Red Bull may have used the ‘clap’ and ‘fistpump’ emojis on Twitter to show positive feelings toward their stunning double podium in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, but is the result really worth celebrating?
In the end, a conservative approach to strategy seemed to stop Red Bull from getting at least one of their drivers ahead of eventual winner, Lewis Hamilton. Victory in this race would’ve handed Red Bull their first back-to-back race wins since 2014.
The crucial moment which cost Red Bull occurred during the first pit stop window, roughly half way into the race.
Although Pirelli predicted after qualifying that the race would see “two pit stops for most drivers” – the lateness in which the front runners came into the pits made it evident the race would become a typical one-stop.
Vettel’s retirement and Raikkonen’s lowly starting position also made it clear that Ferrari were not contenders in the Japanese Grand Prix. Instead, the battle for victory was clearly only ever between Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Max Verstappen of Red Bull.
The strategy unravels, but the bulls don’t pounce
Hamilton may have led the race from pole position, but, crucially, throughout the first stint he failed to bridge a gap to second placed Verstappen. Just six seconds separated the pair after the first twenty laps, and the small gap saw Red Bull attempt an undercut with Verstappen on lap 22.
Mercedes, however, reacted to Red Bull’s move quickly by pitting Hamilton on the very next lap. Suzuka’s immense tyre demands makes the undercut unusually strong, and consequently Verstappen’s mere one lap undercut was beneficial enough to hand the Dutchman roughly two seconds on Hamilton.
Following this sequence, the race lead now sat with Daniel Ricciardo, ahead of Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton and finally Max Verstappen. Hamilton was rather close to his soft tyre clad team mate, and subsequently he began losing time with the dirty air.
This was an important moment in Red Bull’s race because Mercedes appeared to be somewhat tripping over each other, and they were now effectively allowing Verstappen to bring himself right back into the effective battle for the lead.
But, here’s where Red Bull went wrong. This was the point where they essentially chose to give themselves a better chance of a double podium instead of a race win; the team decided to pit Daniel Ricciardo, just four laps after Verstappen and Hamilton had completed their stops.
This decision affected Verstappen hugely; two laps after Ricciardo stopped, Mercedes instituted team orders and allowed Lewis Hamilton to go past Valtteri Bottas. With Ricciardo having pitted, this released Hamilton into clean air instead of a Red Bull. Importantly, Hamilton could begin building a gap to Verstappen, who was still stuck behind Valtteri Bottas.
Ricciardo’s pit stop was a mistake because in this situation Red Bull could’ve used him as a road block to slow Lewis Hamilton down, in the exact same way Mercedes was now using Bottas to slow Verstappen down.
This maneuver has been commonly used in 2017, where teams deliberately use one driver to hold opponents up, for the benefit of their team mate. Mercedes used it perfectly in the Spanish Grand Prix whilst it worked wonders for Ferrari in Hungary.
However, Red Bull’s failure to implement such a strategy this weekend certainly cost them a shot at victory. In the time where Hamilton was able to run in clear air, instead of behind Ricciardo, Hamilton bridged a gap of just over three seconds to Verstappen, enough to keep him out of DRS range for the majority of the final stint.
So, why didn’t Red Bull implement the ‘road block’ strategy?
Only two real reasons exist as to why Red Bull didn’t actually decide to leave Ricciardo out in Japan.
Firstly, it’s more than likely that tyre wear played a role in this decision. Indeed, as aforementioned, even Pirelli were hesitant that a one stop would even be possible.
Had Red Bull left Ricciardo out, they would’ve realistically needed him to stay out to lap 34, to allow enough time for Verstappen to catch Hamilton. But, this would’ve been a whole nine laps after Ricciardo actually stopped, meaning the Australian would’ve had to take his supersofts over 30% longer than they actually went.
In fact, Ricciardo’s 25 lap stint on the supersofts was the longest of any driver in the field, somewhat proving that the tyre would’ve struggled to produce another nine laps. Because of this, Red Bull’s decision to pit Ricciardo when they did may have just been out of their hands, because his tyres simply wouldn’t have lasted long enough for the strategy to work.
Secondly, the only other clear reason Red Bull didn’t implement this strategy was because of team positions. If Red Bull left Ricciardo out, it would’ve been a clear case of the team benefitting one driver at the detriment of the other, in this case Ricciardo.
Unfortunately, Ricciardo is officially the ‘Number 1’ at Red Bull – and giving Verstappen a competitive advantage simply promised to create unnecessary friction within Red Bull.
Also, by implementing the ‘road block’ strategy, it would’ve most likely cost Daniel Ricciardo his position on the podium. By running him longer on worn tyres, Ricciardo would’ve lost major time to those who had already pitted.
In the end, Ricciardo finished the Grand Prix less than a second ahead of Valtteri Bottas, a result which wouldn’t have been possible if he had stayed out any longer.
Crucially, If the team had correctly implemented the strategy, handing a win to Verstappen and P4 to Ricciardo, the team would’ve scored four more World Championship points than their real life result of second and third.
However, with Ferrari over 90 points ahead in the Constructors Championship with just four rounds left, it makes it more clear as to why Red Bull would be hesitant to introduce a strategy which could upset a driver for a seemingly useless four point benefit.
To produce a more exciting Formula 1 race, it would’ve been great to see Red Bull implement a strategy which would’ve allowed them to take a stronger fight to Mercedes. However, from a team point of view – the strategy only risked raising tensions between their drivers and it’s entire success was hinged heavily on the major unknown factor of tyre wear.
Therefore, it makes sense that Red Bull didn’t use Ricciardo as a road block, but that doesn’t stop fans for wishing for closer competition…