of the field meant a safety car was deployed. Hamilton attacked immediately and ran wide, allowing Bottas to take P2. The Grove based team had always suffered when it comes to strategy decisions and this race was no exception as they imposed a team order to avoid their drivers from racing each other. Mercedes went for the undercut on lap 20 with Hamilton. Williams till this point had been conservative and instead of seizing the moment and pitting accordingly, decided for a reactive strategy. When Hamilton pitted, Massa was called to the pits in the next lap while Bottas a lap later, allowing Hamilton to post a fast outlap and take the lead. What could have been a 1-2 slipped away from Williams because of a conservative strategy.
The rain appeared at around lap 35 and this exposed the weakness of the FW37 as Rosberg overtook both the Williams within 3 laps. The rain started to get stronger but the track was not wet enough for the intermediates. While every other driver struggled, Rosberg came on in his own groove and started to eat into Hamilton’s lead significantly reducing it to mere 3 seconds by lap 43. It was speculated that he’ll catch the Briton in the same lap and would easily overtake him.
But it is the drivers who have to improvise their strategy according to track conditions. Hamilton read the track correctly and immediately pitted for intermediates and it proved to be a correct decision as the rain got stronger at the same time with everyone pitting the next lap for intermediates allowing Hamilton to take the lead from Rosberg and winning by a 9 second lead.