Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2019

Have Mercedes made a tactical error before the race has even started?

2019 Russian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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If the Singapore Grand Prix served to remind us anything, it’s that race strategy in the current era is all about the ‘undercut’.

Get your (usually) single pit stop out of the way early and cash in the benefit of being first to run on fresh tyres. That’s the easiest route to victory; that’s how Sebastian Vettel won last week.

So why have Mercedes apparently given up their opportunity to use the ‘undercut’ before the race has even started? Putting Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas on medium tyres for the race, when Ferrari will start on softs, appears to do just that.

On the face of it, this looks like a doubly bad decision in light of Hamilton bagging second on the grid between the two Ferraris. Having harder tyres than Vettel will make it harder to keep the third-placed Ferrari behind.

Pole sitter Charles Leclerc is sure Ferrari has gone the right way. “I think the start is very important here and we thought that the benefits of starting on soft was big,” he said. “And then there was not much difference, in terms of degradation, from the soft to the medium. So we thought it was worth it to make it our start tyre.”

After qualifying Toto Wolff made a remark that gave a clue to Mercedes’ thinking. He expects the long, near-900 metre, run to the first braking zone at the start makes it inevitable the Ferraris will be running first and second at the end of lap one. Mercedes reckoned that even if they could split the Ferraris on the grid, it will only prove a temporary arrangement.

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So how to beat them? How to unlock Mercedes’ usually superior race stint pace against a car which starts ahead and is likely to be very hard to pass on the straights?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Expect Ferrari’s one-three to become a one-two on lap one
Clearly Ferrari can’t rely on the same tactics they won in Singapore, of slowing the field down several seconds off the pace to limit their rivals’ opportunity to pit. Sochi’s long straights surely make that too great a risk even with their superior straight-line speed.

Mercedes are therefore probably intending to do a combination of ‘undercut’ and ‘overcut’. Whichever W10 is running ahead at the end of lap one will make an aggressively early pit stop and force at least one of the Ferraris to react. The other will go long – longer than either of the Ferraris can on their soft tyres – maybe even far enough that switching to soft tyres becomes a possibility. They may even get lucky and be able to pit during a Safety Car period.

As far as Hamilton’s tyre choice goes, he said he “just wanted to be on something different” to the Ferraris. Not copying their strategy is a smart move, but after his frustration at not being brought in early enough for his pit stop in Singapore, he will surely be pressing Mercedes hard not to miss the chance to ‘undercut’ Ferrari in Sochi.

Another opportunity for Mercedes could lie in fuel use. Sochi is one of the harder tracks for fuel consumption, and previously this was a weakness of the Ferrari power unit. At the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a similarly stop-start circuit, Vettel was being advised to save fuel when he went off under pressure from Hamilton.

The Red Bulls could throw a wildcard into the front runners’ strategies. Both are starting out of position due to penalties, and if either plan to run long opening stints they could end up interfering with the leaders’ pit windows.

Sochi has not produced many exciting races in its short F1 history so far. But tomorrow’s grand prix is at least set up to give us a tactical battle for victory.

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Qualifying times in full


Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Charles LeclercFerrari1’33.6131’32.434 (-1.179)1’31.628 (-0.806)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’33.2301’33.134 (-0.096)1’32.030 (-1.104)
3Sebastian VettelFerrari1’33.0321’32.536 (-0.496)1’32.053 (-0.483)
4Max VerstappenRed Bull1’33.3681’32.634 (-0.734)1’32.310 (-0.324)
5Valtteri BottasMercedes1’33.4131’33.281 (-0.132)1’32.632 (-0.649)
6Carlos Sainz JnrMcLaren1’34.1841’33.807 (-0.377)1’33.222 (-0.585)
7Nico HulkenbergRenault1’34.2361’33.898 (-0.338)1’33.289 (-0.609)
8Lando NorrisMcLaren1’34.2011’33.725 (-0.476)1’33.301 (-0.424)
9Romain GrosjeanHaas1’34.2831’33.643 (-0.640)1’33.517 (-0.126)
10Daniel RicciardoRenault1’34.1381’33.862 (-0.276)1’33.661 (-0.201)
11Pierre GaslyToro Rosso1’34.4561’33.950 (-0.506)
12Sergio PerezRacing Point1’34.3361’33.958 (-0.378)
13Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo1’34.7551’34.037 (-0.718)
14Kevin MagnussenHaas1’33.8891’34.082 (+0.193)
15Lance StrollRacing Point1’34.2871’34.233 (-0.054)
16Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’34.840
17George RussellWilliams1’35.356
18Robert KubicaWilliams1’36.474
19Alexander AlbonRed Bull1’39.197
20Daniil KvyatToro Rosso

