Sprint weekends are unique. During a regular race weekend, there are more or less significant doubts about the possible strategies that teams will adopt during the race. This is not the case with events dictated by the format of the mini-race. Or, to be precise, there are always some doubts, but they are less pronounced than usual.
Indeed, thanks to yesterday’s Sprint, we can deduce some interesting things about the tires. Even though almost all the drivers chose to complete the 19 laps on the C3 Medium compound, there was one rather ambitious driver who finished the race with a set of Soft tires. We’re talking about Carlos Sainz.
US GP 2023 – COTA – 56 laps
Hard compounds and double pit stops: Mario Isola’s predictions
To get a more precise overview, it’s essential to consider what Mario Isola (Pirelli’s motorsport director) had to say at the end of the day. He stated, “Looking at Sunday’s race, we can say that a double pit stop will be the favorite. We may have a combination of Medium and Hard tires, depending on the number of sets of these two compounds that each driver has available. Given the starting grid (Charles Leclerc on pole ahead of Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton, with Max Verstappen in P6), we can certainly expect a great battle for the top positions, and who knows, maybe some surprises!”
Although the Italian manager seems fairly definitive about the tires that will be used in today’s race, his thinking may have softened overnight. In the image above, you can see the possible strategies recommended by the tire manufacturer for the Texan event.
Ferrari dismisses the Soft, ‘crazy’ idea at Mercedes
Even though, according to Pirelli’s motorsport director, we’ll see a race with two pit stops, predominantly using the C3 Medium and C2 Hard tires (strategies like M-M-H or M-H-H depending on the remaining tire sets), there will likely be a good strategic variance during today’s event.
If we look at Carlos Sainz‘s stint on the Soft C4 tires yesterday and what the Spanish driver stated after the Sprint, we might want to trust Mario Isola completely and say that no driver will use the Soft tires in the race. However, we cannot entirely rule it out. Even though most of the drivers have preserved two sets of Mediums in good condition for use in the race, some still have new sets of C4 tires available.
So, even though Ferrari’s Spanish driver has completely dismissed the Soft tires, stating “it’s not bad for 10 laps, but by the fourth lap, I was already slower than those on the Mediums. There’s nothing to exploit; it was really tough. I expected to struggle, but it was more complicated than we anticipated,” it’s not certain that someone won’t want to use them in a two-stop strategy like M-H-S. Completing the final 10 laps, as Carlos Sainz suggests with this type of tire, could provide a small advantage towards the end. Of course, it all depends on the temperatures. If the track temperatures remain below 40°C, as they did yesterday, this path might be feasible; otherwise, it should be ruled out.
So far, we have largely assumed two pit stops. In the minds of the Mercedes drivers, however, a rather ‘crazy’ hypothesis seems to be taking shape that could make the race quite interesting: “The tires behaved well in the Sprint Race. This is because the temperatures dropped slightly compared to Friday, and there were quite a few clouds. We will have to choose between one and two stops, and we will have to react quickly to all the situations that arise,” Russell stated at the end of the mini-race.
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Hamilton’s pace on the Mediums was very good. The British driver managed his tires flawlessly, opening an 8.5-second gap to Charles Leclerc, who was also on the same tire. (Charles appeared to be even more in difficulty than the McLaren; in the Sprint, he managed to keep Norris behind, but the race could be a different story.) Of course, if Lewis’s pace (he will start 3rd behind Leclerc and Norris) is such that he can manage two stops while maintaining a hypothetical advantage over Charles and Lando, then it would be ‘foolish’ to risk. However, if Mercedes understands that the only way to beat their opponents is to try to complete the race with a single pit stop, they might consider this strategy. In such a case, Mercedes could play a card that, in terms of data, only they and Max Verstappen can afford. Naturally, a one-stop strategy involves using one set of Medium and one set of Hard tires.
Max Verstappen will start in sixth place, but as we witnessed yesterday, overtaking isn’t a significant problem in Austin. But taking into account Mercedes’ pace, the only true rivals who could stand between Max and victory are the two black arrows. Get your popcorn ready because if Lewis is competitive, it will be a thrilling race.