It’s finally time to get ready for the first race of the new Formula 1 season – the Bahrain Grand Prix – after the long winter break. We’ve got some familiar faces at the front but different tyre choices on show even during qualifying, so what strategic options do the teams have on race day at Sakhir? Chris Medland takes a look…
What’s the quickest strategy?
This actually depends on how each team treats its tyres, but the quickest options all appear to be two-stop strategies, with a variety of combinations available when it comes to the compounds used. The big limitation is not tyre wear itself, but degradation from the rear tyres resulting in lost lap time as drivers struggle on traction.
While Pirelli’s softest tyre – the C3 – offers a clear performance advantage it also degrades at a high rate, and while the medium C2 also degrades quickly it’s quite a lot slower than the C3. That means the hard compound – the C1 – is a good option as it is much more consistent, and doesn’t have that much of a performance deficit compared to the C2.
Add all of that up and the quickest strategy is to start on the soft in order to have the fastest tyre available during the early laps when the field is bunched up.
After a stint of around 18 laps, the first pit stop would be to switch to hard tyres, and then run to a pit window of between Lap 35 and Lap 42 before returning to the softs for the sprint to the flag.
This is the strategy most likely going to be used by Red Bull and Williams, given the fact they used up one of their sets of hard compound tyres in FP3, meaning they can’t do the next best option below. All of the teams used up a set of mediums earlier in the weekend, showing the intention to avoid it if possible.
How about a different option for the top 10?
Starting on the softest tyre is almost a given for those in the front half of the grid because it provides an advantage off the line. Choosing one of the other compounds would mean risking losing positions at the start that could be extremely tough to regain due to the tight nature of the field, even on a track where we’ve seen great racing and plenty of overtaking in the past.
But for any team that is suffering higher levels of degradation, or if the track itself is not quite as kind on the tyres as expected, then there’s an alternative for the final stint. If the first pit stop needs to be as early as Lap 10 or 12, then two stints of relatively equal length would see two sets of the hard compound used to get to the end.
Doing that allows drivers to push that bit more on the harder tyre, but also opens up a wider window for the second pit stop to be able to react to how the race is unfolding.
By contrast, if degradation levels are lower than expected after all of the other track running has taken place, then extending the first stint closer to Lap 20 could mean the C1 tyre is avoided altogether.
Three largely equal stints can lead to a soft-medium-soft strategy – although this is only likely to be attempted with very low levels of degradation otherwise the medium will prove slower than the hard even over a relatively short stint.
What are the options for the bottom half of the field?
To really mix things up, teams could consider utilising all three compounds during the race if the track evolves quickly. Again starting on the soft, a first stint of between 12 and 16 laps due to a higher pace early on could be followed by the switch to hard tyres outlined in the fastest strategy.
But if degradation levels are reducing as the race unfolds, then the medium could be an option for the final stint.
Even so, the offsets are small across those strategies, so a curveball would be for a driver to start on the hard from the back and run long. That might open up the potential to take advantage of a Safety Car or similar incident to make a pit stop and gain time, but it will also provide valuable data to the other teams about how the hard tyre is performing.
The three-stop strategy is also a relatively quick one in terms of race time – using the soft compound as much as possible – but teams are more likely to shy away from the decision to make more pit stops, with track position still prioritised.
A one-stopper is the more likely alternative option if degradation levels are low, but it would need the first stint on softs to exceed 20 laps at the very least, before switching to hards for the remainder of the race.
Wait, but what’s the weather doing?
You might not believe it, but there was actually rain earlier in the week in Bahrain, and with preparations taking place for the race weekend the grip levels were actually lower in FP1 than at the start of pre-season testing.
Since then, however, the weather has been consistently good for the teams to get good data, with warm days and cooler evenings, with the wind speed lower than on some days during testing.
The race is set to see more of the same in terms of conditions, with a high of 25C forecast and the wind not being overly challenging.
Track temperatures will drop slightly as the race goes on, and are likely to be some 15C lower than the daytime highs that were over 40C during testing, with the main focus for drivers being to keep the rear tyres in good shape.