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Charles Leclerc33.333 (1)31.319 (1)26.939 (2)
Lewis Hamilton33.807 (5)31.518 (3)26.705 (1)
Sebastian Vettel33.433 (2)31.506 (2)27.056 (4)
Max Verstappen33.680 (3)31.641 (5)26.989 (3)
Valtteri Bottas33.749 (4)31.559 (4)27.191 (6)
Carlos Sainz Jnr34.138 (14)31.815 (6)27.269 (7)
Nico Hulkenberg34.072 (9)31.984 (8)27.183 (5)
Lando Norris34.099 (11)31.909 (7)27.293 (8)
Romain Grosjean33.986 (7)32.099 (11)27.409 (10)
Daniel Ricciardo34.129 (13)32.170 (13)27.362 (9)
Pierre Gasly34.351 (17)32.123 (12)27.476 (11)
Sergio Perez34.064 (8)32.250 (14)27.592 (12)
Antonio Giovinazzi34.115 (12)32.266 (15)27.656 (13)
Kevin Magnussen33.924 (6)32.065 (9)27.768 (15)
Lance Stroll34.073 (10)32.276 (16)27.729 (14)
Kimi Raikkonen34.173 (15)32.365 (17)28.052 (16)
George Russell34.423 (18)32.681 (18)28.252 (17)
Robert Kubica34.886 (19)33.087 (19)28.450 (18)
Alexander Albon34.223 (16)32.098 (10)32.506 (19)
Daniil Kvyat

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Lance StrollRacing PointMercedes328.3 (204.0)
2George RussellWilliamsMercedes326.9 (203.1)-1.4
3Sergio PerezRacing PointMercedes326.8 (203.1)-1.5
4Daniel RicciardoRenaultRenault324.4 (201.6)-3.9
5Robert KubicaWilliamsMercedes324.3 (201.5)-4.0
6Romain GrosjeanHaasFerrari323.7 (201.1)-4.6
7Sebastian VettelFerrariFerrari323.1 (200.8)-5.2
8Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari322.7 (200.5)-5.6
9Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari322.7 (200.5)-5.6
10Pierre GaslyToro RossoHonda322.4 (200.3)-5.9
11Nico HulkenbergRenaultRenault322.0 (200.1)-6.3
12Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes321.3 (199.6)-7.0
13Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrari320.9 (199.4)-7.4
14Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari320.5 (199.1)-7.8
15Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes320.0 (198.8)-8.3
16Lando NorrisMcLarenRenault319.6 (198.6)-8.7
17Carlos Sainz JnrMcLarenRenault319.1 (198.3)-9.2
18Max VerstappenRed BullHonda317.3 (197.2)-11.0
19Alexander AlbonRed BullHonda314.5 (195.4)-13.8

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Drivers’ remaining tyres

Lewis HamiltonMercedes101103
Valtteri BottasMercedes101103
Sebastian VettelFerrari101103
Charles LeclercFerrari101103
Max VerstappenRed Bull101004
Alexander AlbonRed Bull101041
Daniel RiccairdoRenault101004
Nico HulkenbergRenault011004
Kevin MagnussenHaas101014
Romain GrosjeanHaas101004
Carlos Sainz JnrMcLaren101004
Lando NorrisMcLaren101004
Sergio PerezRacing Point101014
Lance StrollRacing Point101014
Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo011032
Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo101014
Daniil KvyatToro Rosso102040
Pierre GaslyToro Rosso101014
George RussellWilliams101113
Robert KubicaWilliams102013

Over to you

Can Mercedes find a way to get out from behind the Ferraris? And can Red Bull salvage a result from their compromised starting positions?

Share your views on the Russian Grand Prix in the comments.

2019 Russian Grand Prix

    Browse all 2019 Russian Grand Prix articles

    Author information

    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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    40 comments on “Have Mercedes made a tactical error before the race has even started?”

    1. Speed trap
      Bottas 321.3km/h
      Leclerc 320.5km/h
      If you ask Toto he will tell a tall story about straight speed of Ferrari.
      The point is Ferrari has an power advantage of course as gps data show but it’s not as big as clowns like Toto exaggerate.

      1. top speed is nothing at the speedtrap it’s how fast you get at that speed. And Ferrari is just a bit better on doing that.

      2. Power is for acceleration in high downforce race cars, nobody cares for top end. It doesn’t matter if I’m at a higher top speed at the end of the straight, if you reached your terminal velocity long before I did.

        1. Mercedes claimed that, they are producing more downforce than Ferrari, they also said Ferrari is a lower drag car. But somehow they are still faster at the speed trap. Unless Ferrari has a speed limitor than there must something really strange. Top speed do not tell much about your lap time but it tells a little about acceleration. As I said before the point is Ferrari has an power advantage as gps data shows but it’s not as big as Toto exaggerate.

