Let’s take a look at the different strategic options open to the teams ahead of the next round of the 2021 Formula One season, the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park, which takes place later today, with Charles Leclerc starting from P3 and his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz from the back of the grid.
What are the likely strategies for the frontrunners?
Unlike two weeks ago at Sochi Autodrom, this time the evaluations for the ideal strategy options are more difficult to make. The teams now face a circuit surface offering much more grip than a year ago, and while there was expected to be an improvement in conditions, it wasn’t clear how much.
That also slightly surrpised Pirelli, who decided to bring softer compounds than last year and are now aware that they are proving an added challenge – but from outside this can be seen as a great aspect, because there’s no obvious approach compared to what was predicted ahead of the Istanbul weekend.
All of the frontrunners opted for the medium compound tyre in Q2, giving themselves more flexibility for the race itself, but this time just a single pitstop does not seem to be the quickest way to the end of the Grand Prix, even starting on the mediums. It is certainly possible, with a first stint of 20-25 laps before switching to the hard for what would be a long second stint, but drivers need to do a lot of pace management which means slower lap times.
The issue that teams are wary of is graining – when little bits of the rubber tear off the compound, but then stick to the surface – which has been seen on all three compounds but is worse on the softer tyres. So in order to be able to shorten the first stint, a two-stop strategy of medium-hard-hard seems to be the ideal option from a lap time point of view. This of course if drivers can run in clean air to take advantage of their pace and not get stuck behind other cars.
The two-stop is more attractive also taking into consideration the lower pit loss time at Istanbul Park, with just 20 seconds lost under green flag conditions thanks to the pit lane being on the inside of the final corner and first turn.
That would mean a first stint of 12-17 laps, before two 20-lap stints on hards, but even this is not straightforward: taking into consideration the fact that high levels of grip – and therefore faster cornering speeds – were not expected, teams did not plan on having to use two sets of the hardest compound on Sunday so that is not possible for some drivers, such as Pierre Gasly, Lando Norris or Yuki Tsunoda starting in the top 10. Hamilton starts 11th but still has to use the medium tyres which he used in Q2 on Saturday.
For Carlos Sainz and other drivers starting from the back, using the hard at the start of the race could be ideal because while it was still suffering from graining on Friday, it was the least affected of the three compounds.
That could be even more pronounced when the cars are at their heaviest on high fuel, and if the first stint is long enough – beyond 30 laps – then in turn it could open up the potential for a one-stop, as the medium would be less susceptible to graining later in the race on lower fuel once more rubber has been laid down.