Inside the Race – Round 1: Australian Grand Prix

(Updated 4-4-11)


“Inside the Race” features performance-based analysis of selected races during the Formula 1 season. The data sets utilized for the Inside the Race features are the official timing tables supplied by the FIA.  Typically, only representative race laps are included in the analysis as the focus is primarily on evaluating on-track performance; therefore, laps skewed by pit stops, safety car periods, or significant on-track incidents are generally not included.


(click to enlarge)

  • The table above represents the top 8 drivers on the starting grid from left-to-right, with the best sector times, fastest optimal lap, and fastest actual lap displayed from top to bottom for each entry. Bold numbers indicate fastest sector, fastest optimal lap, and fastest actual lap.
  • Sebastian Vettel’s dominance on Saturday is clearly evident from the fact that he recorded all 3 fastest sectors for the fastest optimal lap time, as well as the fastest actual qualifying lap.
  • Lewis Hamilton’s optimal lap time was actually quite closer to the pace set by Vettel than otherwise shown by his fastest actual qualifying lap, which should serve as further encouragement for McLaren following a lackluster showing in pre-season testing.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Ferrari and Fernando Alonso’s qualifying performance was decidedly less impressive than predicted.  Of particular concern for Ferrari should be the fact that Alonso’s fastest actual qualifying lap was also his optimal lap time; signifying that the Spaniard left nothing on the track that could account for the gap to rivals Red Bull and McLaren.  In the near term, the Prancing Horse is hoping that their subdued performance in Australia was track and condition-specific.

(click to enlarge)

  • The table above represents the same top 8 qualifying drivers and the relative percentage each sector time contributed to their overall gap to the optimal lap time set by Sebastian Vettel.  To help aid the reader’s understanding of each sector’s layout differences, I’ve posted a track map of the Albert Park circuit below:

(click to enlarge)

  • Clearly, Vettel and the Red Bull RB7 held a massive comparative advantage in the final Sector; accounting for anywhere between 56-72% of Vettel’s full lap advantage over rivals from other teams.  While it may not be entirely obvious based on the track map above, many observers, including McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, noted that Sector 3 at Albert Park is the most downforce-dependent sector of the three.  For the past two seasons its been clear that Adrian Newey’s designs have been the downforce leaders in the field, and as the 2011 season begins, it appears that nothing has changed in that department.  Look out for Red Bull at the next round in Malaysia, as aero grip is at an especially high premium there (when there’s not a monsoon to contend with).
  • A talking point in Australia was Mark Webber’s consistent lack of comparative pace to teammate Vettel in both qualifying and the race.  From the differential table above, Webber lost the vast majority of time over 2/3 of the lap; which is very atypical for past comparisons between the dueling Red Bull teammates.  As will be shown later, Webber also suffered from tire degradation in the race far and above the levels experienced by Vettel.  At the weekend’s conclusion, Webber informed the media that he pulled off the track immediately upon crossing the finish line as a precautionary measure because he felt something was just not right with his chassis.  Red Bull confirmed it would be conducting a full strip-down of Webber’s car, and there are unconfirmed reports that the team has already found a mechanical issue that was the culprit of Webber’s problems in Australia.  Point of all this being that its far too soon to write Webber off as a non-contender to Vettel.*
  • One last piece of insight to be gleaned from the differential table is the inference that can be drawn from the percentage gaps of Alonso, Felipe Massa, and Nico Rosberg in Sectors 1 and 3.  It was fairly evident to many observers and partially confirmed by both teams that Ferrari and Mercedes struggled with correctly setting-up the new Pirelli tires.  To be sure, many people, including Pirelli themselves, were surprised by the performance characteristics of the new Italian rubber in Melbourne.  However, it appeared that in the two Sectors requiring the best corner-exit traction, Ferrari and Mercedes were particularly slow.


(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

  • The top five finishers are represented in the first line plot, while finishers 6-10 are displayed in the second.  The line plots are fairly self-explanatory in terms of displaying lap time developments over the course of the race, but here are a few insights worthy of note:
    • Hamilton was able to match Vettel’s pace through the majority of the first two stints, and only began to fall back from Vettel after damaging his car’s undertray on lap 28.  One can understand McLaren’s post-race confidence that they can catch Red Bull in race conditions based on the fact that the ultimate gap between Hamilton and Vettel was the product of Hamilton losing periodic chunks of time in the second half of the race; presumably due to the British driver nursing a damaged car.  However, it remains to be seen just how hard Vettel was pushing during the race.
    • Lotus Renault’s Vitaly Petrov put in an impressive podium performance following a difficult rookie campaign, and it appears that the Renault package is on-pace with the offerings from Red Bull, McLaren, and Ferrari at the start of the 2011 season.  From the line plot, Petrov was clearly in cruise mode during the first half of the race after finding himself in an uncontested third position, and therefore his times were not that impressive.   However, as the three-stopping Alonso and Webber began to close in on Petrov during the final third of the race, the Russian driver, on older rubber none-the-less, was able to match the pace of those behind and even run faster than Vettel and Hamilton ahead.
    • The Jenson Button/Felipe Massa scrap during the first stint of the race, resulting in Button being assessed a drive-through penalty, masked Button’s true pace in comparison to the leaders ahead.  Button’s line plot shows that his times were also the most consistent, only adding to the theory that Button’s smooth and controlled driving style is especially easy on his tires.  With the premium placed on tire management in 2011, Button could be a man to watch as the season progresses.
    • Although it was clear the team had a relatively strong package in pre-season testing, Sauber’s performance in Australia was truly impressive; regardless of the team’s eventual disqualification from the race results for a rear-wing technical infringement.  Of particular note in the line plot is Sergio Perez’s outright pace following his one and only stop for the softer option tire.  Perez was able to match the pace of Button on two sets of tires, a fact that nobody, not even Sauber or Pirelli, can truly understand.
  • More importantly for upcoming races, both line plots show what will likely be the general pace progression of races and individual stints for the remainder of the 2011 season.  A graph depicting stint lengths and tire selections of the top finishing drivers, in order, is provided below with the lighter shade of blue denoting a stint with the softer ‘option’ tire and the darker blue denoting a stint with the harder ‘prime’ tire:

(click to enlarge)

  • Although the performance characteristics of the Pirelli control tire are bound to change from race-to-race as F1 visits different tracks and the Italian manufacturer develops its compounds and constructions, there is much to be gleaned from the stint chart when viewed in conjunction with the line plots above.
  • Unchanged from last season is the fact that fuel burn-off continues to dictate overall pace and tire compound selection in the no-refueling era.  During the 2010 season, teams learned that the effects of fuel weight destroyed either available compound of tire during the first 1/4 of every race.  As such, teams were in the general habit of starting races on the option tire before switching to the prime somewhere past the 1/4 distance, at which point the prime tire could effectively last the remaining distance.  It appears that the same general thought-process will win-out in 2011 with the Pirelli tire, although the actual execution will be somewhat different due to the addition of at least one more stop per race.  Most telling of the prime tire’s continued inability to withstand the effects of fuel weight was Mark Webber’s adoption of the prime tire at his first stop on lap 11, only to stop again for fresh rubber 15 laps later.  To further illustrate the point, below is a line plot comparing the two-stop, option-option-prime strategy of Vettel to the three stop, option-prime-option-option strategy of Webber.  Polynomial trend lines were also added to better show that the performance trend differences were ultimately a push between the two strategies, which put Webber at a substantial disadvantage due to the added time of an extra pit-stop:

(click to enlarge)

  • 2010 featured the odd-exception to the aforementioned general consensus on tire strategy, and such an exception was on display in 2011’s first race.  As previously mentioned, Sauber’s Sergio Perez was able to parlay a one-stop, prime-soft strategy into a remarkable 7th place finish in his debut F1 grand prix.  The line plot below compares Perez’s race to that of teammate Kamui Kobayashi, who employed the standard two-stop, option-option-prime strategy.  Once again, polynomial trend lines were added to show that the performance trends between the two strategies were essentially equal, despite Perez gaining significant track time from making one less pit-stop:

(click to enlarge)

  • Most surprising is Perez’s raw speed on his worn soft tires during the last 1/3 of the race distance.  While there was conjecture in the paddock after the race that the Sauber is particularly easy on its tires, that fact alone cannot fully explain the unexpected success of Perez’s one-stop strategy.   To further illustrate, the line plot below compares Perez’s 2011 race to the one-stop performance of Jenson Button on a drying track at last year’s Australian Grand Prix.  Remember again that Perez’s final stint is on the 2011 Pirelli option tire while Button’s times were set on the ultra-durable Bridgestone prime tire:

(click to enlarge)

  • In a final Perez-related note, the inferences to be drawn by comparing the two Sauber teammates’ races are surely tantalizing for mid-field teams that don’t make it to Q3 and can thereby elect to start on the prime tire.  It will be quite interesting to see whether others attempt to replicate Perez’s Australian Grand Prix strategy in the upcoming races.
  • The outright performance of the Pirelli tire also caught everyone off-guard in Australia, including Pirelli.  In qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, the Pirelli tire produced times that were on par with those set on Bridgestones in 2010, despite the fact that the Pirellis had proven to be at least 1-2 seconds slower than the Bridgestones in pre-season testing.  That trend continued to the race, as shown below by comparing the line plots of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton’s 2010 races to those of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso in 2011:

(click to enlarge)

  • One last analysis tool, box plots, are provided below.  The best way to think of a box plot is as a depiction of a driver’s effective operating range.  Each box plot displays several pieces of information: the upper and lower ‘T’ lines show the minimum and maximum lap-times; the upper and lower reaches of the bars show the first and third quartiles of the lap-time data set (or in other words a 25-75% range); and the center ‘+’ denotes mean lap-time:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

  • In the first box plot, the front-runners are displayed in finishing order from left to right, and the midfield is displayed in the same order in the second plot.  The information displayed should be fairly self-explanatory; however, keep in mind the effects of a third pit-stop for fresh tires when comparing Alonso and Webber’s times to the others in the front-running group.

posted by Trey Blincoe

* Update: In a news report posted by Autosport on April 4th, Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner confirmed that his team had conducted a strip-down of Mark Webber’s chassis following the Australian Grand Prix.  No outright mechanical defects were uncovered, but several “setup” issues were found which Horner believes could have contributed to Webber’s lack of comparative pace and excessive tire wear.


Leave a comment

Filed under Inside the Race

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s