      3. So you haven’t seen the onboards of just how big the gap is that Ferrari are making on the straights compared to Merc & Red Bull?

        If the Ferrari didn’t have that speed advantage/deployment of speed & it was level with the Merc. They’d be behind the Merc’s.

      4. Speaking of “clowns…”

      5. Oh dear. Instead of watching the speed trap, try going back along the track a bit and watch how the cars come out of the preceding corner and get to that speed.

      6. Yes and Stroll had a 328.3. So Mercedes must be much faster. Although Hamilton had only 320, so how slow must he be? /s

        Or perhaps that speed trap says nothing?

        Just look at the video comparing Leclerc’s pole lap vs Hamilton’s effort and it’s crystal clear that Leclerc is pulling away every time the track straightens out.

        1. That Lance Stroll must be the fastest driver on the grid with that speed trap, he’s definitely going to win the race /s

      7. hamiledon, any particular reason why you chose to pick the slower of the two Ferrari cars (Leclerc) and the faster of the two Mercedes cars (Bottas) in a straight line when you ran your comparison?

        Is there also any particular reason why you are only considering that single speed trap figure, when in fact the position of the speed trap is not at the fastest point of the circuit?

        If you look at the individual sectors, you will realise that the maximum straight line speeds were actually recorded at the second intermediate timing split, not at the official speed trap.

        The fastest recorded speed was actually Giovinazzi, at 330.0kph, through the second intermediate split, not the 328.3kph that Stroll recorded at the official speed trap position.

        If you look at the data from the second speed trap, both Ferrari’s were faster than Mercedes in that location:
        Vettel: 329.0kph
        Leclerc: 328.9kph
        Bottas: 325.6kph
        Hamilton: 324.8kph

    2. On the same tyres, Ferrari control the pace and their own tyre degradation. But offset means that they’ll have to push more on the softs or risk Mercedes beating them over the race distance. Not sure it will work either, but it’s difficult to see how else Mercedes stand a chance right now.

    3. Just watch the lap comparison for yourself where Leclerc beats Lewis


      Straight line speed

      1. We must be watching different videos. In some corners lerclerc is faster. In others lewis faster. The straightline speed difference is mostly about where the teams have programmed their electric power to be deployed. Most of the time they accelerate at equal pace but in some places they are doing more or less than the other car which is not about power difference but just the two teams choosing different deployment zones around the track. Also the differences are minimal. You are looking at differences of half of tenth in some corners which is more about driver than the car.

        1. @socksolid Yes you must have watched the wrong video. For Sochi all but the last straight are colored red (ie advantage Leclerc) and Hamilton was faster in all corners (colored green) apart from turn 8.

          Leclerc only lost that last straight because he messed up turn 16. Otherwise he’d be 8 or 9 tenths up on Hamilton overall.

          It’s staggering, but Leclerc is that much faster on the straights that, even when losing time in the turns, Leclerc is already 7 tenths ahead after sector 2.

        2. @socksolid I don’t know what to say if you respond to this video the way that you do.

          The video shows a total domination of acceleration and speed on the straights.

          1. @anunaki, it might be better to use the official comparison video for the pole laps in Russia, where you can see that domination of the acceleration and straight line speed even more clearly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE2VmGLqYCE

          2. Anon’s video clearly shows speed advantage of the ferrari but the Patrick’s @anunaki video doesn’t. In patrick’s video on the early part of the lap ferrari gains on some straights because that is where they have decided to use more electric power than mercedes. For the first turns leclerc carries less speed into the first corners but gets better exit. For untrained eye it looks hamilton just loses time on the straight. But he carried too much speed in which compromised his exit speed out of the corner.

            At 0:20 hamilton simply doesn’t get the corner right. Leclerc carries a lot more speed through the corner which not only makes him faster before he even gets back on throttle but hamilton even misses the apex slightly. I’ve heard a saying that missing the apex by a foot is one tenth of lap time all other things equal. But of course all other things are not equal as missing the apex means hamilton’s corner has to be tighter. Ferrari has also prioritized the following straight for more electric power than mercedes. In the end all this amounts to 0.24s difference out of which 0.1s was lost in the corner. 0.15s on the straight while also leclerc doing better job with the corner exit is not engine difference that is even worth mentioning.

            And later in the lap merc gains on straights as well. Like at 1:05. If ferrari has a killer engine then how does hamilton gain on ferrari on that straight? Leclerc doesn’t make a mistake on the previous corner and hamilton doesn’t absolutely nail it either. Mercedes has simply prioritized that straight for their electric output whereas ferrari prioritized the earlier long straight.

            Rest of the lap is all about driver differences. Hamilton does better job and catches up.

