2008 French GP preview: McLaren tactics

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Lewis Hamilton is not the first person to receive a grid penalty for a race before the weekend has even started. But this weekend’s French Grand prix will be the first time a leading driver has gone into an event knowing he will drop ten places.

Despite this Hamilton last week said he was “quite confident” he could win in Magny-Cours.

What should McLaren’s tactics be for coping with his unusual problem? It seems to me they have two choices:

The problem as I see it is this: McLaren have to choose how to approach qualifying and their fuel strategy for the race, knowing that wherever Hamilton qualifies he will start ten place further back on the grid.

If he does make it through to the final part of qualifying then he will have to start the race with the amount of fuel he qualifies with, even though he will inevitably start outside of the top ten.

McLaren then seem to have three options: deliberately fail to make Q3 and start from the back row of the grid with a full tank of fuel; get into Q3 and use a heavy fuel load; or get into Q3 and use a light fuel load. Let’s look at how each of these scenarios might pan out:

Fail to make Q3 and start heavy

If they want to start Hamilton trimmed to the top with fuel then it might be worth not going out to qualify at all. In fact, they might want to start him from the pit lane – it’s a short run to the first corner at Magny-Cour with little opportunity for overtaking but plenty of chances for a race-ruining crash, as Anthony Davidson and Vitantonio Liuzzi found out last year (above).

Running ultra-heavy would be worth considering if they expected lots of safety car periods as at Montreal or Monte-Carlo. But this is Magny-Cours: the last safety car period I remember during a race here was in the wet race in 1999.

Starting last with a very heavy fuel load doesn’t look like a sensible option. He should pick off the Force Indias, Toro Rossos and probably Nelson Piquet Jnr, but after that the weight of the car is going to make passing very difficult at a track where overtaking is hard enough already.

Make Q3 and start heavy

This option probably makes the least sense of all – a kind of amalgamation of the worst qualities of the other two options. If he went into Q3 with a lot of fuel on board, he’d probably qualify sixth at best and start 16th behind a load of slightly heavier-fuelled cars.

Make Q3 and start light

I think this is the option McLaren are most likely to go with. Going light on fuel in qualifying would give him a chance of making the front row, leaving him just outside the top ten.

With a much lighter fuel load than the cars around him he would stand a better chance of getting past them although it still wouldn’t be easy.

Fernando Alonso’s race at the same track last year provides a useful case study: he had to start tenth after a car problem in Q3 and was locked into a light fuel load. He spent several laps stuck behind Nick Heidfeld and although he eventually put a sweet move on the German driver at the Imola chicane, ended up behind him at the chequered flag because of how the strategies had worked out.

If the configuration of the Magny-Cours circuit works against Hamilton by making overtaking difficult, then the short pit lane plays into his hands by making a three-stop strategy viable. Michael Schumacher even used a four-stop strategy here four years ago but that would be too risky in Hamilton’s situation.

The prospect of having to fight through the field will no doubt appeal to Hamilton who showed great relish for it in the past at Interlagos last year and famously at Istanbul in GP2 in 2006. He put a bold, instictive pass on Robert Kubica at the track here last year at the Adelaide hairpin.

But even so his insistence that he can win in France seems to be pure bravado. Realistically even finishing in the bottom half of the points will be a result.

And what should Williams do with Rosberg?

Nico Rosberg has the same penalty as Hamilton but as his Williams FW30 is rarely capable of making the front two or three rows of the grid on pure pace it seems to me the heavier fuel strategy would suit him better.

Brimmed full of fuel and leaning his engine out as much as possible, his best bet to get points seems to be being the last person to pit.

Rosberg may be hoping even more feverishly than Hamilton that the rain which has fallen in the region in recent days will still be there in six days’ time.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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28 comments on “2008 French GP preview: McLaren tactics”

  1. Hamilton (and Rosberg in fact) is at an advantage in that he knows about his penalty a fortnight in advance – which will have allowed his team to run multiple simulations.

    Talking about winning the race is simply crazy, and shows a complete lack of respect for those he is racing against!

    Of course he needs to have some self-confidence, but this area is one where the comparisons of Lewis to Tiger Woods fall woefully short.

