The 2013 Chinese Grand Prix saw a parallel fight between those drivers who started the race on soft tyres and those on the mediums. The first seven drivers on the grid started on much less durable soft tyres while the rest of the field had both soft and medium tyre starters. Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button were one of the two drivers who started on the medium tyres.
At the chequered flag, Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton - who all started on soft tyres filled the three spots on the podium while Sebastian Vettel, who started on the medium tyres finished in 4th place. So does that mean that starting the race on softs and doing the remaining stints on medium tyres the right strategy? Was something wrong with Vettel's strategy of starting on medium tyres or it was just that he didn't fully exploit the strategy?
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Starting on the Softs Tyres
The first seven drivers on the grid started the race on the option tyres. The plan was to dispose them off between lap 5 and 7 and do the remaining stints on the medium tyres. Mercedes were the first of the frontrunners to make their pitstops(on lap 5), as they eat up tyres quicker than their rivals. Alonso and Raikkonen pitted on lap 6 while Massa had to wait for another lap as his teammate was in the pits. This delay of one lap made a major difference as both Hamilton and Raikkonen were able to set some quick times on fresh tyres and came out ahead after Massa's stop.
Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso did 15, 16 and 17 laps respectively in their second stint. At this stage, Alonso was 5 seconds clear off Hamilton who was a further two seconds clear of Raikkonen as the trio made their way past traffic of medium tyre starters. On lap 29, Alonso overtook Vettel and moved into clear air. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Raikkonen both lost in traffic, the latter having damaged his nose after he made contact with Sergio Perez on the back straight. Lotus suspect that it costed him 0.25 seconds per lap. Considering that he spent 40 laps with that damaged nose, he lost a total of 10 seconds. Thus both these drivers were now running behind medium tyre starters Vettel and Button.
Then came the third stint at the end of which Raikkonen undercut Hamilton by pitting three laps earlier than the British driver. Mercedes didn't respond to Raikkonen's move as they had to stretch their third stint as much as they can and do the least number of laps in their final stint. Tyre wear on Mercedes in particularly high and a 21 lap final stint(if Hamilton would have pitted one lap after Raikkonen) would have made them vulnerable to Vettel at the end. So, Hamilton waited for lap 37 to make his final stop. Even on a 19 lap stint(as he did), he just finished 0.2 seconds ahead of Vettel. Alosno meanwhile had a 18 lap third stint and had to do only 15 laps on his final set of medium tyres.
As Button and Vettel pitted on soft tyres respectively on lap 49 and 51, the three moved into podium spots.
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Starting on the Medium Tyres - Vettel's Strategy
Sebastian Vettel took the gamble of not doing any lap time during the final part of qualifying and starting the race on medium tyres. By not setting any lap time in Q3, he had to start the race from 9th place. The reason for this gamble was that RB9 isn't particularly suited to the front end limited Shanghai International Circuit and were slower than Lotus and Ferrari in terms of sheer pace.
At the start of the race, Vettel retained his position but lost a lot of time to front-runners behind Ricciardo and Grosjean. As those drivers in front pitted, he made his way up the field and was running in 2nd place before his pit stop on lap 14. He overtook Hulkenberg in the pits thanks to a better stop before coming out in 7th place. He quickly overtook Massa on the next lap before losing more time behind Perez.
On this reverse strategy, Vettel again moved his way past other and took the race lead when top three starters as well as two stopping Button pitted by lap 23. He stayed in fresh away for 5 more laps before Alonso overtook the German.
Vettel made his second stop on lap 31 and came out in 6th place. His lap times during this third stint were identical to Alonso but damage had already been done. He had lost way too much time to frontrunners in traffic and podium was out of reach.
He streched this stint for 20 laps before pitting on lap 51. The aim was not only to spend the least number of tyres on soft tyres but also to make most of them as they were much faster than the medium tyres.
After his pit stop, he came out 12 seconds behind Hamilton and Raikkonen in fourth place. He then chased the pair by over three seconds a lap as he put on a fantastic charge in a bid to book the final spot on the podium. In the end, he finished the race just 0.2 seconds behind Hamilton who struggled in the closing laps of the race on worn out tyres.
In the end, Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton who all started on soft tyres edged Vettel who started on the medium tyres. The reason why first strategy worked is that the front runners didn't lose as much time in traffic as Vettel did during the first half of the race. Vettel meanwhile had a big weaponry of using a fresh set of soft tyres to challenge for podium at end of the race. He used that well but ultimately finished in 4th place. Had he qualified on soft tyres, then irrespective of his grid position, he could have finished in 3rd place ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
Comparison of Race Strategies