The safety car on lap 18 made strategic decisions for most teams. Nevertheless, questions remain. Why did most people choose a one-stop race despite 56 degrees on the asphalt, whether Charles Leclerc would have won and what would have been in it for Carlos Sainz?
In this heat, everyone would have bet on a two-stop race. Even Pirelli's head of sport, Mario Isola, doubted whether the drivers would be able to complete the distance with a stop. "That's only possible with a lot of tire management. The tires heat up in the long corners and hardly lose any temperature because of the great heat on the straights. So they're under constant stress."
In favor of a one-stop race was the fact that the race control extended the 60 km/h zone in the 424 meter long pit lane at short notice and thus extended the pit stop, which was already long. The time lost during a tire change increased from 28 to 31 seconds. "Your tires can't degrade so much that you lose this time on the track," explain the Mercedes strategists.
Only four drivers with two stops
So it was practically the law to change tires in the safety car phase on lap 18 and then to hold out until the bitter end. A bit early, but doable, as demonstrated by twelve of the 16 drivers in the classification. Only Carlos Sainz, Valtteri Bottas, Mick Schumacher and Guanyu Zhou took the detour via the pit lane twice.
Most teams had already decided to go for a one-stop race after ten laps. The tires degraded less than expected. Also with Max Verstappen, who was one of the first drivers to turn into the pit lane on lap 16. "It was the earliest possible time for a stop. Because Leclerc had pulled away and we saw a gap in the traffic, we hit the undercut," explained Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.
Verstappen had already virtually overtaken Charles Leclerc after half a lap. But Ferrari didn't even think about bringing its star driver into the pits. He should stay on the track as long as possible to force Verstappen to attack and to make the tire delta as large as possible. It didn't come to that. Two laps after Verstappen's pit stop, Leclerc sailed into the tire wall of the Le Beausset curve.
Leclerc with Verstappen tactics
This automatically leads to the question of whether Leclerc would have caught up with and overtaken the Red Bull. "It would have been a great duel," believes Verstappen. But then, as is so often the case, opinions diverge. Red Bull believe the top speed advantage would have been enough to fend off even a faster Ferrari.
Ferrari refers to the example of George Russell and Sergio Perez. Russell almost got past Perez once before the chicane. Despite worse top speed. The Ferraris were equal to the Red Bulls with open DRS.Sainz was stopped at 344.4 km/h, Perez at 341.8 km/h.
Mercedes sees another advantage for Leclerc. "The tire delta and the faster car would have given him more strategy options. Leclerc could have stopped a second time if he had caught up with Verstappen again. He still had a second set of mediums up his sleeve. Then the tire advantage would be right in the end been big." We remember: Verstappen used exactly this tactic to bring Lewis Hamilton to his knees in 2021.
Why didn't Hamilton benefit from the free stop?
After the World Cup runner-up dropped out, Max Verstappen had a clear run. Although the whole pack behind him got free stops during the neutralization and the world champion fell back after his early stop under race pace in 7th place, 27.4 seconds behind the leaders, he was ahead at the restart. Even Mercedes believed that at least Hamilton should have benefited from the free tire change.
The jubilarian was initially 7.0 seconds behind Verstappen, after his tire change 17.2 seconds ahead of him. Still it wasn't enough. The Mercedes strategists list two reasons. "Lewis was right on the limit where it could work. But Max did two extremely strong laps on the fresh tires before the safety car. With all the traffic in the pit lane, we didn't have the ideal transit time." Comparing the two IN laps, Hamilton lost 7.0 seconds to Verstappen, 1.9 seconds in the drive-through time and 0.7 seconds in the OUT lap.
The Mercedes needed eight laps with the medium tires until the gap to the front stabilized. On the hard tires, Hamilton was only able to keep up with Verstappen's lap times after 22 laps. Was it due to less tire wear? "It's also possible that Verstappen only adjusted his pace to Lewis and spared the tires. Perez had more trouble with the tires, but that wasn't a benchmark that day."
Sainz overtakes 16 times
The fear of too much tire wear with a remaining distance of 33 laps caused the race to fall asleep a bit after the restart. Only Sainz provided entertainment with his race to catch up. The early safety car was inconvenient for him. Like Valtteri Bottas and Pierre Gasly, he had started on hard tires and wanted to ride them for as long as possible. The medium tires weren't actually capable of 33 laps. Gasly still petted her to the finish.
However, the Alpha Tauri pilot drove a different race than Sainz. Gasly was stuck in a DRS move in midfield most of the time. Sainz was faced with the task of driving as far forward as possible from the last row of the grid. The motto was attack. Sainz made up eight positions on the hard tyres, five with the first set of medium and three with the second set. 16 overtaking maneuvers in one race stamped him as "driver of the day".
Ferrari made life difficult for his number two. The pit stop lasted 3.7 seconds. The driver's fuses blew. Sainz maneuvered himself into the traffic in the pit lane and drove right in front of Alexander Albon. That was a five-second penalty. What followed was a piece of comedy. Sainz and his race engineer spent many laps discussing whether and when a second pit stop should be made.
Second Sainz stop eight laps too late
Ferrari decided to change tires for the second time on lap 42. According to experts, eight laps too late. With just eleven laps to go, Sainz was only able to overtake the two McLarens and Fernando Alonso. He would have done that even if he had stopped earlier. To get past George Russell and Sergio Perez on the podium, he would have needed more time at 30 seconds behind.
Sainz drove an average of 1.7 seconds faster in the final than the Mercedes and Red Bull in front of him. He came within 11.5 seconds. Had Ferrari cleared the Spaniard on lap 34 he would have fallen 28 seconds behind Russell and Perez but would have had more cars ahead after that. Instead of 9th place, he would probably have returned to the track in 13th place behind Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas. Had he been able to keep up the pace for 19 laps, Sainz would at least have made it into the slipstream of the podium contenders.
Ferrari race director Mattia Binotto refuses to speak of a strategic error: "We extended Carlos' stint to get as much information as possible about tire wear. We then realized that the tire wasn't going to last until the end. If we stayed outside it would have been a safety hazard."
Staying outside would not have been an option even without the safety concerns. "Carlos' race pace on the old tires wasn't good enough to give him a lead of more than five seconds over Perez and Russell. Without a pit stop, he would have had to equalize his penalty. That's how we turned the fastest race lap and one Point won for the driver and the team."