Did Force India squander a podium in Canada?

The common consensus in the paddock following the Canadian Grand Prix was that Force India blundered its way out of a podium through indecision in the second half of the race.

The chaotic start to the race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve strengthened Force India’s already encouraging position, with Felipe Massa — driving the only Williams which looked likely to compete for a big haul of points — wiped out at the fourth corner and Sebastian Vettel dropping to the back of the field for an unscheduled pit stop. The situation got even better when Max Verstappen pulled his fast-starting Red Bull over to the side of the road.

Approaching the first stops, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were either side of the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen in fifth place. Ferrari brought Raikkonen in on lap 17, prompting a change of strategy for the lead car, with Perez coming in the following lap to successfully cover the 2007 world champion and take super-soft tyres. Crucially, Daniel Ricciardo, suddenly occupying an unlikely podium slot for Red Bull, had pitted on the same lap as Raikkonen for soft tyres.

Ocon, meanwhile, remained on ‘Plan A’, going longer on the first stint in a bid to build enough of a gap over Raikkonen to emerge ahead after a pit stop — roughly 18 seconds. The Frenchman’s pace in the 15 laps between his teammate’s stop and his own was genuinely impressive and propelled him into podium contention.

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Despite running with the ultra-soft tyre he started the race on, in clear air Ocon was as fast — if not faster — than the trio behind. Despite his impressive pace, Ocon wasn’t quite able to find enough of a gap to emerge ahead of Raikkonen.

“Esteban was on plan and he was trying to get that pit-stop window over KImi and he couldn’t quite do it,” chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer explained. “When [Valtteri] Bottas started challenging him we thought ‘this is it’ because you start to lose time.”

But getting out in front of the cars ahead wasn’t paramount for the Frenchman’s hopes of a maiden podium. By pitting 13 laps after than Raikkonen and Ricciardo and 12 after Perez, Ocon had fresh rubber and, at the very least, would be in a position to attack at the end when the trio ahead started struggling with their tyres.

Emerging from his pit-stop 1.5s behind Raikkonen, Ocon looked to have the best chance of a podium given his massive tyre advantage over the trio ahead. In all but one of the next nine laps, Ocon’s pace was marginally quicker than Raikkonen’s at a time when four cars were split by around 2.5s.

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At this point, Ferrari took matters into its own hands. Spotting the 16 seconds of clear track between Vettel and Fernando Alonso behind, the Italian team called Raikkonen in for ultra-softs on lap 41. This was the critical moment action needed to be taken. At this stage, Force India knew that the quickest car on the grid had been put onto the softest compound for a late attack. It seemed to be a no-brainer to move Perez over for Ocon, but, as Szafnauer admitted after the race, this is when the indecision started on the Force India pit wall.

“If we re-run the race now, hindsight is a wonderful thing and we have more information,” he said. “What I would have done is perhaps swap them earlier when the Ferraris were pitting because then it’s easy, you can have a go and still get your tyres back up to temperature and there’s no risk from behind and if it doesn’t happen you still have time to swap back. But we didn’t do that and we started discussing it a bit late and after that it was too late.”

Ocon’s pace in the laps immediately after Raikkonen’s stop, when he a gap of two seconds to his teammate (enough clear air to push), suggested he had pace in hand to attack the Red Bull up the road.

Lap 41: Ricciardo (1:17.111), Perez (1:16.763), Ocon (1:16.813)
Lap 42: Ricciardo (1:17.045), Perez (1:17.113), Ocon (1:16.480)
Lap 43: Ricciardo (1:17.430), Perez (1:16.738), Ocon (1:16.508)
Lap 44: Ricciardo (1:16.806), Perez (16.835), Ocon (1:16.685)
Lap 45: Ricciardo (1:16.816), Perez (1:16.967), Ocon (1:16.655)

This sequence of laps quickly moved Ocon to within a second of Perez and showed — at that very moment — he had a pace advantage over Ricciardo before the turbulent air of his teammate started hurting his lap times. However, Ricciardo’s lap times at this point do not paint the full picture. The Australian driver had Perez within DRS range behind and was driving accordingly, defending when he needed to and therefore not maximising lap times as he may have done with clear track behind him.

Regardless of Ricciardo’s situation, however, Ocon’s pace and tyre advantage at this point made a driver swap seem like a sensible option for anyone watching the world feed. But Force India did not believe it was a big enough difference to justify a swap.

“It was around a second a lap that we had to be quicker than him [Ricciardo] to have a good chance of overtaking, about 0.9s, and the question is ‘would Esteban have been a second a lap quicker than Sergio on fresher tyres?’ We don’t think that’s the case.”

Concerns over how to swap the drivers without compromising Perez’s race also muddied the decision.

