Scuderia Ferrari German driver Sebastian Vettel was the last of the front pilots to change tires in the first race of the 2018 Formula One season. The Maranello team postponed the operation as long as possible, in the unlikely event that something would happen. On lap 26, the virtual safety was activated for Grosjean’s accident was “that” something needed for Ferrari to overcome all odds. It is time to call the pilot back in. The order comes from strategist Inaki Rueda, who is not a fortuneteller but a Spanish engineer who before each race lays on the table whatever kind of situation or glitch that could happen and elaborates an ad hoc computer strategy. It might sound simple but it actually isn’t when it comes to Formula One. The choice to switch from plan A to plan B must be taken in a matter of seconds knowing that it will affect the outcome of the race.
And that was the case in Melbourne, where a number of circumstances drastically changed the scenario. Before opening the radio link with the driver, Rueda asked confirmation to the virtual garage that works in Maranello in parallel with the “in real life” Ferrari garages. They give the green light: according to calculations, there is a very narrow window to change the course of events. On lap 26, with the virtual safety car lights on and all drivers forced to slow down, the order that will split the Australian GP into before and after, arrives: “Seb, get back to the pit ASAP”.
The German driver at that time is in the lead with 11 seconds of advantage over Lewis Hamilton, who, however, had already done the tire change and was favourite to win the race in Melbourne. If a speed limit is enforced by the virtual safety car and is equal for all, how can a pilot drive “as fast as he can?” Well, there is only one spot on the entire circuit where it is possible: the initial stretch of the pit lane. There, the limits imposed by the virtual safety car no longer apply: there is no speed limit.
Mercedes software knockout
In those few meters, The German driver gambles his victory: driving to the limit, brushing against the barriers, braking at the very last moment and earning that second, literally, that allows him to get back on the track by a whisker ahead of Hamilton. Thanks to the mechanics’ speed, the Ferrari driver’s lap time was 4 minutes and 14 seconds, while Hamilton’s 4 minutes and 4 seconds. Vettel therefore had lost 10 seconds, but had 11 of advantage: plan B had worked. Hamilton harassed his engineer with questions: “What happened? Why did you not warn me? Did I do something wrong?” Mercedes will later find out about a calculation error: according to their computer, Lewis’ victory was a sure thing even in the case of VSC.
At the end of the race, Inaki Rueda climbed to the podium to receive the Constructors’ prize. He shouldn’t even have been there! Yesterday morning he fell ill and Ferrari’s doctor had ordered him to return to the hotel, but he refused. Certain satisfactions are priceless: Ferrari beats Mercedes also in strategy.