(By Paolo Aversa, Ph.D.)
Last weekend the Australian Grand Prix has officially started the 2013 Formula One season. Raikkonen won the gran prix with an unexpected two stop strategy, while the others main competitors opted for three. After one race, Raikkonen (Lotus) leads the drivers’ world championship with 25 points from Alonso (Ferrari) on 18, Vettel (RedBull) on 15, Massa (Ferrari) on 12, Hamilton (Mercedes) on 10, Webber (RedBull) on 8, Sutil (Force India) on 6, Di Resta (Force India) on 4, Button (McLaren) on 2 and Grosjean (Lotus) on 1. Ferrari leads the constructors’ points with 30 to Lotus’s 26, Red Bull’s 23, Mercedes and Force India’s 10 and McLaren’s 2. It is, of course, far too early to draw any conclusion on what is going to happen in the remaining 18 races. Still, if taken alone, the Australian GP does give us some general lessons – or at least hints – on motorsport strategy we could discuss.
First Lesson: strategy is about consistency. In the end, paraphrasing what Fernando Alonso said, it is more important to have a perfect weekend rather than being the fastest car on track on Sunday race. Success comes from a consistent path of development and results that starts on Thursday and gets its climax on Sunday. One can win one race because of chance, but to win a championship teams need consistency and continuous improvement throughout the season, for both drivers. Also, in causality terms, the best way to be the fastest on Sunday is being consistently performative during the previous days.
Second lesson: strategy is about surprising. After so much talking of the quicker degradation of the new Pirelli tyres, it seemed obvious that there was an opportunity for better grip, and thus developing faster cars compared to 2012. So all the teams – but Lotus – gave for granted that the magic formula was getting car performance to the limit, changing tyres 3 times per race. However, Lotus surprisingly proved that it is possible to reach the highest podium with a fast-but-not-so-fast car if this features a “tyre preserving” set up. Even the lords of speed Alonso and Vettel racing on the renown prancing horse or the red bull could not do much about it. After the surprise of discovering that Lotus can do pretty well changing tyres only twice, I wonder if Ferrari and Red Bull will try to imitate the two stop strategy, of push toward a even faster car.
Third lesson: strategy has different measures of performance. Apart from the unexpected Raikkonen’s fastest lap just before the end, Lotus was on average not the fastest car of the weekend, and the successful results is due to the golden arrow’s two stops strategy, rather than a series of exceptional lap times. “It was the best start we could have had to the season,” said Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier. “Not only is it a win, but the strategy we chose also worked. Reduced tyre wear was one of the strengths of the car that we inherited from last season and it was useful because during Kimi’s second stint the other cars were starting to challenge a bit more.” (source Bloomberg). Somehow, reliability paid-off more than speed, and Raikkonen’s posted the fastest lap on the second-last circuit, when we could expect his tyres to be pretty much worn out, demonstrates that Lotus has also potential to further improve its average lap time as well. When teams look at performance, speed is not the only – and not even the main – measure to keep under control. Reliability can be a great performance measure, if combined with the right strategy.
These are three lessons I have learned, but I am curious to see what the teams have learned next weekend in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.