“You’ve got to realise we contemplated swapping them to give him a go, but there’s a lot of things that happen when you swap, including losing time on circuit — two to three seconds for every swap –but more importantly you lose tyre temperature and tyre temperature is really critical. So if you do that kind of thing you are not up to speed straight away and the Ferraris were charging. So there’s ifs ands and buts, but we’ll analyse it and had we swapped them I don’t think Esteban would have gotten by.

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At this point, Raikkonen was some 15 seconds down the road but had just posted lap times of 1:15.725, 1:16.010 and 1:16.092. From lap 47 until lap 59, when he set his fastest lap of the race, his times stayed in the 1:15 mark. It was obvious Raikkonen was slashing away at the train of cars behind Ricciardo, and soon Ferrari had pitted Vettel for ultra-soft tyres of his own.

But still no order came. Instead, the radio feed broadcast a series of hints from the pit wall to Perez that Ocon was faster and the Ferraris were closing in. Perez, whose tyres were just one lap younger than Ricciardo’s, felt he had saved enough of his tyres to attack the Australian.

“We never gave him that order, Szafnauer clarified when asked if Perez had disobeyed a team order. “We had the discussion and Checo said there was lapped traffic coming up and to let him have another go.”

Perez’s reputation for supreme tyre management undoubtedly bolstered his case at this point — despite Ocon running tyres 12 laps younger than his teammate, Force India believed their Mexican driver had enough to challenge a car he had been stuck behind for some 20 laps.

“The thing you’ve got to remember too is that Checo was all the time behind Ricciardo saving his tyres,” Szafnauer explained. “He’s a smart racer and if he knows he can’t overtake, he’s saving his tyres for the opportunity. And in his mind the opportunity he was going to have was lapped traffic, which was just about to happen. So he said ‘give me a chance and when the lapped traffic comes up I will try and if I can’t then I’ll swap’ but by that time it was too late.”

When the train finally hit the group of traffic on lap 63, Perez had a proper sniff at Ricciardo. He was 0.5s behind the following time around and was almost touching the rear of the Red Bull coming through Turn 1, but could not get close enough.

On reflection after the race, there seemed to be a hint of regret that the pit wall never made the call.

“No driver wants to swap,” said Szafnauer. “We have more information than they do, so we’ve got to make that decision. We never asked him.”

While all of this was unfolding, Vettel had also pitted for ultra-softs on lap 49 and had caught and passed Raikkonen, whose brakes suddenly became an issue, dropping him out of contention.

In total, Ocon was stuck behind his teammate for 24 laps. From lap 48 to lap 66, when Sebastian Vettel finally muscled his way past, Ocon was never more than one second behind his teammate when he crossed the start-finish line. Ricciardo in front had been there for the taking but the Force Indias had been unable to capitalise. On the 24th and final lap behind his teammate, Ocon went wheel to wheel against his teammate on the run up to the final chicane, with Perez’s robust defence putting Ocon out of shape and setting up Vettel’s superb pass at Turn 1. Vettel only had to wait two laps before he had caught Perez, relegating Force India down to fifth and sixth.

The irony is, at the beginning of the weekend Force India would have accepted the result without hesitation, especially considering main rivals Williams collected just two points through Lance Stroll. Force India’s failure to issue a team order came with that in mind but also because of rules of engagement laid out by the team ahead of each season.

“We are here to score as many points as we can and what happens then is that there is a risk of not scoring, so we try to minimise that risk,” Szafnauer explained. “We do also understand that the fans love to see racing, so instead of making it processional we’ve got to make a decision that lets them score the points but also lets them race.”

On the rules of engagement, technical director Andy Green said: “We give them those rules of engagement, that’s discussed at the start of the season, this is how we operate, this is what you sign up to.”

Those guidelines have since been tweaked by team owner Vijay Mallya to ensure the team can properly respond to similar situations in future. Force India has a talented driver line-up at its disposal and the value of Perez and Ocon’s consistent results are already shown in its healthy points tally in the championship. Szafnauer noted it is easy to let two drivers race when the team trusts them not to come to blows in the process.

“We let them race and it was the right thing to do,” he said. “You also have to understand who the driver are before you make that call. Esteban’s got great car control, he’s very very good, and Sergio is a great racer, so if they are not reckless then you let them race. And they’re not reckless. I think it was good for the show, we scored a handful of points and we’ll fight again.”

In the end, Szafnauer said the real call had to be made by the people with the information in front of them, rather than the two adrenaline-filled drivers pounding around the circuit.

“I always say, and don’t get me wrong I didn’t come up with this, but reasonable people with the same information will come to the same conclusion. So once you explained to Esteban what was going on around him, then he was happy.”

Undoubtedly, the opportunity for a podium was on the table for Force India. But regardless of the reasoning behind it, it was a conservative strategy at a time when an aggressive approach may well have forced a mistake ahead or snatched a podium through driver talent. A team like Force India cannot leave a race like Canada unhappy with 18 points in the bag and a 53-point lead over its nearest rival in the constructors’ championship, but it may well look back and wonder what might have been had it been a little bolder on the pit wall.

 

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