Great drivers and a fast car are not enough: our historic Italian Grand Prix one-two also needed pinpoint strategy choices to make it all work. In the end, Daniel Ricciardo made victory at Monza look simple – but dig a little deeper and you can see it really wasn’t. In association with FxPro and with exclusive insight from McLaren F1 Strategy and Sporting Director Randy Singh, we dissect the decisions that powered us to a first grand prix victory in nine years.
On Sunday evening in Monza, McLaren F1 Team Principal Andreas Seidl made an astute observation in his post-race notes. He talked about his pleasure at seeing the team pull off a great result ‘under the pressure of knowing a great result was possible.’ It’s an important distinction. Victory at Monza wasn’t the product of a crazy race – though crazy race we had – or some serendipitous happenstance delivering a shock result. The team went to Monza expecting to be competitive and were in the hunt for a podium finish from the start of practice. When Daniel got to the first corner first, far from relaxing in the garage, the tension moved up a notch because there was genuine belief that could be the stroke that delivered victory. It was – but thanks to a mad six minutes, it nearly wasn’t.
The complexion of the Italian Grand Prix changed, changed, and changed again between Daniel’s pit-stop on lap 22 and the Safety Car deployment on lap 26. It was a cascade of the most chaotic sort, akin to the kind of volatility seen in foreign exchange markets: positions were gained and lost, and moments of individual triumph and tragedy were lost in the background. The championship rivals went off, unlikely protagonists came back into contention, and Monza went ballistic at the sight of scarlet Ferraris being dropped from nowhere into podium contention. We could easily have lost the race between laps 22 and 26. That we didn’t is down to timing two decisions very well – responding rapidly in the heat of the moment, in much the same way that our partner FxPro can execute an order in less than 14 milliseconds. This is what happened at the Italian Grand Prix…
The race in a nutshell
• Daniel takes the lead into the first chicane and spends his first stint holding off Max Verstappen
• Lando retains P3 on the opening lap and spends his first stint holding off Lewis Hamilton
• We box Daniel first, doing the fastest stop of the race to prevent the undercut
• Hamilton gets past Lando on track towards the end of Lando’s stint
• When Verstappen has a slow stop, we box Lando immediately to get track position ahead of him and successfully undercut Hamilton
• With the drivers running a net one-two, a Safety Car upsets their progress and let’s Leclerc get between them and allows Sergio Pérez and Valtteri Bottas to close.
• Lando passes Leclerc. The drivers complete the final 22 laps in formation to finish one-two.
The race in numbers
|Lando Norris||Daniel Ricciardo|
|End of first lap||P3||P1|
|Speed trap||346.4km/h (9th fastest)||344.2km/h (10th)|
|Pit-stop||24.168s||23.812s (fastest pit-stop)|
|Fastest lap||1:24.971 (3rd quickest)||1:24.812 (fastest lap)|
The strategy… in theory
Monza has traditionally been a one-stop circuit: with very few corners to overheat the tyres, and long straights to cool them, keeping degradation low. In recent years, the paucity of overtaking opportunities has strengthened the circuit’s one-stop credentials – but one stop covers a multitude of possibilities, and Pirelli believed most of them were on the table. Their prediction was that a car in free air would do equally well on Medium>Soft or Soft>Medium strategies. Medium>Hard and Soft>Hard were little behind those. All three compounds were in play, with the pit window opening as early as lap 12 and lasting as late as lap 33.
The strategy explained… Part one: Daniel and the undercut
We weren’t quite as fast as the Mercedes or Red Bulls at Monza – but we had enough pace to stay in front if we could get in front, and given the team’s record getting off the line recently and having both drivers at the front of the field, the prospect of a Papaya car leading the race onto the Curva Grande did not seem outlandish. Daniel got that lead through the first chicane and, after Max Verstappen probed in the early laps, began to look secure. Attention turned to thoughts of the pit-stop…
“This race was easier than normal because we were quick enough that a lot of the midfield were not really in our race. We could concentrate on six or seven cars at a time, instead of most of the field,” says strategy and sporting director Randy Singh. “On the other hand, it was difficult strategically because we were fighting a quicker car. There were more opportunities for Max to win than there were for us because, being faster, they can consider undercutting and overcutting in addition to fighting on track. The complexity for us was in finding strategic ways to keep Max bottled up, such that he couldn’t express his true pace.”
Once a viable one-stop window opened, our strategists were most concerned with Verstappen’s ability to attempt an undercut. Their focus was on spotting gaps into which he or Daniel would drop after a stop. The matter was unusually complicated by the presence of Sergio Pérez and Valtteri Bottas in the midfield. Both were quick enough to cost Daniel time if he was stuck behind them, and both could potentially hamper their own progress to advance the cause of their team-mate. We were the first team to box for tyres for Daniel. We called him in on lap 22, had an excellent switch to the Hard compound, and emerged just in front of Bottas. His immediate challenge was putting in a sequence of quick laps to protect his virtual lead.
