How Ocon’s “dangerous” non-stop strategy paid off
A non-stop run in a full-length uninterrupted race hadn’t been achieved since Mika Salo managed it at a rain-affected 1997 Monaco GP, in the days of refuelling. In the slow conditions and a lap down the Finn managed to save enough to get safely to the flag.
In 2005 it was mandatory for a set of tyres to last the race, but drivers still had to pit for fuel.
Inevitably Ocon’s performance also added to the debate about whether Lewis Hamilton could have managed to do the same, had the World Champion not been called into the pits with eight laps left to run. Mercedes, however, argued a non-stop run would have dropped Hamilton further down than his fifth-place finish.
Bringing his Alpine safely home was a remarkable achievement by Ocon, because of the state of his right front tyre over the closing laps.
The tread was completely worn through, with a huge area missing. The Frenchman admitted that he feared a puncture had he been required to complete another lap.
It was thus fortunate indeed that he had been passed by leader Valtteri Bottas in the closing stages, which meant that he actually had to run only 57 laps instead of the full 58.
So how did Ocon end up as the only driver to run non-stop? It certainly wasn’t a result of any pre-race strategy, and in fact there was little direct discussion about it during the race.
From 12th on the grid Ocon gained a place at the start after teammate Fernando Alonso was tipped into a spin, but by lap 8 he’d dropped back to 12th after being passed by a flying Carlos Sainz.
He went back to 11th when Yuki Tsunoda spun on lap 22 and as everyone began to stop for new tyres he moved up to ninth by lap 37, jumping ahead of Sainz and Sebastian Vettel.
Surprisingly, there was only a brief discussion on the radio about stopping or not – Ocon simply kept going.
He gained another spot on lap 40 when Lance Stroll pitted, and shortly after that he was told, “17 laps to go, some drivers are debating going to the end on this set.”
In fact only Hamilton and Charles Leclerc had yet to pit. Then on lap 46 Ocon reported, “Not to scare you too much, but I can see the rope [cords] on the front tyre.”
After that he was asked consistently about the state of his front right, and urged to keep the pit informed.
Told on lap 50 that Stroll was catching fast Ocon replied: “Let me know if somebody goes to slicks. I don’t have the balls to do it at the moment.”
“We’ve got eight laps left at the end of this lap,” said his engineer. “If we box now for inters we’re out of the points. So if you think we can go for slicks, you need to let us know.”
It was on that lap that Mercedes pulled Hamilton in, and with Leclerc having pitted earlier that left Ocon as the only driver still out there on his original tyres.
Asked on lap 52 for an update he said, “Same, the vibration is not huge,” but just a lap after that it was “a bit worse.”
Soon after that Stroll went by, leaving Ocon 10th. It was now all about getting safely home and salvaging that final point. The driver behind was Daniel Ricciardo, but having stopped very early the Aussie’s tyres were past their best, and he wasn’t catching.
Ocon asked if he should “manage in 7/8” – where the right-side tyres take a real pounding – and he was told, “Yes please, make sure we get to the end. Stay off kerbs with that front right.”
Ocon was now being caught fast by race leader Valtteri Bottas, and with four laps to go he was told that letting the Finn by would reduce his own race by a crucial lap.
On lap 56 Ocon almost stopped on track to let the Mercedes past. In going offline he also lost some tyre temperature, and on that lap his resulting time of 1m39.5s made it look as though he was in deep trouble with the tyres.
Having been lapped he now had just one more to go, but he had a new challenger: “Last lap, be extra careful in Turn 8, Giovinazzi now the car behind.”
The Alfa driver had passed Ricciardo for 11th and was flying. Ocon asked for the gap, and was kept informed: “4.5 behind, 3.2 behind, 2.6 behind, 2.0 behind. Overtake available.”
Giovinazzi was right with him at the final complex of corners, but despite a big snap Ocon just made it across the line in front to claim 10th. Incredibly the Alfa Romeo driver had gained 22 seconds on him over the final 10 laps – a whole pit stop.
“That was a hard work point, but that was very well done, that was nice,” Ocon told his team. “A few more corners and I think it would have exploded.”
It was only then that he was told he was the only driver who hadn’t stopped. “Risk/reward, guys,” he said quietly.
After alighting from the cockpit Ocon spent some time looking at the right front, rolling the car back and forward to inspect the damage, before showing it to his mechanics when they arrived to cool the car.
A few minutes after that he was still beaming when Motorsport.com caught up with him and asked about his unique non-stop run.
“I make that joke that the guys were tired, so we thought let’s not give them the stop this time,“ he laughed.
“But no, it didn’t happen like that. When we were fighting with Seb we were just debating a bit, ‘Should we stop, should we keep going?’
“And at the time I had really good pace, the tyres were in good shape, and I thought, ‘Let’s just keep going.’ We tried risk and reward, and at the end it paid off. We got a small reward, which is a point.
