The Japanese Grand Prix did not fail to deliver what was expected after Friday’s long run simulations: high thermal degradation and multiple stop strategy. F1Technical’s senior writer Balázs Szabó analyses the strategies at the Suzuka race.
Following the Singapore Grand Prix that saw Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz take his and his team’s first win in 2023, Max Verstappen bounced back in Suzuka, dominating the Japanese Grand Prix from start to finish. Thanks to the Dutchman’s 48th win, Red Bull clinched its sixth Constructors’ World Championship title, with six Grands Prix still remaining this season. The Milton Keynes squad is now also sure of taking the Drivers’ crown as only Sergio Perez can theoretically stop Verstappen from picking up his third title.
For the challenging, figure-of-eight Suzuka International track, Pirelli brought three compounds from the harder end of its six-compound range with the C1 serving as the Hard, the C2 as the Medium and the C3 as the Soft compound. The Milan-based outfit also mandated relatively high minimum starting pressures in order to avoid any tyre issues on a track that is known for its elongated, high-speed corners.
Pirelli expected that the two-stop strategy would become the preferred strategy at the Japanese Grand Prix based on all the data that was gathered on Friday. The Milan-based tyre supplier found the Suzuka track to be a little smoother than it has been in the past which led to more sliding. This meant that thermal degradation was higher than expected on a weekend which was warmer than usual at the time of the Japanese Grand Prix.
Ambient temperatures were 29.2 Celsius degrees at the start of the race with track temperatures measured at slightly above 41.0 Celsius degrees. Ambient and track temperatures dropped to 27.1 and 36.2 Celsius degrees respectively for the dying stages of the race.How did strategies unfold?
For the start, 13 drivers went with the Medium for the first stint, seven for the Soft. Apart from those who had to rapidly change their plans because of collisions in the opening moments of the race, it was clear to see that the great majority of drivers had opted for a two-stop strategy, making the most efficient use of the sets of tyres available.
The first lap collisions make comparison slightly difficult, but disregarding the first-lap tyre changes, twelve of the 15 drivers who completed the full race distance performed a double-stop strategy. Zhou Guanyu went into the pits on three occasions, but he completed his first stop on the first lap following a clash at the start, which effectively makes his strategy a two-stopper.
In fact, only two drivers went for a one-stop strategy. George Russell did a good job of managing his Medium set from the start which prompted his team to gamble with a single-stop strategy in the hope of gaining positions in his battle with his teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. After his initial 24-lap stint on the medium compound, the one-time F1 race winner used the Hard for no fewer than 29 laps during his second stint.
The other driver who mixed things up with a single stop was Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. The French racer visited the pit lane twice during the race, but his first stop happened on the opening lap, and after that, he completed the remaining 52 lap of the total of 53 race lap by stopping only once. The one-time race winner extended his first “real” stint until Lap 28, completing 27 laps on the white-walled hards before switching for another set of hard compound for his last stint.
There was another outliner in terms of strategy as well. Struggling with tyre degradation all across the season, Haas opted to give Nico Hulkenberg a three-stop strategy. The German driver started the race on the red-walled soft tyres before switching to the medium on Lap 8. He made the switch to the Hard following a 13-lap stint before performing his last stint on the yellow-walled mediums.
A total of 43 pit stops were performed with Ferrari having dominated the pit stop performance in Suzuka. The Scuderia changed Charles Leclerc’s tyres within 2.23s which became the fastest pit stop at the Japanese Grand Prix. The second-fastest tyre change also belonged to Ferrari with 2.30s required to service Carlos Sainz during his first stop for fresh tyres.
How did each compound perform?
George Russell was the driver who performed the longest stint on the white-walled C1 compound, racking up a total of 29 laps during his second and last stint en route to his one-stop strategy. Verstappen clocked in the fastest lap on this compound, posting a 1m34.183s on the second lap of his last and third stint with this lap becoming the fastest race lap yesterday.
The longest stint on the medium belonged to George Russell as well. The British driver started the 53-lap Japanese Grand Prix on the yellow-banded tyre and extended his first stint until Lap 24. Race winner Verstappen recorded the fastest C2 lap with a 1m36.748 on Lap 5 of the race.
Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu covered the longest distance on the same set of softs, completing a 19-lap stint on the red-banded compound. His best effort of 1m39.106s became the fastest lap on the soft tyres yesterday.
Pirelli's Motorsport Director Mario Isola commented: “First and foremost, I want to congratulate Red Bull for their achievement in taking their sixth Constructors’ title as well as ensuring that only Max or Sergio can now take the Drivers’ crown. The team led by Christian Horner is making its mark on the current Formula 1 era, beating all the records and this amazing result is well deserved.
"The Suzuka track is one of the toughest on tyres and this year we saw higher temperatures than usual which increased the demands on them. This afternoon, everything went as we had expected and all three available compounds were used, thus creating a situation where we saw several different strategies between the teams and drivers. After studying the data from free practice, we reckoned that a two-stop strategy was the quickest and that was confirmed.
"Those who tried something different, Russell for example, had to give best in the closing stages to their two-stopping rivals. Compared to Friday, we saw that the Medium was the most used, even if the difference in terms of degradation when compared to the Soft, also today, was not that big. Clearly the C2 offered greater flexibility in terms of management and that’s why the majority of drivers opted to start with it.”