Inside the Race – Round 2: Malaysian Grand Prix

(Updated 4-14-11)


“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.


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  • The table above represents the top 10 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.
  • Saturday’s surprise was not that Sebastian Vettel recorded yet another pole position for Red Bull Racing, it was the qualifying pace of McLaren.  For a few brief seconds, it appeared that Lewis Hamilton was going to snatch pole position away from Vettel on a dry track under normal conditions; a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by anyone since last year’s Singapore Grand Prix.  However, Vettel was able to pull out an extra tenth on Hamilton on his final lap and extend his pole streak yet again.  Vettel’s last-lap dash was a blinder, with the young German leaving nothing on the track as represented by his matching fastest actual and optimal lap times.
  • Unlike Australia, where Vettel recorded all three fastest sector times, Hamilton pipped the reigning world champion in the final sector; a result of the McLaren package’s straight-line efficiency and the superiority of the Mercedes drivetrain.  But like Australia, Hamilton’s optimal lap time was even closer to Vettel’s pole time than his ultimate fastest lap showed.
  • With matching optimal and fastest laps as in Australia, Fernando Alonso wrung everything he could out of his Ferrari 150 Italia, but lost several tenths to the front row in each sector.  Felipe Massa also matched his potential in the sister Ferrari with similar results.  In fact, both Lotus Renaults and Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes matched their optimal and actual lap times as well.  Let’s take a look at the sector differential percentages to better evaluate where Ferrari are lagging behind the front-runners in qualifying:

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  • The table above represents the same drivers from the first table 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 Sepang circuit below:

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  • As is typically the case in modern Formula 1, Ferrari has admitted that a lack of downforce is the primary culprit for its relatively lack-luster qualifying performances so far this season.  The differential table above supports Ferrari’s position, indicating that Alonso and Massa lost roughly 50% of their time to Vettel in Sepang’s 2nd Sector.  It should come as no surprise that the 2nd Sector contains just about every downforce-dependent corner on the track, stretching from before Turn 4 through Turn 11.
  • But Ferrari was not alone in succumbing to the Red Bull RB7’s superiority in Sector 2.  The differential table clearly shows that every other package in the top 10 was outmatched by the RB7’s aero efficiency when Vettel needed it most.  In the case of McLaren, Hamilton’s middle sector amounted to 161% of his gap to pole due to a superior Sector 3 time, and Button lost 66% of his time in Sector 2 as well.
  • Although Mercedes is looking to generally add downforce as well, the team has also been struggling with its rear wing and DRS system since the beginning of the season.  Ross Brawn revealed before the Malaysian Grand Prix that the Mercedes DRS system has been resulting in a detachment of airflow from the wing when its deactivated, resulting in loss of rear downforce and likely contributing to Nico Rosberg’s Sector 2 time.  However, as revealed in the first table above, Rosberg also lost close to 6-tenths of a second in the final sector alone; a fact which clearly doesn’t make sense considering the superiority of the Mercedes engine/KERS combination.   Apparently, the Mercedes DRS system was also not activating properly for both Michael Schumacher’s final lap in Q2, and Rosberg’s final lap in Q3.  Therefore, Rosberg’s Sector 3 time provides a clear indication of just how much time can be gained or lost depending on the functionality of each team’s DRS system.
  • With each of the 2010 new teams managing to qualify for the Malaysian Grand Prix, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at how Team Lotus, Virgin, and HRT are getting along as they embark on their sophomore seasons:

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  • I chose to include the times of pole-sitter Vettel, the last two ‘established’ runners of Adrian Sutil and Pastor Maldonado, and the six drivers from each of the 2010 new teams.  The graphs above display the same qualifying time and sector information normally provided for the front-runners.
  • Of obvious note was the performance of Team Lotus following a rather disappointing 2010-esque qualifying in Australia.  Team Principal Mike Gascoyne was quick to note in Australia that the Team Lotus chassis was having exceptional difficulty warming its tires and that the team’s performance was not indicative of the strides made over the off-season.  Clearly the warmer conditions in Malaysia helped, as Heikki Kovalainen’s actual fastest lap was only 4-tenths off the time set by Maldonado.  Of particular note was that Kovalainen only lost 3-tenths to Sutil and the Force India package in the downforce-dependent 2nd Sector.  However, Gascoyne tipped off reporters that the team felt Kovalainen could have done even more if not for traffic on his last lap; possibly even enough to get out of Q3.  While initial reactions to such a statement were understandably skeptical, Kovalainen’s optimal lap time without a clear final-lap run was only 1-tenth off of Maldonado’s.  As will be shown later, Team Lotus’ pace in qualifying wasn’t a fluke and translated into a very respectable race for Kovalainen come Sunday.
  • While Team Lotus appears to have made the giant leap forward it had promised over the off-season, the same can’t be said for Virgin Racing.  The second-generation Nick Wirth-designed car is clearly not producing the same levels of downforce as its Lotus counterpart, and the team is in danger of even being caught on pace by HRT.  Timo Glock lost 7-tenths of a second to the Kovalainen Lotus in the second sector alone (translating to a whopping 2.5 second differential to Vettel), and one has to wonder whether the all-CFD approach of Wirth Engineering is outmatched by the performance levels required in F1.  In talking about Mercedes’ issues with their DRS system, Ross Brawn revealed just how important wind tunnel testing was to his team figuring out the system and its various compromises.  Clearly, something with the Virgin package is not quite right at the moment, and the team is pinning its future hopes on an update scheduled to arrive in time for the Turkish Grand Prix.


