Hardest strategy call of 2019 - Pirelli

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Mexico, Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguezmx

Formula One tyre supplier Pirelli predicts that the two-stop strategy will be the best way to complete today’s Mexican Grand Prix given the high tyre wear experienced during the race simulations, however even the Italian company’s engineers are unsure about the exact behaviour of the tyres over a long distance.

Beating the existing track record by just one thousandth of a second, Max Verstappen wrapped up his second Formula 1 pole position in yesterday’s qualifying session for the Mexican Grand Prix. The Dutchman received his Pirelli Pole Position Award from Mexican F1 legend Jo Ramirez who was a well-known team manager and close friend to Ayrton Senna. However, Verstappen’s success did not last long after he was found guilty of ignoring the yellow flags in the dying moments of the session. As a result, he has been stripped of his pole position after the stewards handed him a three-place grid penalty.

Pirelli brought a tyre selection which was a step harder than last year. The company’s head of car racing Mario Isola was impressed that “despite the complex driving conditions and a tyre nomination that was a step harder than last year, Verstappen’s lap time on his final Q3 run was actually faster than the overall track record set last year by the smallest possible fraction: a sign of just how close the margins are around this circuit”.

Possible strategies

The Friday long runs indicated that degradation on the soft compound would be high over a longer distance. It urged the three top teams to qualify on the harder, medium C3 compound in the middle part of the qualifying session to avoid to start the 71-lap race on the softest available tyre. With all top drivers setting a good enough time for Q3, both Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes drivers will start the race on the yellow-banded medium compound.

The battle among the midfield teams was rather intense, and the two McLaren and Toro Rosso drivers managed to get through to Q3 in the end. However, it came at the expense of the optimal starting compound as Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly all need to start the race on the soft compound.

According to the Milan-based tyre manufacturer, the two-stopper appears to be the optimum approach to the difficult race. Of the various two-stop strategies, the best one should be to start on the Yellow medium for 20 to 23 laps, then do an identical medium stint for another 20 to 23 laps, before finishing on the hard.

The second-fastest way is another two-stopper, but this time starting on the Red soft for nine to 13 laps, before going onto the medium for 22 to 26 laps and then a final hard stint to the end. No driver outside the top ten positions is expected to start the race on the soft compound, so this strategy appears to be the ideal one for the two McLaren and Toro Rosso drivers.

A three-stopper could also turn out to be just as quick as a two-stopper, using any of the three compounds available, although there’s always the certainty of dealing with traffic.

Teams usually stick to one-stop strategies even if that requires a high degree of tyre management from the drivers. However, Pirelli thinks that the one-stopper is this time not only slower than the two- or three-stop strategies, but it can also become a risky one given the drastic way tyres reached a performance ‘cliff’ during the Friday long runs. If someone attempts a one-stopper, the best way would be medium for 26 to 30 laps, then hard to the end.

Interestingly, only the Mercedes outfit does not have any new medium compounds left as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton had to do a second attempt on a fresh C3 set to secure a place in the last qualifying segment.