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How F1 strategy "headache" opens up intriguing Japanese GP

Formula 1 is braced for one of those rare occasions in Japan where tyre strategy has been blown wide open by all three compounds being good options.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Teams all too frequently bin off one of the choices – either because the soft is too aggressive, the medium falls into no-man's land, or the hard is too conservative – but this weekend's race in Japan has left what Pirelli's head of car racing Mario Isola says is a real "headache" for strategists.

With high degradation at Suzuka making a one-stop pretty much a no-goer (unless we end up with a lengthy safety car period at the perfect point), F1 teams are going to be burning the midnight oil tonight trying to work out how best to plot their way through the various soft/medium/hard combinations that are in play.

The cooler-than-usual temperatures of an April Suzuka race mean that the soft tyre – which is comfortably quicker than the medium – has enough life in it to become an option for the race – while a rougher track surface has kept degradation high for the other compounds.

And with the medium and the hard not being too far apart in terms of their performance, things appear to be much more open than they usually are.

The most logical and safest route is to run a medium/hard/hard, as those two compounds have offered the best consistency so far during the limited practice running.

But, as Isola explains, the soft has thrown a spanner in the works because it could deliver a pretty significant advantage if it is used at the start.

"The soft is 1-1.2 seconds per second quicker than the medium," he said. "And that means that if you want to get the advantage at the start of the race with a compound that is giving you a lot more grip, you take it.

"Sure you have a shorter first stint, around 10 laps, but then you can plan a strategy with the soft/hard/hard - especially with a powerful undercut."

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

But this combination is not an option that all the teams can run to, with allocation choices already leaving Red Bull, Ferrari and Aston Martin with only one hard available for the race.

That means the medium has to come into play for them, and degradation could need to be managed more, especially if the track is made greener on Sunday morning with light showers expected to sweep through Suzuka.

Wide open choices

Last year, Max Verstappen won with a medium/medium/hard strategy but the soft being a decent option could mean things are different this time around.

Plotting how best to use the tyres if teams do not have two hards is far from clear – soft/hard/medium could be one way of doing it, or even switching it around and going medium/hard/soft – to unleash the soft when the car is at its lightest.

It's not impossible either that teams choose to abandon the hard entirely – especially if track conditions are different by the time the race starts.

Isola added: "Soft/medium/medium is possible. We will see the characteristics of the circuit tomorrow because there is still a possibility of light showers in the morning and if we have light showers, we know that the circuit is going to change.

"I believe that more or less everybody has two sets of mediums, so the strategy is feasible. But the fact that we have 13 cars with two sets of hards in their allocation, I believe it is a clear indication that the hard is a compound they are going to use for the race. Otherwise, they would have got rid of the hard as soon as they can."

The situation has left Isola feeling that there is no single route that stands out as the best, which could make for a fascinating encounter.

"It's difficult to give you a single fastest strategy because it will depend a lot on position on track, and the situation after the start," he said.

"That for me is a lot more interesting because at least we see the teams and their strategy engineers having some headaches."

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, ahead of Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR24

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, ahead of Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR24

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

George Russell was one driver who reckoned it was hard to predict which way everyone would choose to go.

"It'll be interesting," he said. "I think when you look at the tyres remaining, we've got two hards and a medium. I think Ferrari and Red Bull only have one hard. Fernando only has one hard, one medium, so he has to do one stint on the soft. So it's going to be a lot of variety between the top ten cars."

While almost nobody is anticipating that Red Bull will not be in a class of their own at the front, it is the fight behind that could throw up some surprises.

Good news for McLaren?

Based on Pirelli's view that having two hards could be the way forward in minimising the risks of high degradation, that could be especially good news for McLaren – which has Lando Norris third on the grid.

Indeed, McLaren team principal Andrea Stella felt that Ferrari's long-run promise from practice was nothing to be too worried about – as he suggested his own squad had its sights set on that best-of-the-rest spot.

"I suspect they [Ferrari] might have had a little less fuel than Red Bull," he said. "Red Bull, they just look strong here, so I will be surprised that there is a car that is clearly faster on a long run.

"If Ferrari were clearly quicker [on the long run], then that could be a fuel difference. This is one of the highest fuel effects of the season because if you have 10 kilogrammes less, it's between three and four-tenths. So if it's 20 kilogrammes, it is already a completely different category."

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Stella thinks the medium has shown some worrying levels of degradation, which is why his team elected to join Mercedes in keeping two sets of hards back.

"We attempted some long runs in P1 on the medium tyre, and we saw what we expected: the degradation is high," he said.

"We think our tyre allocation with two hard tyres is favourable and we will see tomorrow if this is a good idea or not.

"There are some cars which have two mediums instead: like Ferrari, Red Bull and Aston, and I think they went even 5/1/1 [S/M/H] so they will potentially start on soft, so we will see various scenarios tomorrow. The tyres may be a factor.

"But we think that for what have seen with the high-fuel runs, we should be in the mix. And I think thinking about a podium finish is not too brave."

 

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