Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Thoughts on Ferrari's Abu Dhabi strategy

Lots of people have had their say on Ferrari's race strategy employed in Abu Dhabi. The details of the strategy call and its consequences are well-documented, and to cut a long story short, Fernando Alonso, running in fourth place, was pitted early, on lap 15, nominally to 'cover off' Mark Webber, who pitted four laps earlier. But as it transpired it was a gross misjudgment, consigning Alonso to be held up by traffic for the rest of the day, meaning he could finish no higher than seventh, when he needed fourth place or higher to claim the title.

In an age where we are used to sharp-end F1 teams showing precision and judgment beyond our individual comprehension, such an error at the business end of the season with the championship at stake has resulted in considerable fallout. A browse around internet forums and Twitter has shown calls for various heads on plates, such as those of Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and team boss Stefano Domenicali. A particularly egregious Italian Government Minister joined in on the act, calling for di Montezemolo to step down for the team's 'demented strategy'.

I'm glad di Montezemolo treated him, and his demands, with the utter contempt they deserved. Di Montezemolo is a proven quantity, and the only people that would celebrate his resignation are Ferrari's rivals.

I also feel that Stefano Domenicali is worthy of defending. Yes, losing out on a championship in the last race is always galling for fans, but we should not forget that it was only a few months ago that it was common to hear talk of Ferrari's terminal decline, post Todt, Brawn and Schumacher. Well, this season, under Domenicali's leadership, Ferrari arrested this decline and then some, nearly claiming a championship in a year that they never had fundamentally the fastest car. Alonso is understandably bookies' favourite to claim to drivers' crown in 2011. And all this was achieved while Italianising the team in the way that di Motmezemolo coveted and that many thought would seriously impede Ferrari's chances of success.

But it is still worth asking what actually went wrong on the strategy call in Abu Dhabi. First, a little context. Teams up and down the F1 pit lane spend millions of dollars on strategy tools and teams of strategy personnel, as Anthony Davidson pointed out on BBC Five Live's excellent Abu Dhabi race review podcast. So, the talk of 'a guy on the pit wall making a call' on strategy, that you hear many talking about, is not entirely accurate.

It's also the case that it's easy to criticise from our armchairs, that hindsight is a wonderful thing (as Alonso pointed out) and that Ferrari had good reasons at the time to bring Alonso in when they did (and many onlookers, such as Martin Brundle, thought at the time that it made sense). Going into the race Mark Webber was Alonso's closest challenger for the championship and they needed to make sure that Alonso finished ahead (or very close behind) the Australian. Therefore, when Webber pitted on lap 11 and immediately started to set strong sector times it seemed logical for the Ferrari team to get Alonso to cover him off, and pit him immediately to ensure he remained ahead (especially when they had already tried to do the same with Massa and it didn't come off). Also, at the time it looked for all the world that the super-soft option tyres the front runners were on were deteriorating rapidly. As Rob Smedley said, the data from practice sessions had suggested the options wouldn't allow for a good pace to be set for much longer. The fact that the options subsequently improved their grip and held on for as long as they did (Button didn't change his until lap 39, well beyond half distance) represented a surprise to them. Therefore, the 'rubbish in' to their strategy modelling in terms of misreading the tyres' durability, rather than the strategy model itself, may be culpable.

But even disreagrding this large misjudgment on the tyres, something also clearly went fundamentally wrong with Ferrari's strategy call in itself. If Ferrari's reasoning was as above then it may be a case of taking a logical train of thought to its illogical conclusion. The glaring problem with Ferrari's call was that it didn't seem to take traffic into account, and the associated difficulty with overtaking and not being 'bottled up' at a slower pace. Admittedly, having cars such as Rosberg and Petrov already having made their pit stops, doing so in the early safety car period, was an unusual situation. But from Domenicalli's comments post race it seemed the problem was not so much not realising that they didn't need to pit again, it was underestimating how difficult they would be to pass.

Therefore, it seems that Ferrari's strategy didn't adequately take into account the difficulties of overtaking on the Abu Dhabi circuit (and it was hardly an unknown, there were only four overtakes there in the 2009 race), or that they would be encountering at least one Renault with better straightline speed than them. Mercedes were also convinced Alonso would never make it past Rosberg. More to the point, Mark Webber, who they were 'covering', would have the same problems. If Ferrari's strategy tools don't take these into account then they should start to. Having gone up and down the pit lane Anthony Davidson and David Croft struggled to find another team that would have matched Ferrari's strategy, one even going so far as to say that when they saw Alonso pitting they assumed he must have a technical problem.

There is also the question of whether, as Anthony Davidson suggested, Ferrari took their eye off the ball by focussing too much on Webber, and somewhat forgetting about Vettel out front. Certainly, their strategy decision did seem to hang around staying in front of Webber, and not pay too much heed to staying close to Vettel. Their radio transmissions during the race suggest this also. If this was the case it seems rather shortsighted, as well as represents the abandoning of the strategy that had served Ferrari so well in the latter part of the season, namely to attack and aim for podiums (it became Alonso's mantra).

Ferrari will be back stronger than ever next season, but their means of devising strategy broke in Abu Dhabi at exactly the wrong moment. Fixing that should be at the top of their to-do list.

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