Race day at the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix started with Red Bull in pole position and McLaren in first and second row. Let’s see how the strategies made a difference.
The Japanese Grand Prix weekend started with the strong return of Max Verstappen to first place. The Dutchman was back to dominant ways in free practice, qualifying and the race. McLaren started on the first and second row while Sergio Perez took fifth place splitting up the Ferraris.
Due to a rough track surface and warm track temperatures tyre degradation was the primary concern for the teams this weekend. This meant getting the strategy right was half of the work for the teams.
Strategy: What Pirelli said
Suzuka is a track where overtaking is particularly difficult. There aren’t many straights to slipstream your rivals. With the many corners, it’s hard to get close to make a move. That’s why nailing the strategy was so important.
In addition, for this race, Pirelli brought the C1, C2, and C3 compounds which are significantly harder than the last two races. All Japanese GP weekend long the tyres struggled to bite into the ground. This resulted in low grip levels. This in turn caused more sliding on the track, which then led to the tyres overheating thus having a thermal degradation problem.
Based on the data Pirelli predicted the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix should have had two-stops, with the teams preferring the hard compound to the other tyres. There were different options in terms of strategy for each team. The safest and fastest option would have been starting with soft tyres and then switch to the hard compound tire for the first and second pit stops. Starting with the soft tyres would have probably been followed by a pit stop around Lap 13 to Lap 19. From here two nearly equal stints would be targeted with a pit stop window around Lap 31 to Lap 37.
The weather also had a key role in the strategy chosen. Last year at Suzuka, for example, the torrential rain shortened the race. This year, however, it has been warm and sunny with a high level of humidity, like Singapore. In the end, there was no trace of rain in the sky.
— Pirelli Motorsport (@pirellisport) September 23, 2023
Following practice in Japan not every team had two sets of hard tyres available. McLaren, Mercedes, and Alpine drivers had two sets of hards each. Max Verstappen, instead, was part of the group of drivers that only had one. This wasn’t an issue at all because Red Bull has been particularly good in tire management. Alternatively, Verstappen could have chosen to start on the medium tyres as he had saved all three sets for the race. The medium tyres were estimated to have the same degradation as the hard tyres. The only difference would have been the lap time that they offered.
For the bottom half of the grid the strategy could have been different. A one-stop strategy was in fact an option, but that would have required a lot of tyre management. The mediums or the soft could have been used for the first stint. However, the pace would have been slower to have a pit stop window from Lap 18 to Lap 25. From there it could have been possible to try to end with the hards.
A three-stopper would have been unlikely unless the driver struggled with degradation or if there was the possibility to pit under a Safety Car. A pit stop at Suzuka in normal circumstances would take up to 22.5 seconds if done correctly. With a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car, it would take about 10 seconds.
The race: Strategies as they happened
After fighting off the McLaren’s at the start of the race Verstappen controlled the race and executed his strategy as planned. A straight forward two-stopper, first switching to another set of mediums, before switching to the hard tire compound. The Dutchman eventually won the race by 20 seconds. His teammate Perez was involved in several collisions before ultimately retiring from the race on lap 15.
McLaren also went with the two stopper, but switched things up slightly. They elected to run the hard compound twice. Ultimately, they lacked the pace to get anywhere close to Verstappen. However, a double podium is a very good result.
Ferrari that started 4th and 6th, but simply did not have the pace to take the fight to McLaren for the podium. Both Leclerc and Sainz followed the same strategy as Verstappen. Crucially, Sainz was undercut by Lewis Hamilton and the Spaniard couldn’t make his way past the Mercedes. Mercedes on the other hand entertained the public with a fight between teammates. Hamilton was running on much fresher tires as George Russell tried to make a one-stop work. He was ordered to let Hamilton past and that left him vulnerable enough to be passed by Sainz.
Bet on softs
While most teams started on medium compound tires. There were a few teams who took the gamble on softs. Most notably, both AlphaTauri’s and Aston Martins’ started on softs. Amidst all the chaos at the start Alonso and Stroll did win the most places, but the limited lifespan of the soft tires handcuffed their strategy. Alonso still delivered a good result with an 8th place. His tire management on the hards was excellent. AlphaTauri wasn’t able to follow suit as both drivers finished out of the points.
The most insane strategy of the day was done by Esteban Ocon for Alpine. The Frenchman was a victim of the first lap incident and was forced to pit due to damage. Incredibly, Ocon made a two stop strategy work by doing two 25 lap stints on hard compound tires. This helped Alpine score a double points finish.
Constructors’ championship glory
For Red Bull and McLaren it was a super weekend. Verstappen once again conquered the first place without too much trouble. With the victory of Verstappen Red Bull managed to win the Constructors’ Championship with 6 races to spare.
Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri occupied respectively the second and third place of the podium. With a double podium from McLaren and Oscar Piastri’s first official podium in Formula 1 couldn’t have ended in a better way for the Papaya team. Once again they demonstrated to be maybe the strongest lineup on the grid this year.
Strategies are always important in F1 and the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix proved it once again.