“Staying in front of Valtteri was part of the decision – we didn’t want to box behind him – and the other part of it was that the tyres were beginning to degrade and we were at high risk of being undercut by Max,” says Randy. “Given we thought Max was quicker than us, the only option that seemed sensible was to pit first, such that Max couldn’t undercut us, and to come out ahead of Valtteri. It worked well – because the lap we chose to box was also the lap that Red Bull chose to box with Max. They changed it when Daniel came in. Had we not pitted on that lap, we would have likely been undercut by Max.”
The strategy explained… Part two: Lando and the cascade
Leading the race, Daniel couldn’t gain through the pit-stops, only lose. Lando’s strategic position had greater complexity, given he had potential to either gain or lose through the window. Daniel’s pit-stop on lap 22 triggered the cascade. Verstappen lit the jets and pitted on the following lap. There was potential for Verstappen to go long at that point – but the team felt it unlikely, given he also had good reason to come out ahead of Bottas. It was almost certain that Max would have emerged behind Daniel, but we’ll never know: a slow stop cost him around eight seconds. It also triggered a pit-stop for Lando, who, at this point, was having a similar race to his team-mate, albeit five seconds down the road.
Like Daniel with Verstappen, Lando had Lewis Hamilton filling his mirrors in the first stint. Unlike Verstappen, Daniel and Lando, Hamilton had elected to start the race on the Hard tyre. Bottled up behind Lando, he couldn’t show his true pace, but he had more longevity in his tyres and the potential to wait it out. He managed to get past Lando on lap 24, at which point Lando was immediately pitted. He had an opportunity to make the undercut work or, at worst, force Hamilton into a longer stint on the Medium tyre than would be ideal. He also had the possibility to gain a place from Verstappen after the latter’s slow stop.
“Lando’s stop timing was driven in a very similar way to Daniel’s,” says Randy. “Lewis is quicker than us, he’s jammed up behind us, at some stage he’s going to pit. If he goes before us, we are going to get undercut. It we pit too early, we’ll get overcut – because he’s quicker.
“The situation changed when Max had the slow pit-stop, and we could cover Max with Lando. That was a direct positional gain that we could take – but we didn’t have long to take it. At the same time as we were assessing that, Lewis passed Lando on track and we now also had a chance to undercut him to take the place back. Pitting Lando when we did gained us two positions. Although it had been complex, looking at many different things with regard to timing the stop, it actually became fairly simple to take that opportunity because a two-position gain, effectively from fourth, is massive.”
"Safety Car, Safety Car, drive to the delta"
Lando had a very good stop. He came out ahead of Verstappen and, crucially, into a five-second gap of clear air. A good out-lap from Lando put Hamilton under pressure and he had a poor stop, 1.5s slower than Lando, just enough for Lando to reclaim the position. Cue cheering in the garage, and what looked like a really good shot at a 1-2 finish. The elation lasted for around three seconds, at which point the race exploded.
“The Safety Car did not help us,” says Randy. “We had pitted with really sensible timing for both our cars and put ourselves in a net first and second place, but the Safety Car deployment gave the cars yet to pit a significantly smaller pit-loss, while also allowing the whole field to close up. Lando lost a place to Charles Leclerc and the good gaps we had were obliterated. It put people like Pérez and Bottas into much stronger positions.”
The collision between Hamilton and Verstappen took place in Lando’s wing mirrors and 11 seconds behind Daniel. The Safety Car was deployed and the cars that were yet to box got the opportunity for a cheap pit-stop. Daniel was far enough up the road to have a Safety Car pit-gap on Leclerc and Pérez, the two cars ahead of him on the road – but it was going to be a very close-run thing for Lando, who had to hit every apex right on the timing delta because every metre really would count. In the end, the start of his stint had been strong enough to keep him ahead of Pérez, but he could do nothing about Leclerc, who emerged from his stop in P2. Perhaps of greater concern was that the pack closed up, bringing both Carlos Sainz and the very dangerous Bottas back into contention.
Fans at Monza were visited with the prospect of the second Italian Grand Prix sprint in two days, with the Safety Car peeling off at the end of lap 30, with 23 more to run. Lando demonstrated the pace in the car by passing Leclerc before the second chicane immediately after the race resumed. More in hope than expectation, he asked the pit-wall if they would like him to make a race of it with Daniel. And didn’t seem too dejected when the instruction came back that the team was very happy with the positions and would like the drivers to build a gap over Pérez if they could. They managed to break the one-second gap and deny Pérez DRS and took the chequered flag line astern to secure our first win since 2012 and first one-two finish since 2010.
Pack-down on Sunday night took rather longer than usual. There was a podium celebration to enjoy, a glass of something afterwards, followed by team photos and general nonsense in the pit-lane. For the strategists and race engineers there was also a lot of work to do: because the season and the complexion of the championship doesn’t pivot on one result, however good. One thing often mentioned in our strategy debriefs is that the effectiveness of the strategy can’t be judged by the race result. That applies just as much for a good one as for a bad one.
“We followed the normal debrief procedure – just a little later than usual because we had difficulty finding the drivers!” concludes Randy. “We worked out what was good and what was bad in our race. Despite having a really good outcome, and a strategy that worked really well, it doesn’t mean there aren’t imperfections and things to learn from. The outcome is independent of the quality of the decisions and the executions. The Italian Grand Prix provided us with a lot of talking points.”
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