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  • The ultimate race contenders encompassing the top 6 finishers are displayed in the first race line plot.  The so-called ‘best of the rest’ are shown as compared to Felipe Massa’s race in the second.
  • Following a fairly tame Australian Grand Prix on the unique Albert Park layout, Malaysia and the series’ first visit to a Hermann Tilke-designed track produced what is likely to be the kind of race we can expect to see throughout the rest of the 2011 season.  While creating a much-improved show for spectators; from a strategy point of view, the addition of less-durable Pirelli tires, KERS and the DRS system resulted in a Grand Prix the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long, long time.  I could write a book about all that occurred on Sunday (I welcome any comments on things I did not touch on), so in an effort to limit length, I will try to keep my insights limited to the important stuff.
  • Going into the race weekend it was clear to all that the high temperatures and demanding nature of the Sepang circuit would result in at least one more pitstop than in the Australian Grand Prix.  However, the general development of the Malaysian round was quite similar to Australia; the name of the game being to effectively manage the Pirelli tires.  Managing the Pirellis is quickly shaping up to be a game of ‘chicken’, with each team trying to go as long as possible in their first stint before changing over to fresh rubber for the second.  The importance of going as long as possible in the first stint is down to the finite limitations of the Pirellis, in that everyone has referred to the Italian rubber having three distinct phases.  These phases were clearly indicated in the lap time progressions during each driver’s first stint of the Malaysian Grand Prix.  For those who watched the race on television, the Pirelli phases were referred to on the world feed by Vettel’s race engineer, who asked over the radio, “What phase are the tires in Sebastian?”  To which Vettel replied, “Phase one, beginning to enter phase two.”  Several laps later, Vettel made his third and final pitstop.  So just what are these “phases” in the Pirelli tire’s life?  Let’s take a closer look:
    • The first phase is a period of consistent performance that lasts for a variable duration of laps dependent on several factors, including: driving style, car characteristics, and track conditions.  For the majority in the line plot above, this period lasted until around laps 8-9.
    • The second phase is a period of consistent but manageable degradation that occurs over a fairly static 3-5 lap period.  In the race, this phase generally occurred between laps 9-12.  It appears that management of the second phase can be a significant performance differentiator as Button, Massa, and Alonso were able to close the performance gap to race leader Vettel during this period of the first stint.
    • The third phase is what is referred to as the “cliff”, and no amount of effort on the part of teams can stop its effects once it hits.  In the race, the cliff is represented in laps 12-14 just before the first round of pit stops.  The drop-off in lap times for everyone (besides the early-stopping Mark Webber) during this period is extraordinary uniform.
  • Once one understands each phase and how the teams try to manage them, understanding the general development of the rest of the race becomes quite simple in spite of the relative confusion on display Sunday.  Just take a quick look at the line plot again for each driver and you will recognize that each stint is an exercise in monitoring what phase the tire is in, with a goal of stopping just at the end of the tire’s second phase before reaching the cliff.
  • Before evaluating any further, let’s take a look at the stint bar graph for those who finished on the lead lap, in finishing order, with the lighter shade of blue once again indicating a stint on the soft option tire and the darker blue denoting a stint on the hard prime tire:

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  • As in Australia, the leading philosophy employed by teams was to run the option tire as much as possible, saving a single stint on the prime tire for the end of the race.  The definitive shelf-life of the Pirelli tire made each stint a game of chicken, as alluded to earlier.  In order to not run into the problem that will be further explained in relation to Hamilton’s race, each stint had to be extended as long as possible so as to avoid a fourth stop at the end of the race.  The only notable exceptions to that trend were Webber, who finished 4th, and Hamilton, who crossed the line in 7th but was later demoted to 8th following a post-race penalty.  Both drivers opted for a four-stop, option-option-option-prime-prime strategy; but let’s make clear that Webber’s four-stopper was the only true strategic decision between the two.  To help illustrate Webber’s strategy I have plotted polynomial trend lines to better show the pace progression of the top 6 finishers:

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  • Webber fell from 3rd on the grid to 9th at the end of the first lap due to his KERS failing to discharge.  With a car that was already low on top-speed as a result of the RB7’s abundance of downforce, Webber’s lack of KERS would make it nearly impossible to pass on-track during the rest of the race; a fact that was exhibited by his inability to get around Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber in the opening laps.  In response, Webber and his engineer made the decision to switch to a four-stop strategy to maximize outright performance, effectively using each set of Pirelli’s only for the their first phase.  As shown in the plot above, Webber parlayed his extra stop into being the fastest runner during the middle and final phases of the race.  The strategy worked to perfection, with Webber able to crawl his way back through the field to finish 4th just behind Heidfeld’s Lotus Renault.

