Kimi Raikkonen described his Chinese Grand Prix as “painful” and it’s not hard to understand why. After the first lap, Raikkonen had dropped from his front-row grid slot to a meager fourth. Then, when he emerged from his solitary pit stop on lap 27, the Ferrari was down in an effective P6…
How could a team with 67 years of Grand Prix experience behind them allow something like this to happen? Well, that’s because they eventually had no choice; at the time, it made sense for Ferrari to ruin the Chinese Grand Prix for Kimi Raikkonen.
Kimi Raikkonen ran the entire first stint in P4, a consequence of Vettel pinching him to the slower inside line of China’s never-ending first corner. Ahead of Raikkonen were formidable opponents; Max Verstappen in P3, Valtteri Bottas in P2 and his own team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, leading the race.
The Grand Prix changed on lap 17, though, when the Ultrasoft-clad Red Bull’s double-stacked and both drivers changed to the medium tires. It wasn’t time for anyone else to pit yet, because Ferrari and Mercedes were running the harder softs on both cars.
But that didn’t quite bother the two Mercedes drivers, as Hamilton, from P5, immediately changed to mediums on lap 18, with Bottas replicating the move a lap later. Mercedes decided to react to Red Bull’s undercut attempt.
When Hamilton was approaching pit lane, he was told to do the opposite of Raikkonen, who was 1.779s ahead. The Ferrari stayed out, so Hamilton dived in. Normally, Ferrari would cover Hamilton by pitting the next lap, but Ferrari were caught of guard, and this wouldn’t have made sense.
When Hamilton emerged on Lap 19, he instantly turned the tyres on and set the quickest second and third sector time of the race. And, if you combine those two sectors together, they were 1.891s quicker than those of Raikkonen.
Notably, Raikkonen was only 1.779s ahead of Hamilton when the Briton pit, meaning that it was almost definitive that Raikkonen would emerge from the pits behind Lewis Hamilton if he had pit a lap later. Mercedes had just caught Ferrari off-guard.
Upon seeing Hamilton’s medium pace, Bottas was pit by Mercedes on lap 19. This time Ferrari decided to react, considering that the gap between Vettel and Bottas was sitting at closer to 3.3 seconds, unlike the 1.7 second gap that Raikkonen and Hamilton had.
But, the undercut proved to be undeniably powerful. Bottas still managed to emerge ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and took the effective race lead.
“We were quite sure we would have come out in front,” Vettel said post-race, perhaps suggesting even Ferrari’s strategic department were shocked by Mercedes’ medium tyre pace.
By the time Vettel had lost the lead, every car in the top six, apart from Raikkonen, had pit for the mediums, and everyone was using them to good effect. Since he had not stopped, Raikkonen held the race lead, albeit on worn softs.
However, despite drastically slower pace, Raikkonen wouldn’t pit for another seven laps… Why?
A complete, decent pitstop in China is thought to cost each driver at least 23 seconds. It’s already been established that Raikkonen would’ve undoubtedly emerged behind Lewis Hamilton by reacting to the Mercedes pit stop. That means if Raikkonen had pit, he would’ve emerged an effective P5.
The only other driver Raikkonen risked losing out to was Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull, who had run in P6 throughout the first stint. On lap 19, the earliest feasible lap for Raikkonen to pit, the pit window was 24.856 seconds, meaning it would’ve been touch-and-go for Raikkonen to emerge ahead of the Red Bull.
By lap 21, Ricciardo was only 22.660s behind Raikkonen, meaning the Ferrari driver would’ve most likely emerged in P6. In a sense, the pit stops and undercuts happened so quickly that before Ferrari could decide what to do with Raikkonen, he was left effectively last of the top six drivers.
With Raikkonen’s race ruined by Ferrari’s misjudgments and lack of decisive action, the strategic department had nothing to lose with him, and decided to opt for the risky strategy of using Raikkonen as a roadblock.
The concept is simple; Raikkonen would stay out until he was caught by the effective leader, Bottas. Then, Raikkonen would hold up the leading Mercedes and allow Vettel to close the gap down and overtake Bottas. At which point, Raikkonen would pit and Vettel would become the race leader again.
The tactic is not unfamiliar in this era of racing; Mercedes tried it with Valtteri Bottas in 2017’s Spanish Grand Prix, and on that occasion, it allowed Lewis Hamilton to close an eight second gap down to just under five seconds.
But in the end, Raikkonen acting as a roadblock was unsuccessful for Ferrari as Vettel couldn’t actually get past Bottas. It did help Vettel get within the one-second threshold of the Mercedes driver, showing that the principle was there, but the overall execution didn’t work it.
That was likely down to Shanghai’s multiple overtaking areas, which made it easier for Bottas to negate Raikkonen’s attempted road block.
Once Bottas had got past Raikkonen, the Ferrari came into the pits and emerged in P6, with a relatively clear track in front of him. In the end, Ferrari’s decision to use Raikkonen as a roadblock (to help Vettel) didn’t actually cost Ferrari any positions.
If they had pitted on lap 20 or lap 27, the most likely eventuality is that Raikkonen would’ve come out in P6. However, in saying that, hindsight showed that if Raikkonen had just been behind Daniel Ricciardo, he would’ve timed the eventual safety-car perfectly.
This shows why it made sense for Ferrari to keep Raikkonen out for so long, because at the time Raikkonen’s race was over. He was always going to be P6, so Ferrari simply put him to good use to try and help Vettel steal back the Grand Prix win.
“This was a Grand Prix in which the many variables made the difference,” Ferrari Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene ironically said about Ferrari’s Chinese Grand Prix.