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.