Max Verstappen made a mistake over the limit of the track, but Lewis Hamilton’s victory also came from the strategy his team showed at the opening stage of F1 season 2021.
Verstappen won the pole, but his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez – had to start from the pit lane. Thus, with the two W12s starting right after, Mercedes has a variety of strategic options through Valtteri Bottas’ decoy role. Not allowing Verstappen to increase the distance at an early stage was key for the German team to win, as it allowed them to develop a bold tire tactic.
The fact that the car is safe and the status of a virtual safe car continuously deployed in the first rounds makes Mercedes’ choice even more convenient. Meanwhile, Verstappen’s RB16B, despite its near-perfect performance at the test stage, had a problem with the differential that made the Dutch racer somewhat difficult in the first track of the lap. That may not be the deciding factor, but enough for Hamilton to add confidence early in the race.
Mercedes’s plan is to put Hamilton in as soon as possible tire changes in both tire changes, to take the lead on the track from Verstappen on the first pit, and put Red Bull in a chase. phase overtaking on the track. The plan worked, when Verstappen entered the pit five laps behind Hamilton.
In response to Mercedes’ decision – to put Hamilton into the pit early in the 13th round when the distance was only 1.7 seconds, Red Bull changed tactics. They prioritized reinforcing the advantage of the tire’s life, instead of promoting the advantage of speed, in order to turn around at the end of the race.
Tires were another key factor that helped Hamilton and Mercedes beat Red Bull. Aside from AlphaTauri, Mercedes is the only team to keep each racer with two completely new sets of hard tires. The hard tires here are the longest of the three tires used in Sakhir. Thus, Hamilton can run the last 28 laps – half the length of the race – with hard tires using the Soft-Hard-Hard tire strategy. Meanwhile, with only one new set of hard tires, Verstappen adopts the Soft-Medium-Hard strategy.
In the second tire change, Hamilton returned to the pit early in the 28th round, before Verstappen could come close to surpassing and regaining the first place. Thus, once again Red Bull had to focus on optimizing the life of the current set of tires, increasing the tire differential for attack at the end. But Mercedes has prepared a hurdle for Verstappen.
Mercedes’s idea was to use Bottas, who was running right behind Verstappen at the time, to force Red Bull into the pit earlier than expected. When Bottas returned to pit in the 30th round, the Finnish driver was able to leap past Verstappen the same way Hamilton did at the beginning of the race. If so, Red Bull was forced to react by placing Verstappen in the pit right after to avoid falling to third. But by doing that, the tire advantage that Red Bull intended for the end of the race is consumed.
Red Bull fell into a dilemma. If they pit to follow the opponent, they lose the tactical advantage of chasing from the beginning. But if Verstappen continues to stay in the track, it is likely that Verstappen will fall behind Bottas, the chance and time for the Dutch driver to go upstream will be reduced. However, Red Bull was lucky, because a tire change problem caused Bottas to lose about 8 seconds in the pit. Thanks to that, the Austrian team only needs to focus on chasing Hamilton ahead.
So Red Bull and Verstappen continued to follow the original plan, extending the second tire use time to round 39. And after returning to the track, Verstappen ran just 8.8 seconds behind Hamilton, but with 11-round newer tire set. This advantage helps the distance between the two leading riders quickly narrow to about 1 second after only about 10 laps.
“I thought ‘God, there’s no way we can win when these tires explode’, especially in the last 10-15 rounds. But it was not the first time I had such a problem,” Hamilton recalls. I tried to find the right balance for the situation: trying to keep the tires, but still maintaining performance. However, with the advantage of the newer tire, Verstappen soon caught up. “
The tactics of both Red Bull and Mercedes went as planned at the end of the race. Hamilton leads the way, but the Verstappen has a faster car and newer tires. A big chance for Verstappen came in the 53rd round when he overtook Hamilton on the outside of Turn 4. But because he ran too wide, out of bounds, the Red Bull had to return the lead to his opponent.
A series of handling small mistakes then degraded Verstappen’s tires. The Dutch driver, therefore, cannot afford to perform more attacks in the remaining time.
After the race, Verstappen also had to admit Red Bull had lost tactically. “I think, tactically, we’re going to have to analyze what can be done better. We don’t have the same amount of tires they had so we weren’t really as flexible on the tactics,” he said. We will be very happy with the results like this, but now we’re really disappointed. “
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