by Paolo Aversa
Once again Ferrari, one the wealthiest, most experienced, and most awarded teams took a wrong decision during a critical situation, and paid an outrageously high price for it.
Fact. Alonso nudged Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull at turn 2 on the opening lap, damaging the Ferrari’s front wing. The team left Alonso out, waiting for the chance to change to dry tyres, but the wing failed completely at the start of lap two, putting the Spaniard out (source: Autosport). Result: since Massa could not do better than 5th place, Ferrari lost its first position in the classification and it is in second position with 40 points (same as Lotus) while Red Bull leads with 66. Concerning the Driver Ranking, Vetter leads with 40 points, while Alonso – only 6th – has gained to date only 18 points. Claudio Domenicali, the number one at Ferrari’s pit wall, takes responsibility for the “unfortunate” decision and says it was a team’s choice not to call Fernando Alonso in to repair a damaged car early in the Malaysian Grand Prix. “We took a risk that didn’t pay off (…) The ‘kiss’ [on Vettel’s car] was unfortunate because we could have taken good points from this race” (source BBC).
Domenicali diplomatically called this decision “unfortunate”. I prefer calling is with its proper name “a gamble: senseless, unnecessary, and strategically wrong.” One might argue that this is the kind of situation that, in case of a lucky strike, a F1 amateur would consider as a brilliant strategic decision. As an academic strategist though, I will try to define why this decision was objectively a hazard, as it was based on wrong basis and scientifically failing reasoning. By explaining this, I will point out the paramount difference between strategy and tactic, and why the former in this case should have been a priority compare to the latter.
Decision making is not a matter of scientific certainties, but still strategists should follow a scientific approach through their analysis and decisions to the best of their possibilities. This means analyzing the available data and not taking the the decision with the most likely positive result, rather than an unlikely decision with the highest possible outcome. It is a fact that, despite the terrific amount of information from telemetry, in F1 there is no way to objectively assess the gravity of crashes on parts of the chassis. The only thing that the people from the pits can do is checking the speed, looking at the videos running on their screens, and trying to figure out how bad the crash was and how long the vehicle could hold. Asking the driver for his sensations might be on the one hand a good decision, but it might be highly misleading too since – as for the front wing – the driver cannot see that section of the car from his seated position. As soon as Alonso hit Vettel it was clearly visible that one front wing pillar was broken and the front wing was dragging along the ground on the left-hand side. There was no way to measure how long that precarious situation would have hold, but even from a semi-layperson standpoint I can affirm it looked pretty bad, and as Ferrari thinking heads had no way to get better measures than this on its resistance. Hence, it would have been the right decision just to tell Alonso to stop and change the front wing as soon as possible. No data means no information, and taking decisions without any proper and reliable measurement is nothing better than gambling. There can be situations – such as the final race of a still unresolved seasonal battle – where strategist might need to go for a “all or nothing” decision in order to finish the season ahead of the rival, but this is not the case of the Malaysia grand prix, the second race of the 2013 season. At this point having Alonso finishing the race and avoiding the risk of scoring a miserable “0” – as he did later – offer a lot of advantages that needed to be taken into consideration.
First, at the beginning of a season cars are still in development process. Teams know little about their vehicles, and since testing is now capped for all teams, each additional mile raced brings an added value derived from the data the teams collect and the technological insights they can derive from this. Having Ferrari’s best driver out at the second lap is a situation to be avoided at any cost at the beginning of the year. Second, Ferrari has recently proved to be a strong but emotional team, which suffers having to chase competitors’ performances rather than defending a leading position in the ranking. For this reason it is important to keep the gap between Red Bull at a minimum, and thus avoid the psychological pressure for results that negatively affected Ferrari at the end of the last few F1 seasons, thus probably contributing to unsatisfactory results for a team whose ambitious cannot be satisfied with a silver medal.
Finally, leading strategists should have clear in mind that strategies are related to long term results, while tactics are for short term goals. When aiming for a short term result might affect the long term achievement, leaders should know that strategy needs to be prioritized, as tactic might create myopic behaviors, and ultimately failure. I agree with Gary Anderson from BBC saying that “Ferrari have made a string of strategy errors in the last few years and you have to say there is a wider problem there that needs to be addressed. It wasn’t as if it was a snap decision – it happened at the start and the first lap is nearly two minutes long.” I notice how Ferrari is now minimizing such outrageous mistakes, which I believe makes the decision to replace Chris Dyer as head of race track engineering for his mistake which cost Alonso the 2010 drivers title in favour of Sebastian Vettel look like a scapegoat execution, rather than a serious (and necessary) attempt of honestly assessing Ferrari’s current strategy skills, and working hard for a significant improvement.