“Still at the end we were wondering is the front tyre going to last? Because they were quite damaged, and we could see the rope from the outside, so clearly I think one more lap I would have got a puncture.
“And two more corners I would have got overtaken by Giovinazzi. So yeah, it was a risky move, but worth taking it.
“I was especially seven seconds slower than Giovinazzi [on the penultimate lap]. So it was a huge amount, and I was trying to keep it on track. So yeah, it was mega difficult…”
Alpine’s “only chance to score points”
Those final laps had been tense indeed on the Alpine pit wall, but the team explained why it decided to roll the dice.
“It was a case of at some point we decided that it was the right thing to do to leave him on track, because it was our only chance to score points,” Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski told Motorsport.com.
“We didn’t know whether we could make it to the end, but at the end of the day, you can have a safety car or actually the track might be dry enough to go to a set of dry tyres.
“We were kind of waiting and waiting, and at some point we realised we had a chance of making it to the end and scoring points out of it, so we left him.
“We were monitoring the data in discussion with Esteban in terms of the tyre state, because we knew he would be very marginal. We’d only get a point out of it, but starting P12 without any attrition, it’s decent.”
So how much information did the team have to work with?
“We can look at the tyre on the onboards,” said Budkowski. “We have the tyre temperature data that helps you also have an idea of the amount of rubber that’s on there, and then driver feedback, and vibration data as well.”
Vibration was an important issue. It’s worth recalling the spectacular suspension failure that Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren suffered on the last lap of the European GP at the Nurburgring in 2005 – the year when tyre changes were outlawed – as a result of vibration from a flat spot.
“Obviously you don’t want to compromise the safety of the driver,” Budkowski commented.
“We wouldn’t leave a car out with a dangerous level of vibration. We have thresholds, if it goes above a threshold we would stop the car, we wouldn’t risk the driver’s safety for a point.
“Clearly we felt confident enough to leave him until the last lap.”
Pirelli: “We were suggesting to stop the car and change the tyres”
When Ocon crossed the line it came as relief not just to Alpine, but also to Pirelli.
The high-speed Baku failures for Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll were a reminder of how the spotlight always falls on the tyre company when something goes wrong.
Pirelli could breathe a collective sigh of relief when Hamilton pitted – at least the title battle would not be impacted, as it was in Azerbaijan – but they still had to worry about Ocon.
“I cannot tell you I was not nervous,” Pirelli F1 boss Mario Isola told Motorsport.com shortly after the finish.
“They had to take a difficult decision and were taking a risk. We gave them a warning and luckily nothing happened. But it was dangerous…”
Explaining how marginal Alpine’s call was, he said: “Clearly the intermediate tyre has behaviour that you start in intermediate conditions with the tread pattern that is new, so it’s working well in wet conditions.
“Then the track is drying, but also the tyre is wearing off, and that means that a certain point you have a sort of slick, and it’s also working well.
“But after that there is no more rubber left, and you have to change it. There is no possibility to run on the construction, on the belts, it’s not safe, basically.
“If your brake on a tyre that is completely worn, there is no protection from the tread pattern, from the compound, no protection from the construction.
“It’s very easy that you have a puncture. And then usually it’s a big puncture, so you don’t have a progressive loss of air, but it’s almost immediate, and you have to stop.”
Even before Hamilton, Leclerc and Ocon became the last three outliers trying to make their tyres last Pirelli’s engineers had warned to the teams about not pitting.
“We don’t want a tyre failure, and we are here to give our advice to the teams, then it’s their choice,” said Isola. “Our engineers that are allocated in the garages got the information that teams were pushing the boundaries too much, and we were suggesting to stop the car and change the tyres.
“We had already some evidence of very worn tyres, especially the front right and the rear right. It was even visible on the television. Clearly when they stopped at the garage for the first pitstops we started to see visible cords.
“We informed the teams across the paddock through our allocated engineers, they gave the warning to the teams, and then clearly it’s the teams’ decision what to do.”
Nevertheless, Ocon getting to the end was a fascinating footnote to the race.
Could Hamilton have also managed it? We will never know. He had been lapping much faster than Ocon all afternoon of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was taking more out of his tyres.
When looking at Ocon’s slow times over those last few laps it’s also important to note that he was managing the gap to Ricciardo and then backing off to let Bottas catch up so he could be lapped – you can’t just use his times solely as a direct indication of the deteriorating state of his tyres.
Not stopping for fresh inters would have given Hamilton track position and saved him 20 seconds, but he would have then had to defend against Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc, two guys who would not have given any quarter.
And he would have had to complete the 58th lap that Ocon didn’t have to, a few extra kilometres that might just have tipped his right front over the edge.
Mercedes did the sums and decided that fifth was a better bet than risking a failure and possibly ending up with nothing.
Furious at the time, Hamilton has subsequently insisted that he’s accepted that it was the right thing to do, and the safe decision. And only time will tell how much impact the swing to Verstappen will have on the final outcome of the title battle.
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October 13, 2021 at 12:46PM