After dry running on Friday practice, the teams were not able to hit the track in the final free practice session for the 2021 Russian Grand Prix and had to deal with a wet qualifying on Saturday afternoon, so let’s take a look at the different strategic options available for teams ahead of today’s main event in Russia.
What are the likely strategies for the frontrunners?
It’s a fairly simply one for those at the sharp end of the field, if Sunday stays dry. The wet weather on Saturday meant all of the best lap times were set on the intermediate tyre in Q2, and therefore everyone has a free choice of compounds to start on.
With the pit lane loss time estimated to be around 25 seconds – due to the entry including the final two corners, and then the exit being onto the long run to Turn 2 – the one-stop strategy is by far the best option. And the expected conditions will play a big part in which tyres each driver starts on.
It is expected to be dry for the Russian Grand Prix, despite the fact that it is not guaranteed, and temperatures are likely to be low once again, which means teams are going to be preferring a start on the medium compound tyre.
Doing so will allow the most flexibility, because the mediums can run until Lap 20, but the hard is a very robust race tyre with such low degradation in Sochi, so if the race situation calls for it then a pit stop as early as Lap 10 or 11 would still allow them to make the one-stop work.
How about the rest of the top 10?
The next most likely option would see the soft tyre used in the first stint, which would need to be around 12 laps long before a switch to the hards is safe. The softs would give an advantage off the line – which is particularly important given the long run to Turn 2 that will only emphasise that benefit – but the concern will be graining on the low-grip surface.
The front tyres will be the area of concern – and while the mediums are likely to see some graining too at some stage, it’s even more of an issue on the softs if the temperature remains low. Should it warm up slightly to around the 20C mark, then the softs could become an even more popular choice up and down the grid, as that should reduce the severity of any graining.
What are the options for the bottom half of the field?
On paper, the second quickest strategy – and very close to the choice of medium-hard – is the same tyre pairing run in the opposite way. The theory would be to run longer than those ahead, gain clear air to show some consistent pace and then take a later pit stop and attack in the closing stages.
But races aren’t run on paper, and starting on the hards would be a risk. The main issue would be the low track temperatures and grip conditions, which would make the car even tougher to handle, particularly on high fuel when the pace is lower and drivers are in traffic. The lack of downforce when following another car would just add to the concoction, so it would be a real challenge for drivers in the opening stages.
On top of that, the hard would offer the lowest grip level off the line, and with the long run to Turn 2 to take into consideration, it’s another aspect that makes the hard a bigger gamble than it looks.
Two-stopping using either the softs or mediums (drivers have plenty of new sets of both compounds thanks to the wet weather on Saturday) is only a realistic option if there are Safety Cars or graining on the hard compound, but it’s expected to be comfortably slower than the one-stop strategy.