The Worst Strategies of 2017 – So Far

Miles WrayLast time, I looked at the best race strategies that teams have put together during 2017 races. To do this, I didn’t just look at each driver’s raw Plus-Minus from the end of each race, since that metric will frequently give credit for “passing” a car that retires from further up the field. Instead, I devised Strategic Plus-Minus (SPM): how many spots did each driver gain or lose within the order of cars that finished the race? I also emphasized team performance over individual driver performance, since it is a single strategic team on the pit wall that is working to boost both of their cars up the order.

As it turns out, unearthing the worst strategies is a lot more difficult than finding the best ones. How to treat moments like Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen’s last-minute tire punctures in Silverstone? Or Lewis Hamilton’s headrest debacle in Baku? Moments like these plummeted the drivers down the order, giving Ferrari and Mercedes some of the very worst SPM minus scores of the year.

I decided to throw out incidents like these. There is, admittedly, a huge amount of subjectivity involved, but I tried my best to only count negative SPM scores if they were truly the result of poor strategic work. This means I tossed out just about every incident where a collision was involved but the driver managed to finish the race. This even includes a lot of moments where the driver is at fault for the collision — i.e., Daniil Kvyat at Silverstone. I’m tossing stuff like that out, too, since Torro Rosso’s huge negative result for the day was pretty much out of the strategists’ hands.

So! With that in mind, here are the worst days so far in 2017 — a list that is decidedly slanted towards the early days of the season:

T3. Force India -4 / Round 10 / Silverstone

Esteban Ocon / -1 / P8

Sergio Perez / -3 / P9

team force india

The worst strategy since mid-April belonged to Force India. The team has two of the most equally matched drivers on the grid, and they seem unable to avoid a crisis when the two almost inevitably trail one another each race. In the middle of the British Grand Prix, Ocon stayed firmly ahead of Perez — despite Perez’s slightly fresher tires — as the pair trailed for many laps behind Kevin Magnussen, whose 37-lap first stint was easily the longest of any driver.

Considering that Force India has more than three times the championship points of Haas, it’s surprising that Ocon simply couldn’t find a way past Magnussen. It was an incredibly costly moment, too: Daniel Ricciardo was able to blast past both pink cars twice apiece, before and after his own pit stop.

Also, those lost seconds proved crucial at the end of the race, when Vettel lost his tire. If the Force Indias had managed to stay within 25 seconds (!) of Nico Hulkenberg in front of them, it’s plausible that they would have passed Vettel on his emergency pit stop. That would have boosted each Force India car up one place, landing the team four additional championship points. (Plus, that would have inadvertently pushed Vettel down the order, gifting Lewis Hamilton a slight championship lead.)

T3. Sauber -4 / Round 2 / China

Marcus Ericsson / -4 / P15

Antonio Giovinazzi / DNF (Standing in for Wehrlein)

team sauber

The underdog darlings of the Best Strategies post, alas, end up here in the worst strategies as well — and with just with one car running. In the frantic, wet, early laps of the Chinese Grand Prix — which Giovinazzi didn’t survive — the team changed Ericsson from Intermediates to Softs on Lap 2…and that was it. Even though Ericsson ran the last 53 laps on the same set of soft tires, he really lost all of his spots — after qualifying 11th! — in the early stages of the race.

I don’t think it’s a reach to classify this as a Good-Bad Strategy. Or, Good Process/Bad Result Strategy. A team like Sauber has such a huge disadvantage in pace, it’s almost necessary to concoct a dramatically different strategic line, like this one. The same idea paid off brilliantly for the team in Spain. It didn’t in China, but, hey, no points were lost, right?

2. Renault -7 / Round 3 / Bahrain

Nico Hulkenberg / -3 / P9

Jolyon Palmer / -4 / P13

Team Renault

This race saw one of the best strategies of the year from Force India, whose huge +8 advantage basically came down to one call: in the first pit window, Laps 10-13, Force India took off the race-opening Super Softs and put on another pair of Super Softs. Renault found themselves all the way on the opposite side of the strategic spectrum just by deciding to put on Softs during that same pit window. This left both cars like sitting ducks in a field that was mostly on the Super Softs: Palmer was even passed by Fernando Alonso’s under-powered McLaren.

The shame of it is that Renault had actually qualified excellently for the race, with Hulkenberg starting 6th among all race finishers, and Palmer 9th. If both drivers had managed to hold onto their starting grid spots, Renault would have eight additional championship points. That would be enough to push them from eighth to sixth in the Constructors’ Championship, past Haas and Toro Rosso. Plus, actually having some points in hand sure could have been a helpful confidence boost for pool ol’ Jolyon.

1. Williams -8 / Round 2 / China

Felipe Massa / -8 / P14

Lance Stroll / DNF

team williams

While most underdog teams root for rain — which can always shake up the standard pecking order — Williams will definitely not be. The team appeared completely unprepared for the wet Chinese Grand Prix, with Stroll spinning off in the opening laps and Massa consistently dropping spots at every stage in the race.

In addition to looking plain uncomfortable in the wetter first half of the race, Williams had Massa run only 22 laps (Laps 2-24) on a set of Soft tires. Considering that race winner Hamilton was able to go 32 laps on Softs, Lap 24 seemed like an awfully early time to bring in Massa for Pit Stop #2, putting him onto Super Softs.

This decision — both the timing and the tires — would come back to bite Massa later in the race. There were too many laps remaining for Massa to go the distance on Super Softs, and the team had to pull him in for a third pit stop with just eight laps remaining. (Massa was one of just two drivers to stop three times in the race.) Even with the fresh tires, though, Massa was still quickly passed by Romain Grosjean on-track — the merciful end to his descent down the order.

We’ll see if the second half of the season sees any teams having a totally forgettable day on par with Williams’ unbelievable struggles in China.

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