What strategy can Raikkonen, Hamilton and Kubica use to get to the front?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Felipe Massa leads the championship contenders at Monza - but is he on a different setup?
Felipe Massa leads the championship contenders at Monza - but is he on a different setup?

Championship contenders Robert Kubica, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton have qualified well below their typical starting places for the Italian Grand Prix. Kubica starts 11th, Raikkonen 14th and Hamilton 15th. Before this race their average starting positions respectively were 4.62, 4.23 and 3.62.

So what strategy should they follow to increase their chances of moving up the field? Here’s my analysis of the situation, share your thoughts below.

Conventional wisdom

Last year at Monza most drivers used one-stop strategies. The long straights of Monza means carrying more fuel has less of a lap time penalty, and the high average speed makes pitting for fuel more time consuming.

Only five drivers who qualified in the top ten used two-stop strategies, in order to be able to run with lighter fuel loads during qualifying. They were both the McLarens, both the BMWs, and Heikki Kovalainen’s Renault. Raikkonen pitted only once, on lap 25.

Having qualified outside the top ten allows Raikkonen, Hamilton and Kubica to put any amount of fuel in they choose. So should they go with the crowd and brim their tanks with fuel, or run lighter in an attempt to make up places on the track?

Costs/benefits of going lighter – Should make overtaking easier, may be in a position to capitalise on an early safety car deployment. But gaining places quickly enough to justify making the extra stop will be difficult.

Costs/benefits of going heavier – One fewer pit stop to make but heavier car makes overtaking tougher.

As Robert Kubica is only behind the drivers who made it into Q3 he can look at the number of laps those drivers in did Q3. All did at least six (although this was in heavy wet conditions and so not using as much fuel as in dry running) so he knows if he starts on a full fuel load he has a good chance of passing many of them.

For Raikkonen and Hamilton the decision is tougher as they start that bit further back. It would probably make sense for them to imitate Raikkonen’s strategy from last year: make one stop, but do it early. That would give them a lighter fuel tank making it easier to pass drivers in the early stages, yet not have to waste time with a second stop for fuel.

What if it rains?

This all assumes the race will be dry. If it rains – which the trio will certainly be hoping for – they have more options. As the drivers outside the top ten can set their fuel load up until the final moments before the start of the race they can take advantage of late developments in the forecast when picking their fuel load.

All the drivers are locked into the setups they started with during qualifying yesterday. Inevitably, some will have leaned more towards a wet than a dry setup. Before the start of the race the teams are essentially only able to change tyres and adjust the front wing (but not add any parts). There is provision in the rules for the FIA technical delegate to announce that the change in weather since yesterday is enough to allow all the teams to make adjustments to their brake and radiator cooling.

In the event of heavy wet weather, most drivers will probably go for a heavier fuel load. It safeguards against safety car interruptions and the laptime penalty is even less than it would be usually.

Massa on a wet weather setup?

A look at the speed trap times from qualifying shows Massa was over 7kph slower than any other driver, and 22kph slower than Raikkonen. Has he run a higher-downforce rear wing in anticipation of wet conditions? (Thanks to Salty for pointing that out in the GP2 sprint race live blog).

If so, the current weather conditions may give Massa cause for concern. The track dried during the GP2 sprint race this morning and the kind of heavy rain we have seen so far this weekend does not look likely to return today.

See the weather watch thread on the forum for the latest on the Italian Grand Prix weather conditions

The championship context

The trio are all under extra pressure because of the championship. They will have to take risks in moving up through the field, but know that failing to sore could seriously damage their points tallies.

In some respects the pressures are particularly severe for Raikkonen, who has not scored in the last two races. But, just as last year, he knows the increasing remoteness of his championship chances means he can take more risks than Hamilton.

Not that Hamilton’s stopped taking risks – in fact that’s what got him in this position in the first place, with a needless gamble on wet (instead of extreme wet) tyres during qualifying. Last time he started anywhere near as low on the grid as this he ruined his race within half a lap. He can’t afford a repeat of that today.

Up front, Massa has it much easier. He can take care heading into the chicanes on the opening laps, not over-stress his engine, take the conservative strategy options, and stand an excellent chance of being the world championship leader in a few hours’ time. All thanks to that frankly excellent lap in Q2 yesterday.

What strategy do you think Raikkonen, Hamilton and Kubica should use?