    No doubt he will now go on to win the race by three laps… ;)

  2. The MP4/23 doesn’t like being full of fuel.

    as evident by Heikki’s perfomance at Istanbul, and Hamiltons at Bahrain.

    i’d say light fuel load for them, heavy for Rosberg.

  3. Last year Hamilton had a great strategy, with ight fuel load in 3 stops, the mistake last year with Alonso was to try to change the strategy during the race, it was disastrous, while Hamilton, as he could maintain his initial strategy worked perfect and it seems to suit perfectly waht he like.
    France is difficult but not impossible to overtake, and to the cars with high fuel it would be relatively easy in the hairpin (¿adelaide, melbourne? o cant remember) mclaren usually has high top speed, i think this should be their strategy

  4. Besides, Hamilton is not very kind to his tyres. Having a long first stint will do him no good.

  5. Yeah, they’ll fuel him light hoping that he’ll get pole. If he does, he’ll drop to 10th and from there I think (due to his mindset and driving style) he’ll try and go hell for leather and try to win.

    I’m thinking that even if his car is good and he drives well, he probably won’t make it higher than 5th, IMHO.

  6. Robert McKay
    16th June 2008, 17:55

    This is an interesting one. I can’t remember many occasions where a front running driver got a 10 place grid penalty and really managed to get a decent (i.e. top 4 or 5) result with it. It doesn’t happen so much now, of course, with the increased engine reliability…

    I’m sure 90% of the time the teams go for your third option. It *looks* like it’s working well, because the car is light and fast and you pass a few guys and you might be on the fringes of the points, but then you stop well before the guys you’re racing on the fringes of the top 10, and spend the day passing and repassing them several times on your way to 8th and a solitary point, if you’re lucky.

    It’s difficult to make that work even if you get pole, and remembering Mclaren last year they were well short of Ferrari’s pace at Magny-Cours, and struggled to overcome BMW. So if the Ferrari guys beat you and Heikki beats you and Kubica’s threatening, you’re looking at possibly 14th/15th if you are on a “normal light” Q3 strategy, and if you take much more out it only compromises you even more anyway in the long run.

    My suggstion is this: take a set of the worst tyres, go set a nominal time in Q1, and don’t go out again. You’ll be back of the grid, though if anyone has a penalty/engine change/gearbox change after quali you’ll make a spot up (I think). Other than that, you’ll save all the sets of tyres you would have used. There’s no point throwing all your tyres at the problem to qualify 13th. You’ll save a little engine mileage, and importantly you can keep your fuel choice free too: put more in than the top 4 or 5, but less than the DC-types who’ll brim it and see how the race pans out.

    The risks are, of course, that the field spread to the leader from being 20th is greater than the field spread to the leader from being 11th, there’s more people to be stuck behind trying to pass, and there’s a decent chance of getting involved in a first corner accident, but that risk is inherent from 11th anyway.

    I think the crucial thing to remember is that in any normal race, you’re not going to win it with a 10 place grid penalty, no matter what you do. I think that’s the fact of it. Luck of weather and Safety Cars excepted, you’re racing to try and get some points – 4th, 5th maybe.

    I suspect they will go for your option 3 Keith, but I’d like to see them try 1, simply because I cannot remember a major frontrunner trying that option.

  7. All this talk of fuel to stratify his race makes more of a reason why they should ban refuelling. Do qualyfying on a full fuel tank then at the end fill it up to the top for the race for all the cars. No refuelling during the race and then it would be a test of the fastest. Who agrees?

    In terms of the race he should start heavy and start on the soft tyres. If it rains he might get a lucky podium or win. The safety car could even help to his advantage and disadvantage to the frontrunners. I do find it shocking because 20 years ago a driver could win from that position with the low downforce, turbos and no refuelling and now as overtaking is almost like a UFO visiting we have come to imply a driver can’t win from this type of position. Isn’t F1 suppose to be pinnacle of Motorsport. I do hope Lewis and Heikki do well.

    Anyone agree?

  8. I think he should realistically target 5th of 6th position but the team should be well aware of the track situation and change his strategy during the race.

    1) Qualify very light with at least 4 laps less fuel than nearest top 4 competitor, to guarantee pole position or second.. start 11th or 12th.