            For untrained eye who can not understand why stuff happens it is easy to come to the wrong conclusion that one is faster on straights than others. But once you analyze how the cars took the previous corner you learn about why there are other reasons other than just engine power which can make one car go faster on straight. For example if a car gets a bad exit out of any corner then he carries that time penalty for as long until the cars hits the top speed. For every moment the cars are accelerating the car with worse exit is travelling at slower speed. Less knowledgeable person might think it is all the engine power but in reality it was just driver not getting a good exit out of the corner.

            1. I posted the wrong video. The one from Singapore. That’s why it’s not clear.

              Not sure how that happened

    4. Not sure how degradation is looking but is it possible Mercedes pit early and go onto the soft tyre to get the maximum benefit of undercut? Probably too ambitious to go to the end but degradation at Sochi is generally quite low. It could at least give them track position with one car to try and interfere with Ferrari to the benefit of their other car.

      1. @keithedin
        They (Mercedes) don’t have any fresh softs left.
        If they want to undercut Ferrari, they will have to do it on the hards.
        Ferrari on the other hand can use either mediums or hards in their 2nd stint, whereas Mercedes are nailed on the hards.

        1. They have fresh softs that completed only an out lap in Q2. They have the option to undercut Ferrari or overcut them.

          1. I’d say it should be Hamilton that takes the soft and go long with the medium, while Bottas should go with the normal Medium-Hard. Hamilton has been very good this year doing this.

          2. @Boudi No, all the soft-sets they used in qualifying were used for a flying lap.

    5. I’d say have Hamilton run longer since he is clearly the one doing the better job with this strategy while have Bottas be aggressive to take the earlier stop.

    6. Further I believe Mercedes is choking their cars / pulling their punches to protect the interests of F1 and their own team, by making the fan believe they’re watching a close fight… It’s all about winning the championship as slow as possible :)

      1. If your brain goes there, there’s something wrong with you man. Take off your tinfoil hat and come back to the real world.

        1. @crystakke – but you did understand, that George.be was just making fun, right? :) Why so upset?

    7. It’s really going to come down to how quickly degradation occurs, on each car, and on the tires of each car. Low degradation on mediums are going to give MB the advantage over race distance. They’ll have to switch to softs, but not before Ferrari has to switch to mediums or hards. But should be an interesting race.

    8. It will be a huge achievement if Lewis is still P2 at the end of lap one considering the acceleration of that ‘Jet fueled’ Ferrari. The surface of this track is easier on the tyre and the overcut might work here as the new Hard tyre might take a lap or two to switch on and that might offer Mercedes some chance of an overcut. Still very hard for Mercedes to win which is now the second best car on the grid clearly behind Ferrari.
      Let’s just say if Lewis wins it will be a huge achievement as in all likelihood Ferrari is favorite to win this.
      Hoping for rain so that Max can be in the mix as well.

      1. It will be a huge achievement if Lewis is still P2 at the end of lap one considering the acceleration of that ‘Jet fueled’ Ferrari.

        On the other hand, bear in mind that it is Vettel challenging for P2, and he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory recently in wheel-to-wheel racing, particularly against Hamilton.

        This’ll all be moot if Leclerc bogs the start – IIRC there has been an occasion or two where he’s been a bit tardy off the line.

    9. Mercedes might be thinking that their drivers will need the hards when passing LEC as he will push them into the marbles.

    10. Tactical battle for second
      Leclerc isn’t losing this

    11. Can Mercedes find a way to get out from behind the Ferraris? – No.
      And can Red Bull salvage a result from their compromised starting positions? – Yes.

    12. If the circuit is Singapore maybe.
      Mercedes won with this strategy passing Max.
      Only way to beat Ferrari for Merc with speed deficit if works in this circuit.

    13. It worked multiple times before, could work now too. Mercedes still seems marginally faster in race trim, if there’s a SC too in the 2nd part of the race… HAM might be 1st at the end of the race.

    14. There were races this year where a faster pace at the end was enough to pass and win, Hungary and Austria. There’s not a single way to win, which is good, Mercedes strategy could work or not, their strategy seems to be go out of Ferrari scheduling most of time and capitalize in what they believe is their superior race trim.
      Will it work? I don’t know, no one here does, so I think it’s wrong to say at this time that Mercedes failed. We’ll see.

      1. Indeed, not being almost certain is already better than a lot of races. And as long as that uncertainty about the race outcome lasts, it is certainly not a bad thing for F1.

    15. Lol, I wrote this on a comment. I don’t expect merc to pit the first merc early on, in this strategy bottas will pit very early for track position regardless of a need for a 2nd pitstop.

    16. If the Singapore Grand Prix served to remind us anything, it’s that race strategy in the current era is all about the ‘undercut’.

      Yet Austria, Silverstone Hungary and Monza have shown us that it’s all about offset strategies created by`going long’.

    Comments are closed.