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  • On the other side of the coin was Hamilton’s dramatic fall from a strong 2nd place position to crossing the line in 7th.  The plot above represents Hamilton’s race to that of teammate Button, who eventually finished in 2nd.  While many have second-guessed McLaren’s strategy calls on Sunday, others have indicated that Hamilton’s race was really compromised back on Saturday when he flat-spotted a set of option tires.  Not having a third set of options for the race meant that Hamilton had to adopt the prime tire at his second stop.  However, it’s notable that Hamilton’s pace on the prime tire during his third stint matched that of Button on the options.  In fact, what’s even more interesting is the near-identical pace and phase progression of Hamilton on the prime and Button on the option during the third stint.  As is visible in the plot above, where Hamilton’s fate was sealed was actually during his fourth stint on his second set of prime tires.  What initially doesn’t make sense is that Hamilton was around a full second a lap slower than Button during this stint, even though Button was also on prime tires.  There are two probable explanations for this phenomenon, the first being that Hamilton had previously used his second set of primes on Saturday and his tires were more worn.   The other explanation is that Button was just quicker on the prime tire, an explanation that is largely attributed to Button’s post-race comments about his car “coming alive” on the primes once he learned how to manage the tire over the course of his final stint. *

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  • Kamui Kobayashi replicated teammate Sergio Perez’s Australian strategy of stopping once less than the rest of the top 10 runners on his way to a 7th place finish.  The plot above shows Kobayashi’s race as compared to that of Felipe Massa, who was effectively the slowest of the leading three-stoppers.  Polynomial trend lines have been added to demonstrate the general pace trend for each driver.  Kobayashi’s race confirmed that the Sauber is indeed comparatively easy on its tires, with the young Japanese driver coaxing his tires through the Pirelli’s second phase longer than others in the field.

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  • Box plots are provided per the usual; the upper and lower ‘T’ lines on a box plot show 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), while the center ‘+’ denotes mean lap-time.
  • The box plots are supplementary to what has already been discussed above, and should provide the reader with a visualization of each driver’s effective operating range.  The first set of box plots displays the front-runners and the second encompasses the mid-field pack.

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  • Finally, I’ll wrap up this version of Inside the Race with a look at the race pace of the new teams in the same vein as I did for the 2010 Malaysian Grand Prix.  For the 2011 edition of the race, I plotted Kovalainen and Glock’s race line plots against those of Jaime Alguersuari and Nico Rosberg.  As compared to a similar line plot from 2010, it’s evident that both Team Lotus and Virgin have made significant strides since this time last last year.  While Kovalainen and Team Lotus had much to be proud of on Sunday evening, one has to wonder just how much the ill-fated two stop strategy employed by Toro Rosso contributed to Kovailanen breathing down Alguersuari’s neck as the checkered flag fell.

posted by Trey Blincoe

* Post-race reports have confirmed that Hamilton was indeed on a set of previously-used hard tires for his fourth stint.



Filed under Inside the Race

4 responses to “Inside the Race – Round 2: Malaysian Grand Prix

  1. Craig

    Great analysis, very cool stuff.

    One semi-related question though – on the FIA Race Lap Analysis sheet, the time for the first lap seems to be the actual time (h:m:s) that each car completes the lap, which seems odd (I notice you don’t include the times for Lap 1 on your plots). To get the time for the first lap, you can subtract the total time for laps 2-56 from the published total time of the race for each car, but this is a bit tedious. But anyway, just wondering if you know what the reasoning is behind this?

  2. Thanks for the kind words Craig! I appreciate the heads up on the first lap computation, I’ll see if excel will allow me to do that easily. I really have no idea why the FIA issues the times like that… it really doesn’t make any sense, does it?

  3. Tom

    Interesting analysis. Apparently Lewis just couldn’t get the used primes to work for his fourth stint (he was forced to take primes for his third stint because he’d damaged a set of softs in qualifying).

    All according to Adam Cooper, who always does a great job collaring the team bosses post-race (probably at the airport…):

    • Which was exactly what I wrote in relation to Hamilton’s race; it wasn’t until his 4th stint on the second set of primes that things really hit the fan. I’ve since read that the tires Hamilton fitted for his 4th stint were indeed a set of used prime tires, which would explain the fairly large lap time differences between he and Button. Thanks for the comment!

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