    2)Aim to overtake minimum of 2 cars at the start and then 2 or 3 more within the next 2 laps probably near the hairpin. Then keep in touch with the leading group.

    3) IF Mclaren see that the spread of the cars is sufficient for them to give him a longer second stint then they go for that or else, pit with a second short stint to ensure he is well ahead of cars in 9th position and down.

    But all of this will be academic if he finds himself behind a Trulli or Barichello for a reasonable length of time.

    I do not see Mclaren going any other way than a 3 or 4 stopper as the initial plan and then optimizing to suit the prevailing conditions.

    Rosberg just has to start from the pits. Do a very long first stint, then probably 2 very short stints.

  9. I have a question. In Mclaren there is no number 1 and number 2 driver. But this weekend Kovalainen could help Lewis blocking some cars, reducing gaps between Hamilton and others cars situated in front of him.

    I think is pretty logic, but I’ve heard several times the equality issue, and I guess Heiki shouldn’t help Lewis.

    Is it right?

  10. By the way, Schumacher won with a 4 stop strategy. He was in the front of the grid, though.

    But, what i mean is Magny-Cours pit lane doesn’t make you loose a lot of time.

  11. I agree with you Frecon however i do see it being a ferrari 1-2.

  12. I think that Oliver has the more realistic point until now. But with we were at Turkey they can target the podium, but in Magny Cours…

  13. I seem to recall that Kimi in 2005 went from 13th to second place.

    So Lewis might still do something, the only question is tyre wear. Magny Cours are one of the track during the year that is the worst on tyres. So Mclaren should rather fuel Lewis lighter and use a 3 stop strategy.

    I think they should give Heikki a winning strategy this weekend, for more then one reason. The first reason is obvious Lewis has to start with the grid penalty, the second reason is their position in the constructors championship. They have a better car then BMW but they are currently behind BMW. They should try to score as much points as possible without holding one driver back. Even if Heikki does try to hold others back it doesn’t necessarily mean Lewis would benefit from it, realistically they should put their efforts behind Heikki for this race.

  14. I wonder what the weather is going to be like? Of course, if it rains, you could win from anywhere on the grid…

  15. The five-day weather forecasts should be available soon George so we’ll have a decent idea. It’s one of those tracks that really needs a drop of rain!

    If McLaren did use Kovalainen to hold up the rest of the field I think they’d get pulled up for using team orders very quickly. And it would undermine their repeated insistence that Hamilton and Kovalainen get equal treatment.

    Oliver is right to point out that a lot of it comes down to how the leading group spreads out in the opening stages. McLaren will be hoping for a Trulli train…

  16. Why would McLaren get pulled in for using team orders? Ferrari used team orders last season to make sure Kimi got as many points as possible at expense of Massa. Heikki isn’t out of the title race yet, but he is already a long way behind. Had it been Kimi and Massa, Ferrari would already give preferential treatment to Kimi and no one would blink an eye. But when it comes to McLaren everyone screams bloody murder.

  17. You’re entirely right about Ferrari using team orders at Interlagos last year but because of how they manipulated the race strategies there’s no way you could prove it.

    But one McLaren going conspicuously slowly on the track (rather like Jacques Villeneuve at Suzuka in 1997) would look dodgy, and I’m sure if Ferrari put in an appeal against it they’d win.

  18. Keith, I didn’t mean only in Interlagos, but ever since Massa was way behind in points. Funny thing is, the situation between Ferrari and McLaren has reversed from last year. Two Ferrari drivers are taking points away from each other while there is only one serious McLaren contender.

    As for team orders, can the FIA do anything if the second driver willingly drives slowly to help his team and team mate without the team knowing?

  19. If I were responsible for Lewis’ race strategy , fair weather permitting , I would advise starting with a light fuel load , which should secure pole , effectively starting him 11th . Lewis in a light car , could end him running around 5th after about 10 laps . He could pit around lap 12 , then fuel heavy to take him through to 12 laps before the end. Being heavier fuelled during the mid-phase of the race , would be much less of a penalty than starting heavy , as the cars tend to be more spread out which allows more consistent speed to be achieved. Also , by the time the front runners pit for 2nd stop , he could continue for around 10 more laps – by then running a lighter car – put in some blisteringly fast laps , do a quick stop , and come out using soft option tires to finish off. The critical thing would be conserving the tires for the long middle stint. Assuming his strategy , whatever it is , ends up perfect , considering the small performance gap between Ferrari/McLaren/BMW , I think a win would still be a very tall order. McLaren may also use Heikki (as he is effectively not in the championship race), try to get him out in front to slow the pace in initial phase while Lewis does his business further back , so I guess betting on a very “light” Heikki taking pole may not be a bad thing.

