The race in Baku was cheated out of a grand finale. The question of whether Charles Leclerc could have defended his lead against Max Verstappen is also linked to the question of whether it was right to stop during the VSC phase. The tactics check provides the answers.
VSC phases are gifts for drivers whose pit stop timing ideally falls in such a race section with reduced race speed. In Baku, a tire change under VSC took ten seconds less time in relation to full race speed.
Of course only if you don't mess up the pit stop at the same time like Ferrari with Charles Leclerc and Red Bull with Sergio Perez. One stood 5.4, the other 5.7 seconds. In one case, the car that had already been processed was stuck on the jack stands, in the other an impact wrench did not work.
When Carlos Sainz parked his Ferrari in a run-off zone with hydraulic damage on the ninth lap, ten drivers gratefully accepted the gift. They all started out on medium tires.
Nine rounds was a bit early, but still tempting enough to accept the invitation. "If you know that the hard tire will survive a race distance, you do it," said the Mercedes strategists, who dispatched both cars with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen did the opposite of Leclerc
Ferrari also tried to use the VSC phase to their advantage. "It was close, but our strategists reacted correctly and brought Charles in," Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto praised his squad, who had to pick up so many slaps in the face in Monte Carlo.
Red Bull would have liked to do the same with Sergio Perez, but by the time the message reached the Mexican it was too late. Sometimes it would be better to encode your radio messages less. The opponent would have seen what Perez was up to anyway.
Max Verstappen was instructed to do the opposite of Leclerc. Understandable from his point of view, after he couldn't get past the Ferrari despite DRS and less tire wear on the medium rubber.
Leclerc switched to hard tires after nine laps and Verstappen only after 18. Red Bull is convinced that the tire delta would have been enough to catch Leclerc before the checkered flag. Ferrari doubts. The Ferrari harmonized better with Pirelli's C3 compound than with the medium version.
Alonso like Verstappen
Even if the cars are not comparable, you can reenact the scenario with Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso. Like Leclerc, Gasly used the first VSC phase to pit. Like Verstappen, Alonso waited until lap 18. After that, the Alpha Tauri driver was 17.9 seconds ahead of the Alpine. It was 11.3 seconds at the finish. So Alonso gained 6.6 seconds thanks to the fresher tires. That would not have been enough for Verstappen, because Leclerc had lost in the 19th minute.Round a cushion of 12.9 seconds on his World Cup opponent.
On the other hand, the Red Bull was the faster car on the medium tires. And Verstappen could have stayed closer to the Ferrari in the finale thanks to the fresher tires at turn 16 and then overtaken with his top speed advantage.
Ferrari was of the opinion that the race speed would have equalized on the hard tyres. This is countered by the fact that Perez started faster than Leclerc on his fresh hard tires. But the Ferrari driver was already driving with a view towards tire management. He knew that Verstappen would have more staying power.
Would Leclerc have used the second VSC phase?
Of course, those involved tend to believe that it would have been enough for their husband. So let's try a neutral judgement. The Mercedes command post has extrapolated that Verstappen would have just beaten Leclerc in the final.
But Leclerc would have won with every safety car. Since there was another VSC phase in round 32, the arithmetic example is even more difficult. Assuming a disadvantage of three tenths per lap on Verstappen, Leclerc would still have had nine seconds of air at the moment.
At the time, Verstappen had a lead of 10.0 seconds over Perez and 28.5 seconds over George Russell. Thanks to VSC, the world champion could easily have afforded a pit stop without losing space.
It would have been more difficult for Leclerc. If he invested the second VSC phase in a tire change, he would have risked the lead and would have had to take a medium set for the remaining 18 laps. He still had a fresh one up his sleeve.
Verstappen would probably have stayed behind and taken the lead with a lead of around six seconds. Now his tire disadvantage would not only have been the one step harder compound, but also a mileage of 15 laps.
Either way: It would have been a crazy exchange of blows in the last rounds. Perez would not have mattered. He was too slow. His car ate the rear tires. Team boss Christian Horner said that the Mexican had geared his setup a little too much towards one lap in qualifying.
Calculated risk for Hamilton
The second VSC phase was the pit stop order for seven drivers. Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and George Russell took the tire change without victims. They remained walled in their positions.
Lewis Hamilton knew he was going to lose a spot to Yuki Tsunoda. It was the perfect stroke of fate for Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon and Valtteri Bottas. They had started on hard tires and were now able to swap them out for the medium rubbers at the perfect time.
Hamilton's pit stop was a calculated risk."We knew that Alpha Tauri only had used soft tires up its sleeve and would therefore not come into the pits. We saw how much faster Albon became on fresh tires. We also knew that Lewis on the fresh tires one second per lap faster than the Alpha Tauri. The delta was enough for overtaking," the strategists explained.
Hamilton had Tsunoda right in front of him after the pit stop. It only lasted three laps and then it was over again. After that, there were still 15 laps to go to make up 9.3 seconds behind Gasly. After eight rounds the job was done. Which shows once again: Motorsport is a chess game with many variables. If you don't keep an eye on all 20 drivers, you will eventually make the wrong decision.
Ricciardo's move pays off
Mercedes briefly considered letting Hamilton start on the hard tyres, also because both cars were running with different ground specifications and set-ups. Nonetheless, it was abandoned. "The risk of losing places at the start was too great. And the chance of gaining positions through whatever strategy was too small."
It still paid off for Daniel Ricciardo. He was able to follow Lando Norris to the pit stop despite the harder tires and then pick up enough pace while the teammate got stuck in traffic. With the VSC bonus, Ricciardo got back on track ahead of Norris and was then even faster thanks to the medium tires. There was no more team play against Fernando Alonso.
Alonso quickly realized that it was pointless to follow Sebastian Vettel. The Aston Martin was two tenths faster per lap. With that, Alonso looked backwards. He protected his tires so efficiently that he was able to keep the McLaren at a distance in the final despite the older tires. When McLaren saw the hopelessness, they blew the stable management off again.
Sebastian Vettel mourned his failed attack on Ocon. "The slip into the emergency exit cost me seven seconds. Later I lost time again behind Ocon. I could have pushed Gasly from fifth place because I had even better tires."
The only factor of uncertainty: "The Alpha Tauri were extremely fast on the straights." Nevertheless, Vettel was able to draw a satisfied balance. His Aston Martin was trimmed for top speed and he still kept the tires in better condition than the Alpine, Alpha Tauri and McLaren.