Nico Rosberg will start the Chinese Grand Prix tomorrow from pole position having set pole an incredible 0.5 seconds faster than his closest rival. Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo will line up second on the grid, with the Scuderia Ferrari duo lining up on the second row. Lewis Hamilton will start from either the back of the grid or the pitlane with MGU-H issues curtailing his qualifying session and likely forcing the team to introduce his second power unit of the season significantly earlier than planned. Something which could cause a headache for the team later in the year.
With Formula One returning the 2015 qualifying procedure for the Chinese Grand Prix, regulations around tyre selection have also returned. One such regulation is that drivers progressing into Q3 must start the race on tyres they set their fastest lap on in Q2. Intriguingly in Q2, the Mercedes team elected to send Nico Rosberg out on Soft compound tyres, despite all other contenders electing to set times on the Super Soft. The rationale for this decision within the session proved logical with Nico setting the fastest time in the session despite running a harder compound tyre. However with heavy rain preceding the event and cooler temperatures than were seen on Friday and are forecast for the race, the impact of tyre compounds had been marginalised.
This decision forces Nico Rosberg to start tomorrow’s race on a tyre compound which is known to be slower than every car around him. Whilst the performance of the Mercedes W07 suggests a significant advantage over the field, there is a growing belief that that aerodynamic efficiency of the car creates challenges for drivers when dealing with traffic. With Nico Rosberg’s likely title contender Lewis Hamilton starting at the back of the grid, and with Mercedes struggling to consistently optimise start line performance in the opening races of the 2016 season, why did Mercedes make this call? Nico could have elected to run Super Soft tyre in Q2 along with every other car in the top ten and in so doing have taken a considered and calculated approach to the race, mirroring or reacting to the strategy of those around them. In starting on the Soft tyre compound this is no longer an option.
Should Nico fall behind the Ferrari’s or Red Bull around him, spending his opening stint on a suboptimal tyre possibly 0.8’s per lap slower could damage the team’s prospects of securing victory in China. Question marks over the longevity of the Super Soft tyre seem somewhat unwarranted with the soft tyre compound having lasted only 6 laps long in Free Practice stints.
Such a strategy call suggest that either the team have a genuine concern over the race pace of Ferrari, or locked themselves into a strategy ahead of the session and choose not to respond to Hamilton falling out of the process.
Pirelli commented on the strategy call
“Tyre wear and degradation in China is traditionally high, so the optimal strategy should theoretically be a three-stopper: start on the supersoft and then change to the soft on laps 11, 26 and 41. An alternative strategy (Rosberg, for example) would be to start the race on soft, run soft for the majority of the race (changing around lap 16 and 31), and then put on the supersoft for the final stint around lap 46. Am S/S/S/Mediuum strategy looks interesting but slightly slower.”
The Chinese Grand Prix has all the makings of a classic Grand Prix.