  20. The Ferrari does tend to be quite good around France, so Lewis will probably get 3rd at best with a light load. With the heavy load he’ll have to carry he would probably only get fifth – so he would be starting 15th. The French GP is hard to win from 15th place – considering that rain probably won’t happen.

  21. I agree with the consensus that starting light and trying to qualify as high as possible will yield the best results in Magny-Cours due to the the likely lack of safety car periods, the high tyre wear and relatively short pitlane at this venue. Another factor which favours this strategy is that he’ll gain back one grid place immediately if Rosberg qualifies within 10 positions of him (so posting the 2nd quickest time could mean 11th on the grid).

    If Ferrari’s pace is dominant in practice they could look to compromise this strategy and maximise their advantage from the weekend by also going a couple of laps lighter in qualifying and comdemning Hamilton to no better than 12th on the grid.

    Even if Hamilton does maximise his qualifying position, I can see him finishing no better than 5th (unless it rains). Also, how significant is the penalty of carrying extra fuel in qualifying at this track? How conceivable is it that he fails to post the fastest Q3 time with, say, 6 laps less fuel than both Ferraris?

  22. I wasn’t talking about FIA.

    Can Mclaren gives orders to Heiki in order to benefit Lewis?

    I think with all the equal treatment issue, they can’t. Even being the best option.

  23. I think Robert McKay has the right idea. If running heavy and praying all the cars in front of you break works so well, Red Bull, Toyota, and Honda would have wins.

    Even if Hamilton cannot finish in points, he’s going to want to finish as well as possible just in case his finish position is needed as a tiebreaker.

    The question I’d rather see asked is, what should BMW’s strategy be? They should be licking their chops at the opportunity to get one over on Ferrari again.

  24. Hamilton under pressure – he cant hack it and makes mistakes

  25. Qualify light. Start light. 2nd stint heavy. 3rd light. It’s the only plan that makes sense.

  26. I agree with KB above – I think there’s a significant chance that Hamilton is going to overdrive the car in qualifying, getting a 3rd or 4th, start 13th or 14th (after making up a place from Rosberg) and then wipe out somewhere in the first few laps, as in the back of Alonso’s car at Bahrain.

    That said, if he can genuinely keep his cool all weekend, get his head down and pull out a good 6th or 7th then I’ll take all of that back. The reason I respected Hamilton last year was his level headedness and pragmatic approach to the whole weekend, which combined with the occasional flourish of brilliant flair was truly inspiring. It was like he was in the pursuit of excellence. This year he’s just about the pursuit of flair and it’s not impressive.

  27. He will try to be on pole and then go for a “Schumacheresque” 4 pit stop strategy and use the shorter pit lane to his advantage. Why? because he can’t make his tires last. Running shorter stints will give him the perfect excuse to abuse those tires and look flamboyant on the track as well. That will sure become something that his fans will rave about for the rest of the season.

    I don’t see him starting from the pit lane or at the back, because that means he will have to spend a lot of time trying to overtake Giancarlo and Jarno. He needs a grid position ahead of these two.

  28. Kenneth Yale
    24th June 2008, 19:45

    KC’s Franch GP review was a good article & there wasn’t much one could criticise. We all have our own ideas of team/driver tactics on Saturdays but come Sunday one feels like I do,occasionally upset because my guy/car didn’t win. Team bosses,drivers & cars(plus sponsors!!) do get it wrong. That’s GP racing & always has been.Mind you in the old days of support by Castrol, Dunlop & Goodyear, there were less pressures on the drivers,but they still gave of their best.
    At one time only newspapers,radio, magazines & cinema news could criticise & get it wrong & it has not changed with the addition of TV & PC’s.Yes,carry on having your say but think about you what you are writing & try not to add too much pressure on the guys who really do their best.

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