2008 French GP preview: McLaren tactics

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Magny-Cours, 2007, 470150

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

Vitantonio Liuzzi, Anthony Davidson, Magny-Cours, 2007, 470313

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

Nick Heidfeld, Fernando Alonso, Magny-Cours, 2007, 470313

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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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. Sush said on 16th June 2008, 16:23

    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. ninguen said on 16th June 2008, 16:42

    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. cyanide said on 16th June 2008, 17:13

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

  5. Dorian said on 16th June 2008, 17:50

    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 said on 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. Sassan said on 16th June 2008, 18:52

    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. Oliver said on 16th June 2008, 21:49

    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. frecon said on 16th June 2008, 22:08

    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. frecon said on 16th June 2008, 22:13

    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. Sassan said on 16th June 2008, 22:29

    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. Melanie said on 17th June 2008, 3:02

    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. George said on 17th June 2008, 7:46

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

  15. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 17th June 2008, 9:03

    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…

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